Some years ago, I received an unexpected blessing at a gas station. While pumping gas, I noticed someone familiar beside a nearby car – Sister Virginie Fish, an Oblate Sister of Providence, whom I had interviewed about her work promoting the sainthood cause of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, the foundress of a pioneer order of black sisters in Baltimore. After we chatted for a few moments and shared a friendly goodbye, she said, “May God bless the work of your hands.”
I’ve thought about that blessing a lot over the years, especially around Labor Day. That simple blessing is also meaningful because the Oblate Sisters of Providence throughout their history have been all about serving God and others, through the work of their hands and their hearts. Mother Lange, born in what is now Haiti, immigrated to the United States around 1817. She settled in Baltimore and began educating refugee children in her home in a time when the state of Maryland prohibited the education of slaves. When she founded her order of sisters, they dedicated their work to teaching black children so they would have a brighter future.
Over the years as an editor and writer for the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, I wrote about the sisters’ work in inner-city Catholic schools and parishes, and I visited their motherhouse, where they operated a day-care center for small children and cared for the retired and sick members of their order. The outside of their chapel bore the words of the great commission given by the risen Christ to his disciples then and now: “Go and teach all nations.” (Matthew 28:18-20) The spiritual daughters of Mother Lange have done just that over the years, through the work of their hands.
Each Labor Day, I also think about the life and work of St. John Paul II, who could be considered a patron saint for workers. Before entering the seminary, he worked in a stone quarry and chemical factory during the Nazi occupation of his native Poland in World War II, and after his ordination when Poland became a satellite country to the Soviet Union, he worked as a parish priest, university professor, bishop, cardinal and ultimately as a globe-trotting pope, bringing the Gospel to 129 countries during his 27-year papacy.
After writing his first two encyclicals on Jesus the redeemer of humanity and God’s mercy, in 1981 Pope John Paul II wrote his third papal letter on another topic close to his heart – Laborem Exercens, “On Human Work.” He emphasized the importance of having solidarity with workers, especially immigrants and those struggling with poverty, low wages and unemployment, themes that are echoed year after year in the U.S. bishops’ Labor Day statements. In the encyclical, he expresses respect for farmworkers spending long days in the field, “to those who work in mines and quarries, to steel-workers at their blast-furnaces, to those who work in builders' yards and in construction work… to doctors and nurses, who spend days and nights at their patients' bedside,” and to mothers who “bear the daily burden and responsibility for their homes and the upbringing of their children.” (Laborem Exercens, 9)
It is no wonder that the Polish trade movement which John Paul II provided the spiritual inspiration for, that played such a key role in the fall of communism in Poland and in all of Eastern Europe, took the name Solidarity.
In addition to emphasizing the dignity of work, Saint John Paul II also wrote about the spirituality of work, how women and men in their everyday tasks are united with God’s work and plan.
Pope Francis, who eats with workers in the Vatican’s dining hall, also spoke about solidarity and the dignity of work a year ago when he became the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress. He said he wanted to not only dialogue with those leaders, but also “with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and – one step at a time – to build a better life for their families.”
In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si,’ Pope Francis linked care for the environment of Earth, “our common home,” with concern for sustainable development that benefits all members of the human family, especially the poor.
Gratitude for and empathy with workers helps build solidarity. Now Sister Carol Keehan serves as the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association. In 2004, I interviewed the Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul as she was leaving her post as president of Providence Hospital in Washington, which annually provided more than $10 million in charity care to the city’s poor and uninsured. She expressed gratitude for all the hospital’s workers, from the power plant workers to the doctors and nurses caring for newborns and cancer patients, “They’re here doing health care as a vocation, not a job,” she said. Each Christmas, she walked through the entire facility, to thank each worker personally.
A teacher at an inner-city Catholic school in Washington once told me that the greatest part of his job was when he heard a tap on his classroom window, from a graduate coming back to say thanks.
In my reporting work, I’ve witnessed the dignity of work and workers, sometimes unfolding in a heroic way, like Father Joseph Byron, a priest suffering from Alzheimer’s, who continued serving his people as long as he could, even when it took a herculean effort for him to say the Our Father. The parish’s pastor said that priest’s faithful service during his debilitating illness was “his greatest sermon.”
A man who had battled drug abuse and lost his family and his home went to a rehab center and promised God that if he would give him one more chance at life, “I’d spend my life helping somebody.” That man, Darryl Colbert, became the coordinator of Catholic Charities’ substance abuse outreach in Washington, and carried a beeper so he could be available 24 hours a day to the city’s addicts.
Last year I covered the last day of school for a woman religious serving as the principal at a Catholic elementary school in suburban Maryland. Sister Kathleen Lannak had led the school for 35 years and was dying of cancer, but was determined to help the students through the end of that school year. Before she died one month later, she had helped the new principal transition to her new job. The Immaculate Heart of Mary sister who had encouraged her students to make their school “a better place” each day, had done just that.
Over the years, I wrote about Oscar Reyes, a respected journalist who had been beaten and tortured in his home country of Honduras, and had come to the United States, like many immigrants, seeking a new life. After cleaning office buildings and working as a clerk at a 7-Eleven, he was hired as a reporter for El Pregonero, the Spanish language community newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. Reyes eventually became the paper’s editor, and before he retired in 2005, he received the St. Francis de Sales Award, the highest honor of the Catholic Press Association.
No story I covered demonstrated the dignity of work more than an assignment about a program in which inmates about to be released from Washington-area jails were being trained in construction work and helped to rebuild an inner-city neighborhood that had been devastated during the city’s crack epidemic in the 1980s. One of these workers said he had sold drugs near there, but now he looked forward to bringing his daughter to that street and telling her he helped build the new apartments there.
A similar pride in their work was expressed by union tradesmen of different faiths working on the new St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington in 2011. Theo Burroughs, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who attended the First United Apostolic Christian Church, noted that he was happy to lend a hand to the building where Catholic seminarians would study for the priesthood. “For them to come here, they’re changing themselves, and in turn, they’ll change the world,” he said.
The spirituality of work is a concept that many workers understand. In his carpentry shop along a country road in Poolesville, Maryland, Deacon Dave Cahoon built the altars for Pope Benedict’s Mass at Nationals Park in Washington in 2008, and again for Pope Francis’s Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception seven years later. Cahoon named his shop after St. Joseph, and he tries to emulate his shop’s patron saint, who was also a carpenter. “I think for him, work was a prayer.”
That same spirit is demonstrated by volunteer Larry Donnelly, a retired food services manager for the University of Maryland, who chairs the Interfaith Food Pantry at St. John Vianney Parish in Prince Frederick, Maryland. The senior citizen uses his food management skills to help coordinate the pantry’s operation as it serves 115 people in the community each week. “We believe we’re really doing God’s work,” he said.
This Labor Day, those stories of worker solidarity, dignity and spirituality are unfolding all around us. My prayer for you is the same blessing that Sister Virginie offered me years ago at a gas station, “May God bless the work of your hands.”