WILMINGTON — What would people think?
That was the thought that passed through the mind of Sister Mary Daniel Jackson as she was walking around her neighborhood shortly after she moved to Wilmington in 2006 to work at the Ministry of Caring.
“I had on my sunglasses, and I had the cell phone attached to my belt. And I was wearing Crocs, which I love. I just got a visual image in my mind of what people might have thought I was. Here I was, a 5 feet, 10-and-a-half inch African-American sister in full habit wearing sunglasses, a cell phone and Crocs. They must have thought, what is it? But people were so kind,” said Sister Mary Daniel, who is the director of outreach and evangelization for the Ministry of Caring.
That scenario wasn’t a problem when she was a lay high school teacher in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the 1970s and ’80s. While she loved what she was doing, the thought of religious life was always in the back of her mind, and sometimes in the front. But, as an only child, she was responsible for taking care of her parents, both of whom got sick shortly after she began her career in education.
As the years passed, she thought perhaps life as a sister wasn’t meant to be, so she concentrated on her teaching and singing and the choral groups she directed.
Then a seminarian friend from the archdiocese told her about “these sisters” that he knew. He said they were incredible women, very dedicated, very traditional, and they wore a full habit. All of the things that impressed him about them.
“I didn’t really believe what he was saying. I thought he was inventing all of this, trying to get my interest up. I told him sisters don’t live like that any more,” she said recently.
She went to visit their United States motherhouse in Cresson, Pa., and returned as many times as she could over the next two years. Finally, in November 1993 she entered the Sisters, Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and has not looked back.
Her official title at the Ministry of Caring is director of outreach and evangelization, but Sister Mary Daniel has a list of responsibilities that takes up two pages of type. She handles purchasing, accounting and physical maintenance of Sacred Heart Oratory, the ministry’s center for evangelization. She maintains sacramental records, membership and scheduling of liturgical ministers, writes the Sunday bulletin, gives tours and represents Sacred Heart at public functions.
If that weren’t enough, Sister Mary Daniel is an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, visiting homes, hospitals and nursing homes. She teaches Scripture and other classes at the Ministry of Caring’s nine homeless shelters and residences; offers spiritual counseling; organizes clothing drives and other collections for poor residents in the area; coordinates an annual concert series at the oratory; and oversees all liturgical preparation there.
Oh, and she oversees religious education at Sacred Heart, acts as the contact person for those preparing for sacraments, leads devotions, and cantors each weekday at the noon Mass. It seems there is nothing she doesn’t do for Sacred Heart and the people it serves.
And she loves every minute of it.
“Probably one of the most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had,” Sister Mary Daniel, 62, said last week. “I had never worked in a ministry that was exclusively with the poor. It’s enriched my life. They’re trusting, and they’re kind, and they’re so grateful for everything that you do. They have a lot of love, and they have a tremendous spirituality about them that I’m really starting to learn more about every day.”
She said prayer and community life — she lives with two other members of her congregation at a convent a block from Sacred Heart — give her the energy and foundation to do her work.
“I could do nothing without the prayer life that religious life offers us. Our commitment to prayer, our commitment to community, that is empowering. We have times of prayer throughout the day, many forms of prayer, including the liturgy of the hours.”
“This gives me the basis of what I do. It gives me who I am. It’s my identity. Sister Mary Daniel is not just a person who wears a habit. She is a person who lives her vocation. But she couldn’t live her vocation unless she was supported by the prayer life that the vocation offers.”
From Baptist family
Sister Mary Daniel’s late parents, who were devout Baptists, sent her to St. Agatha’s School in Philadelphia because they thought she would get a superior education to the public school system. What they did not know is that they had planted the seed for their only child to embrace Catholicism, which she did in seventh grade without her parents’ knowledge.
She showed up at the St. Agatha’s rectory one day and told the pastor she wanted to become Catholic. The pastor asked if she knew anything about the faith. When Sister Mary Daniel replied that she had attended the parish school since first grade, the priest instructed her to come back the next day with two sponsors. She did as he said, bringing with her a fellow seventh-grader and an eighth-grader.
On New Year’s Day she was baptized, the next day she received her First Communion, and in mid-March she was confirmed.
She continued fromSt. Agatha’s to West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Girls and Chestnut Hill College, where she majored in history with an English minor. She then earned her master’s degree and got into teaching, including at her high school and Little Flower High School, during which time she often wondered whether she should enter religious life. Sister Mary Daniel loved teaching, and she remained in education until 2005 as a teacher and principal at Nativity BVM School in Media, Pa.
She took something from each of the orders of nuns who taught her — the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters at St. Agatha’s, several different orders in high school (including the Sisters of St. Joseph, Franciscans, IHM, Mercy, Notre Dame de Namur and Sacred Heart), and the Sisters of St. Joseph again at Chestnut Hill.
“The teaching sisters were the only sisters I had any exposure to,” she said.
Every morning a joy
Sister Mary Daniel wears a full habit, which has provided some humorous moments during her time in Wilmington. One time, she was walking home along Eighth Street over I-95 in Wilmington after giving a workshop at one of the Ministry of Caring’s shelters.
“Now, it was dark out. And I was thinking, ‘OK, Lord, what’s this?’ So this car pulls up, the window comes down, a person sticks their head out and says, ‘”Sister Act” is my favorite movie!’ Rolls the window up and goes.”
“I started laughing like you wouldn’t believe.”
Although she calls herself a “diehard” Philadelphian, she loves Wilmington. It has a lot to offer and is culturally and ethnically diverse. She has been struck by the friendliness of its residents.
Music remains a large part of her life, She directs two choirs in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — the Emmanuel Chorale and the Fidelis Singers. The Emmanuel Chorale once appeared on EWTN with Mother Anglelica, Sister Mary Daniel said. She was a member of the Cathedral Choir at Ss. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia for 16 years, and she performed with some professional choruses in her hometown.
In Wilmington, she spends a significant amount of time in her office, but she also gets out to the Ministry of Caring’s shelters and transitional homes. She also started the annual concert series at the oratory. She feels at home with the Ministry of Caring and its mission.
“I love the Ministry of Caring because it cares. It’s very appropriately named. And every person in the Ministry is a person who cares,” she said. “There’s not one aspect of my job that I don’t love. It’s a joy to get out of bed in the morning.”