Retired Religious of the Sacred Heart actively continue devotion to justice and education

Sister Ellen Hoffman, RSCJ paints in the art room at Oakwood in Atherton. Hoffman has been a religious for 73 years, having spent 40 years on the Broadway campus.
Sister Ellen Hoffman, RSCJ paints in the art room at Oakwood in Atherton. Hoffman has been a religious for 73 years, having spent 40 years on the Broadway campus.

Jovel Quierolo
Sacred Heart Editor

Her white Reeboks hardly squeak as she walks from a small chapel after mass. Her friends smile, take her hand and welcome her back from an 8-day retreat. Sister Be Mardel, RSCJ lives simply at Oakwood, a retirement and care center for Religious of the Sacred Heart in Atherton.

Mardel’s quiet demeanor does not speak to her dynamic past. She has run schools, worked with the poor, and in 1973 spent two weeks at a jail in Fresno with other nuns and priests for demonstrating on behalf of farm workers. While in jail, Mardel remembers Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former student and then member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, calling and asking, “Mother Mardel, what are you doing in jail?”

The Religious of the Sacred Heart give their lives to God serving primarily as educators but also as promoters of justice and human development, according to their mission statement. The Catholic order continues to work to change thousands of lives as quiet, unspoken heroes.

“I wake up, pray and eat three square meals a day,” said Sister Clair Saizon, RSCJ. “Whether or not a sister is active, we offer everything to God. Sisters are humans who have likes and dislikes, and we have given it all to God.”

Called to serveSister Mary “Be” Mardel, RSCJ joined the Society of the Sacred Heart when she was 19 just after high school. Born in Seattle, but growing up in the Bay Area, she received a Sacred Heart education at “Menlo” — now Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton.

“I didn’t always think of becoming a nun,” said Mardel. “I wanted to marry and have children, but I also wanted to give my life to someone I could give all my love to — someone who’d give all their love. I realized that was Jesus Christ.”

For members of the Society, joining the order before 1967 meant leaving their families. Before Vatican II, the nuns were cloistered, which meant they were not allowed to leave the convent unless they were teaching, buying groceries or seeing a doctor — which did not include visiting their families.

“One has to be called to this life,” said Mardel. “Any choice that is worth making involves saying no to something else. I didn’t want to leave home, but I never changed my mind – haven’t had a doubt since I was 19.”

Each RSCJ takes the traditional vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, and an additional vow of dedication to the education of youth. For Saizon, her life experiences always pointed to taking the vows and living for God. As a child, a priest’s story changed her life. It was the tale of a Roman emperor and his dog.

“You see, dogs were not allowed on the streets, but this dog had a tag that said, ‘I belong to Caesar’ and the priest told us that we should all have tags that say ‘I belong to God’ so I thought that maybe I wanted to belong to God,” said Saizon. “Another time I made a bargain with God that if he helped my brother through his operation, I’d become a nun. I entered on my brother’s birthday.”

Although governed by rules of the order, the religious see their lives as fulfilling in their mission to help others.
“When I was young, I had plenty of boyfriends, but a life of helping the world through social work, praying for those I love, was appealing,” said Sister Flavia Augustine, RSCJ. “I wanted a life that made sense.”

Dedication to education

Education is the central mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart. A hierarchy with its apex in Rome assigns provincials who in turn assign RSCJ to teach at schools around the world.

“For example, Sister Sally Rude was asked to work in Indonesia,” said Mardel. “So, she prayed on it, discerned with her provincial, and went for five years. Recently, a provincial in Europe asked her to do work in Hungary.
She prayed on it, talked to her provincial, and she’s going to Hungary to teach English and train young nuns.”

Living in over 500 communities in 45 countries, the RSCJ dedicate themselves to the education of the whole person.

“The nuns embodied the Goals and Criteria before they were even put down,” said Sister Pati Desmond, RSCJ. “We teach what we’ve been taught to live.”

