When Sister Clare talks about her 50 years in the Little Sisters of the Poor, you’re likely to hear the faint trace of a Southern accent in her speech. And when she speaks of the ceremony itself—the two-day celebration highlighted by a Mass, her renewal of vows and a festive dinner—it’s sure to evoke fond memories of her native Savannah.
Sister Clare—more formally Sister Clare de St. Jean Baptiste, l.s.p., and once known as Mary Theresa McDonough of Savannah, Ga.—admits she’s still “coming down” from that ceremony. “Everything was just done so beautifully,” she said. “I’m grateful to everyone who played a part.” Bishop Emeritus Frank J. Rodimer of Paterson celebrated the anniversary Mass on Saturday, Aug. 6, at St. Joseph’s Home in Totowa, with a homily by Sister Clare’s friend, Msgr. T. Mark Condon, pastor of Holy Angels in Little Falls. Not only were members of her family from Savannah visiting for the occasion, she recalls, but the meal featured some recipes from her favorite restaurant there—the Pirates’ House—that included honey-pecan chicken and red rice. “It was delicious!” she remembered.
It was the Mass itself, however, and the renewal of her commitment to the Little Sisters, that highlighted her jubilee. Built around a “Love Mosaic” that she devised herself, the Mass featured in pictures and songs the theme of all who had been a part of her life, and the way each person reflected God’s gift of love. The “Love Mosaic” theme included a hymn of that title written by her friend, Mercy Sister Roberta McGrath—one in which she rewrote (with Sister Roberta’s permission) the lyrics of the first verse. “My own home life didn’t reflect the incompleteness described in that verse,” Sister Clare explained. “The atmosphere I grew up in was always warm and loving.” Sister Clare was grateful, too, for the poster that carried out the mosaic message, expressing thanks to Trinity Press of Paterson for making it and then reproducing it as the cover of the Mass booklet.
It took a while for young Mary Theresa to feel a religious vocation. She recalls telling her kindergarten teacher at Sacred Heart School in Savannah that when she grew up “I wanted to get married and have 11 children!” And even when she graduated from high school and was ready to accept a nursing scholarship from the American Legion, she hesitated to believe that a religious life might be in store for her. On her birthday that summer, when Sister Clare was deep in prayer at Mass, she wondered if the Lord had something in mind for her. When it seemed that the “something” might be a call to life as a sister, she thought of a ready answer. “Oh no,” she answered in her mind. “I have my life all planned out. Is there a second choice?” The answer, it appeared, was no.
“I still heard that little voice, scaring me to death,” she said recently. “But then I felt Mary’s peaceful presence, and I was left with a feeling of peace.” Four months later, in Savannah, she entered the Little Sisters of the Poor. Sister Clare might have missed out on that nursing scholarship, but earned her R.N. as a Little Sister. Then, for good measure, she went on to receive a second degree, in health administration. She has served in many Little Sisters homes across the country, perhaps 20 of them, in a wide variety of assignments. She’s been at St. Joseph’s Home for about three years, where she and Sister Cecilia take up collections for the Residents at nearby parishes on the weekends. They also visit many benefactors each week, who assist them with goods and services of all kinds.
Does she find it difficult to accustom herself to the new surroundings that each home offers? “Not at all,” says Sister Clare. “I used to say that wild horses couldn’t drag me out of Savannah, but how wrong that was! I took my first plane ride when I went off to become a novice, and I’ve been pretty much on the go since then. “It’s easy for me to adapt to each one of the homes I’ve been in,” she concluded. “I love them all!”