Nun recalls ‘new light’ experiences of religious life

Sister Pat McCarthy
Sister Pat McCarthy retiring after 21 years at St. Mary, Richmond


The seeds of faith were sown deeply within Sister Pat McCarthy from an early age, and those seeds would grow roots that stretched across international borders and state lines.

Sister Pat has been a religious for more than six decades and served as pastoral associate at St. Mary Catholic Church, Richmond, for more than 20 years. Now, at age 87, she is retiring.

Born in Colombia to an American mother and Canadian father who each ended up in South America, both of her parents shared Irish heritage. Religion was major part of their lives, and they worked to ensure it was a major part of their three daughters’ lives as well.

“Being Catholic was in their blood, and it flowed through every dimension of their lives,” she said.

This was also reflected in Colombia, a country whose culture is enmeshed with Catholicism. For Sister Pat, there was no way to separate any facet of her life from her faith.

Even as a child, she had a passion for religion. She loved the mystery of the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the celebration of holy days, the spiritual retreats and any opportunity she had to learn more about God.

The McCarthys lived in Colombia until Sister Pat was 13, when they moved to the United States. While her parents settled in Charlottesville, Sister Pat and her older sister attended a Catholic boarding school in Pennsylvania. She adjusted to the melting pot of the United States and enjoyed its diversity. She later attended Trinity College in Washington, D.C., and it was there that she first took the idea of a spiritual vocation seriously.

‘Leaving all’

She spent a year under the spiritual guidance of a Dominican priest and theology teacher at Trinity before making her decision.

“I think I knew all along that I was going to say, ‘Yes,’ but I also knew that I was going to be giving up a lot of things I enjoyed doing, and I needed spiritual support to do that,” Sister Pat said. “This came through some friends, through prayer and through listening to what God was inviting me to do.”

In 1955, Sister Pat entered a cloistered Carmel convent in Detroit in part because of her affinity for Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Avila and her focus on prayer and contemplation. She thought of one of the saint’s quotes, “Prayer is nothing more than a simple conversation with One whom we know loves us,” and she was eager to have that conversation.

“I felt a call to truly ‘leave all’ and to dedicate myself to a life of prayer hidden away from the world.,” she recounted. “It was seen as a call to a life of perfection, and my heart said, ‘Yes.’”

Her days there were very structured. Prayer began at 5:25 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. Blocks of time were dedicated to Scripture readings and solitude throughout the day as members sought a deeper relationship with God.

Ministry in the modern world

After 15 years, Sister Pat left the centuries- old order for a newly-established one that was formed in response to Vatican II, which sought to bring Catholicism into the modern world — a world in which Sister Pat wanted to be included.

“It seemed to offer new opportunities for the involvement of women in ministry. I saw religious life in a new light. I realized that for me, literally leaving the world was not what I was being called to do,” she said.

Sister Pat joined the Sisters of Christian Community, whose charism is building a global community that focuses on the Gospel values of equality, love, forgiveness, reverence and nonviolence, among others.

Deciding to serve God in a pastoral setting, Sister Pat worked at different parishes while pursuing two master’s degrees and a doctorate.

Her thesis focused on how sexism and racism are interconnected.

“Struggling against sexism, whether in Church or in society, also involved struggling against racism,” she said. “The two were and are inter-related. The freedom of each individual woman and the freedom of all women are joined in one struggle, and the struggle won’t be over until everyone is free.”

Blessings in Richmond

At St. Mary, Sister Pat was involved in the lives of parishioners from birth to death. She was coordinator of the baptism, eucharistic outreach, funeral and RCIA ministries. She worked as a translator and advocate and was involved in many community outreach programs.

She helped baptize hundreds of babies, held the hands of patients in the hospital, coordinated the receiving of sacraments, and helped grieving families arrange funeral services.

“I have been blessed through all these 21 years to get to know so many amazing families at St. Mary’s, families and individuals who have shown me that they understand what it means to be a community of faith, and how to live and share that faith with those in the parish community, as well as thousands of others who are part of the broader community in the Richmond area,” Sister Pat said.

Her time at St. Mary makes her hopeful for the future. She has been inspired by the growing number of adult formation classes and participation, as well as the desire for unity in a divisive world.

“I have seen the Church grow in compassion and seek to become a listener and healer in conscience issues,” she stated.

Now she is making another change: retirement; but she has no fear of the unknown.

“I have never found it hard to adapt to changes in my life. I guess it is part of who I am,” Sister Pat said. “When one phase of my life ends, another begins, and I just go with it. It is all part of my life journey, and I just move forward.”

While she is moving forward, she is not moving away. Sister Pat will remain a parishioner at St. Mary. Although her journey of faith has taken many turns, she never felt like she was making the trip alone.

“God has promised to always be with us,” she said, “and will give us the grace and strength we need to do what is right, no matter what obstacles may appear.”

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