The RSCJ at Oakwood who no longer teach had — and still have — a great love of children.

“The children, you have to get them, get their interest,” said Saizon. “It’s like getting them under a spell. I wanted them there, not just sitting there, but responding completely.”

Combined, RSCJ over time have taught hundreds of thousands of students, and they say their success is rewarded with their inspiration stimulating the next generation of religious.

“Six or seven of my students have become RSCJ and some of the boys became priests,” said Sister Ellen Hoffman, RSCJ, who was head of the girls’ elementary school. “Once I had a little boy, we were preparing for First Communion. I handed him an unconsecrated host. He took it in both hands and said, ‘I’m gonna be a priest and give God to others.’”
On Broadway

The RSCJ came to San Francisco in 1887. In 1940 Mardel helped move furniture into the Flood Mansion when the school moved from Jackson Street.

“Mrs. Flood wasn’t Catholic,” said Mardel. “She was shy, quiet, but once she said that the school was even more beautiful as a school than when she lived there.”

Deemed “the heart and soul of Broadway” by a fellow RSCJ, Mardel worked with elementary school girls, became dean of students at the high school, and eventually became director of schools. Mardel remembers the nuns sleeping in classrooms and receiving money from Rome to buy Grant House.

Mardel watched the curriculum develop. She gave Dean of Studies Douglas Grant, who was mathematics teacher at the time, permission to start computer programming classes. She and other RSCJ developed many of the unique programs still offered at the school.

“I helped develop some of the world religions classes,” said Sister Joan McKenna, who was dean of studies and head of school at CSH. She also taught and hired current Dean of Students Celine Curran.

The Hoffman Library on the ground floor of the Grant building is named after Hoffman, who spent 40 years on the Broadway campus, for her legacy of making the library more accessible to students.

“Children are beginning to learn at that age,” said Hoffman. “They’re interested. They want to know. We had to provide the resources to do that.”

The RSCJ began traditions like Congé, goûte, Noels and Prize Day. Students were awarded and penalized every week at Prîmes – a weekly version of Prize Day. Grade by grade, girls came up and curtseyed. They were praised for good work, but misconducts were also announced in front of the entire school.

“Trying to keep San Francisco girls in silence wasn’t easy,” said Mardel. “For many alums, over thousands, silence, learning to be alone in silence, helped them the most in their lives. They hated the discipline, but they valued the peace, the self-control and other lessons learned here on Broadway.”

The Society today

RSCJ are still called to educate, and many work for those in need as lawyers, doctors and social workers. The RSCJ live out the society’s mission statement of justice by working closely with non-governmental organizations, in jails, or with immigrants.RSCJ continue their work globally, but face economic challenges and fewer women join the order. However, there is interest in Asia and Africa where many young nuns are entering the order and doing humanitarian work.

“There are girls and women who do wish to make a difference, but it is a difficult time for religious life,” said Mardel.

These women who have worked all their lives to change the lives of others continue their spiritual journeys at places like Oakwood in an environment of love and reflection. Many are visited by old students.

“It’s a joy to see them before they get married,” said Hoffman. “They bring their future husbands. The man is always a little nervous, but then they bring their children. I love the families. I pray every day for the students I have taught.”

A few weeks ago, the RSCJ threw a party for a worker at Oakwood with cake, punch and gifts of hand-knit booties, dresses and beanies made by the retired religious for the baby. Everyone gathered for the expectant mother, some with material gifts and others offering the gift of prayer for the child.

The RSCJ pray every day in their work, on the quiet green grounds or in their small chapel for the world and for their loved ones.

“This place is like heaven on earth,” said Augustine.

The grounds are scattered with statues and images of Christ, Mater and the saints.

“This place is so beautiful,” said Mardel. “Look at the trees. I loved to climb the pepper trees when I was young. It has been a wonderful life – one surrounded by love. God has been so good to me.”