By Josephine von Dohlen
In early elementary school, Sister Ruth Harkins, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, remembers one distinct moment that set her life apart for God, forever.
It was during the Lenten season, and her teacher had been talking about the crucifixion with the young students, and about how the disciples ran away from Jesus.
“I went home and told my mom, because I was upset by that,” Sister Ruth said. “I wanted to be the friend of Jesus that didn’t run away.”
This desire to be close to Jesus remained close to her heart, ultimately leading her to enter religious life at the age of 21, where, through the Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton, Pa., Sister Ruth’s ministry has included nurturing the faith of students and many others for the past 40 years.
Growing up in Wilmington to an Irish-Italian Catholic family, a life rich in the Catholic faith infused Sister Ruth’s world. She said her parents both volunteered frequently at their church, and her Friday afternoons were frequently filled with cleaning a nearby convent.
As a student at St. Mark’s High School, Sister Ruth, surrounded by 38 religious sisters from 12 different religious orders, said she just “shopped around.” She had also attended St. Catherine of Siena elementary school.
“Getting to know the different orders, I was drawn to the IHM sisters,” Sister Ruth said. “I felt that they were very joyful, down to earth, and happy.”
Sister Ruth joined the IHM sisters in 1979 at the age of 21 during her senior year of college at the University of Delaware, where she studied secondary education. She completed her student teaching with a fellow sister.
From there, Sister Ruth taught religion and social studies for nearly a decade in high schools throughout New York City; Syracuse and Altoona and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. While not always in IHM schools, she said the schools shared the same values of the IHM sisters. After teaching high school, she worked as a guidance counselor as she received her master’s degree in pastoral counseling from La Salle University and then went on to serve in HIV/AIDS ministry in Camden, N.J.
As director of her order’s vocations ministry from 2002-2012, Sister Ruth helped women discern and enter religious life with the congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Sister Ruth then received her doctorate of ministry in adult spiritual formation from The Catholic University of America in Washington and today serves there as an associate campus minister for graduate and professional students. Her role allows her to provide programs and foster relationships with students seeking to bring their faith and work together.
“That is often the question for the graduate students, ‘How do I integrate my faith into my professional life?’” she said.
In addition to organizing and coordinating many events such as a monthly liturgy and Eucharistic Adoration, or a silent retreat in the fall, Sister Ruth said her favorite part of working with the students is “just being available for the students, watching them grow.”
“They really want to learn and grow in their faith life,” she continued. “It’s amazing to watch their energy and enthusiasm about their faith.”
Sister Ruth has also taught a few courses on campus, including one course, “Theology of Mission,” which is a prerequisite course for a trip to the United States’ border with Mexico that she leads each spring. The trip, she said, “exposes students to the cries of the poor.” Seeing the border through their own eyes, she continued, inspired some students to redirect their own career paths and majors. Visiting both El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, Sister Ruth and the students visit a detention center, a refugee center, a courthouse, and engage in peer-to-peer conversation with students from the University of Texas, El Paso and the University of Southern New Mexico. One important moment, she said, “is watching the students try to process it all, and realize that this is not what we read in newspapers and on television.”
In reference to her vocation, Sister Ruth said she has been able to experience the fullness of God’s love through prayer and community.
“It’s worth the risk to really follow your heart,” she said, recommending that women discern a religious vocation not through the eyes of what they “give up” when becoming a sister.
“The heart of God – that’s really where happiness is,” Sister Ruth said. “Follow your heart to your deepest desire.”
(Josephine von Dohlen is a writer for the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington)