They traveled in twos and spoke in quiet voices.

As they strode into classrooms or down hospital corridors, they were a presence – a mystery dressed most often in black and white. Their workdays were a sharp contrast to how they spent their other hours in contemplation of God. But they woke every morning faithful to another day of mission.

In the mid-1800s, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh opened its arms to young women from European countries who came here to lead new lives of service. Today, the diocese’s sisterhood, which peaked with 6,000 to 7,000 members in the 1960s, totals 1,101.

On Saturday, 27 religious communities of the diocese will be honored for their vision, leadership and determination with the Ad Lucem Award at the La Roche College Founders Gala. Hosted by Sister Candace Introcaso, La Roche’s president, the fundraising dinner will be held at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown. At last count, 90 sisters will be joining in the celebration.

Among those who will be honored are the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, who settled as a community here from Ireland in 1843 and founded their first hospital on Penn Avenue. A plaque marks the site.

“Teaching was the primary ministry, followed by visiting the sick, which eventually led to founding hospitals,” said Sister Geraldine Wodarczyk, delegate for religious life in the Pittsburgh diocese.

“Caring for orphans was important since the children needed to be with persons who spoke their own language and understood their culture.”

The Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh, another of the honorees, came to teach the children of German immigrants in the city, said Sister Benita DeMatteis, prioress of the order’s monastery in Ross, which was dedicated in 1926. Her order’s first school was on the North Side.

Having served in the company of her sisters for 53 years, Sister Benita fondly remembers her days in the classroom of a few parish elementary schools.

Other orders followed in the 1900s. Bishops called on many to fill particular needs.

“They found Christ in the immigrant, the poor, the sick, the uneducated, the elderly, the marginalized, those who were churchgoers and those who were alienated from the church,” Sister Geraldine said.

The Catholic presence peaked in the 1960s, when there were 60 Catholic high schools in and around Pittsburgh.

“They were strong in academics and athletics,” said Schaefer, 59, of Ben Avon.

The increased demand for educators was built on baby boomer births. Those who had joined the orders during the Depression or wartime swelled the number of sisters, Sister Geraldine said.

Becoming a member of the religious was a good option, especially for girls who came from large Catholic families.

“For a Catholic, becoming a sister was an honored and respectable way of serving in the church and in society,” Sister Geraldine said.

Sister Benita said she was struck by what she saw and felt during her first visit to the Benedictine Sisters monastery on Aug. 15, 1953.

As a 13-year-old, she came to attend high vespers; as a high school senior, she left her Waynesburg, Ohio, home and entered the community.

“I fell in love with the prayer life,” she said. “I found the sisters hospitable. I was struck by the love I could sense in those I met.”

That love story continues today.

“It’s a joy to live life with a group of women who share the same goals,” Sister Benita said.

Benedictine sisters base their role in society on the Gospel and living in community.

Most of all, they pray. Three times a day, they meet for community prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. Each sister follows the Lectio Divina, or sacred readings.

In the ebb and flow of vocations through the decades, there were years when orders accepted classes of 30 to 40 postulants.

“Later, people saw more options for themselves for careers, and society itself changed,” said Schaefer. “They thought, ‘I could be a good person – a holy person – but not give my life to that kind of service.’ ”

Sister Geraldine, 64, who grew up in Erie, has been a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, another honoree, for 48 years. Her grade school teachers were from the order.

She remembers wanting to be a sister since she was a child. She credits that focus with the gift of a prayer card from a Felician sister cousin.

On the card was a picture of the child Jesus.

“The words touched something in me,” she said, of the invitation: “You, I seek. You, I need. You, yes, you, I love you.”

While her mother would have preferred she stay closer to home, Sister Geraldine came to Pittsburgh.

The life of a sister is difficult, Schaefer said. It’s a life of sacrifice – giving up marriage, living in community and choosing a celibacy.

“The sisters commit to their community,” he said. “It is a generous gift of self.”

Being recognized

The 2011 recipients of the Ad Lucem Award from La Roche College are the:

• Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh

• Byzantine Sisters of St. Basil the Great

• Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph

• Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy

• Dominican Sisters of Peace

• Dominican Sisters/Our Lady of the Springs of Bridgeport

• Felician Sisters

• Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement

• Ladies of Bethany

• Little Sisters of the Poor

• Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart

• Religious of the Passion (Passionist Nuns)

• Religious Teachers Filippini

• School Sisters of Notre Dame

• School Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis

• Sisters of Charity of Nazareth

• Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill

• Sisters of Divine Providence

• Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

• Sisters of Our Lady of Charity

• Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God

• Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities

• Sisters of the Divine Redeemer

• Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth

• Sisters of the Holy Spirit

• Sisters of the Humility of Mary

• Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

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