Catherine Denny was the daughter of Thomas and Ida Denny. St. Boniface Parish, where her parents married, was the parish in which she received all her sacraments, and it was the parish from which she entered. Many years later, when asked where she received her training to do ministry in an African American parish, she responded that the basic Christian values of love and respect for every human being which she learned as a child were her most important training.
She entered in August of 1953, and took the name Sr. Thomas Joseph, which was her father’s name, though later of course she returned to her baptismal name of Catherine. After professing first vows, she had several short mission experiences in Philadelphia, New Hartford CT, and back to Philadelphia. In 1956 she went to Harrisburg for two years, where she picked up a certificate in Basic Correctional Training, coursework for working with juvenile delinquents.
Sr. Catherine was sent to Mobile, AL in 1958 and served there for ten year. While there, she attained a degree in sociology, and went on to get a Masters of Social Work from the University of Maryland. All of her formal training was in social work, but I have read the many notes and reports that were in Sister’s ministry file, and I can tell you that they were not written by a social worker. Sister was a missionary. Every note, every report, reflects her love and her compassion for the people she was sent to serve.
In her ministry reports, she often grouped her various works according to the corporal works of mercy. There was a great deal of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked to be done in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods where she served. She worked for eighteen years at Our Mother of Sorrows parish, and Monsignor James Daly in his book, The Great Reward, described how she pushed him to allow her to open a soup kitchen right in his rectory, where eventually they were serving 200 people a day.
I am sure there are many stories that could be told of Sr. Catherine’s corporal works of mercy. After her time at Our Mother of Sorrows, she went on to St Malachy Parish and continued in the same way for another twenty-two years. And after that, she served as a parish volunteer and in support of her sister Jeanne Margaret’s ministry. But the story we tell is much more than an accounting of how many people Sr. Catherine fed or clothed or visited. We claim her as a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity because of how and why she did what she did.
How she carried out her ministry reflects the heart of a Missionary Servant. Our motto is “Be good. Do Good. Be a power for good.” Sr. Catherine was good from her childhood, and she did good through her many works of mercy. But most importantly, she was a power for good, because of the many Catholics she influenced to join her in her ministry. She accomplished so much more because she drew others in and taught them their role in the mission of the Church.
And why did she do what she did? Sr. Catherine worked tirelessly at all of her missions because she had a heart for the poor. She wanted to give them more than food, she wanted them to experience healing and reconciliation. She wanted to bring lost and wounded souls back to the Heart of Jesus, the mystery she took for herself in 1955. She knew the pain and the bitterness of the unchurched living in her parish boundaries because she visited them and she listened to them and she genuinely cared about them. She knew why they were hurt, and why they were bitter, and she knew it was love, not groceries, that would bring them back.
On the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, in 1960, Sr. Catherine wrote a note to Mother Mary Sebastian, thanking her for the privilege of allowing her to profess her final vows some months previously. She wrote, “I will always try to live up to the promise made to our Lord that day, and ask for your prayers for the grace of perseverance.” Today we can say thanks to God for the life of Sr. Catherine of the Heart of Jesus, Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity.
May she rest in peace.