Vow of poverty is a tenet of religious life

By Sister Kathleen Quinn, PHJC

When I entered the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ 73 years ago, I was 17 and knew little, if anything, about the vow of poverty. Yes, I did have a job as a waitress at a small restaurant in East Chicago, and when I received my paycheck and tips, I gave it to my mother because my father was the only other one in the family working. I thought I was really helping my mom a great deal with my small check, which was big in my eyes.

I was the youngest of seven children raised in a truly loving family. I knew as I grew older that we did not have all the conveniences that others in our neighborhood might have had. I would not call it poverty, however, as I was blessed with loving parents who cared for us dearly.

In the novitiate, during my postulant year and two years as a novice, we were given studies on the three vows of Poverty, Obedience and Celibacy, but being in a semi-cloistered environment, we had little contact with the challenges of “the world” and how living the three vows would be more challenging once we were professed and ministering in our assigned profession.

My assigned profession was nursing and after three years in a hospital’s School of Nursing, I was stationed at a busy obstetrical department in Chicago, Ill.  I came in contact with the poor but had little understanding of their life, even though I was raised in a home where we lived from paycheck to paycheck but always had food on the table, simple but nourishing.

Living into the vows was a slow process as I was centered on my ministry as a registered nurse and nursing professional in a large OB hospital in Chicago, and going to school part time for my bachelor’s degree in nursing. 

I was challenged with my work, community living, daily prayer and preparation for assignments for school. Did I think about the vows? Yes and no. Were they part of my being a religious sister? Yes, very much so.

Sister Sandra Schneider, IHM, in writing about the vow of poverty, has focused on three areas as a religious who has consecrated herself through the three vows. She stated: “It is perhaps time to revive our awareness of the intimately personal character of the practice of poverty that must complement societal involvement. The first area, one most serious religious have been bewitched, bothered and bewildered by for several years, is simplicity of life.” 

I, too, have been challenged to live my life simply. As a young religious, I had little material goods, but as I grew older I was bewildered by what one could accumulate. Among many things, I believe my downfall is books, both religious and mystery novels. 

Voluntary simplicity of lifestyle says that enough is enough, that material goods should be acquired according to one’s needs and not by what are others accumulating. 

Sister Sandra also stated that, “Simplicity of life also fulfills an important function in the spiritual life. . .if we want to pray to be available for God and others, to keep our lives focused on the purposes for which we choose religious life, we cannot surrender ourselves to the current of materialism that carries our culture.”

The second area Sister Sandra speaks about is “attitude,” saying, “We live in a culture of achievement and production that believes that people should and do get what they deserve. As Christians, we know that this is not so. The infinite bounty of God begins with the gift of life itself and continues with everything that sustains it.  

I have found that this attitude has to be heartfelt in that all I have comes from God and God is the one I thank.  My gifts are God given and I am aware that they are given to be used in service to others and not for my own selfish motives and needs.

The third area that Sister Sandra speaks about is “hospitality,” not always available in the past because of more enclosed times. “To welcome others into our homes and into our lives is naturally easier perhaps for extroverted types, but it is a challenge for everyone because it involves putting ourselves at others’ disposal,” she said.

I found that in the many positions in ministry that I had, the challenge was to be present to persons when they needed me and not on my own time. I wanted to have my door open at all times to welcome persons, especially if they were hurting.

I find in studying more of the writings of St. Katharina Kasper, our foundress, that giving of oneself when it hurts sometime is a call to a deeper understanding of her love for the poor and why she is now a Catholic saint.

An East Chicago native, Sister Kathleen Quinn is a Poor Handmaid of Jesus Christ and a registered nurse who served in several hospitals during a lengthy career that continues into her 90th year as a volunteer at St. Catherine Hospital in her hometown. She is also an active member of the Sisters Collaborative for Vocations in the Diocese of Gary.