By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Sister Alice Michael, SUSC, a native of Tiverton, R.I. who did much of her novitiate training in the Fall River Diocese, recently received the Pro Ecclesia and Pontifice medal during a solemn vespers ceremony at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This distinguished award, literally translated from Latin to mean “For the Church and pope,” is the highest honor that the Catholic Church can bestow on laity. It is sometimes referred to as the Cross of Honor.
“It’s like receiving a medal of honor from the pope and it’s very humbling,” Sister Alice recently told The Anchor. “To think this is the highest award given to laity and religious is just incredible. I never thought I’d receive an honor like this. It never entered my mind.”
Sister Alice received the award from Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., where she has ministered since 1976. She currently serves in the Office of Faith Formation for the diocese as coordinator of Children’s Catechesis and the Catechumenate, as well as a member of the School of Evangelization Advisory Board and a member of the Special Need Religious Education Advisory Council.
“The bishop called me into his office at the end of July (to let me know), but I couldn’t say anything,” Sister Alice said. “He told me that I was going to receive the medal and I was so stunned, but he asked me not to say anything — I had to keep it to myself for a long time, and that wasn’t easy!”
Sister Alice thought it was appropriate that Bishop DiMarzio presented her with the award since he was responsible for her being chosen.
“I believe Bishop DiMarzio wrote to Rome and gave some explanation of what my apostolate involves,” she said. “I’m sure he also consulted with my order, the Holy Union Sisters.”
In a press release issued by Sister Mary Lou Simcoe, SUSC, communications director for the Holy Union Sisters, located at 550 Rock Street in Fall River, it noted how Sister Alice has an amazing ability to identify mostly everyone by name and parish or school or academy — an impressive feat and something that is also very necessary when trying to serve a large number of people.
“Hardly a weekend goes by that she is not leading a workshop or event, or even teaching young children as a catechist,” Sister Mary Lou wrote. “On the national level, she served as a member of the North American Forum for the Catechumenate, and participated in the National Conference of Catechetical Leaders. Sister Alice serves as a model for all invested in the work of catechesis and evangelization.”
Many of Sister Alice’s colleagues and friends who have worked with her over the years were on hand to witness the award presentation. Among them: Sister Mary Lou Simcoe, Sister Patricia Heath, and her cousin, Father John J. Oliveira, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in New Bedford.
“I was very happy he was there — I was thrilled,” Sister Alice said.
“She’s dedicated the better part of her 55 years of religious life to working with the Hispanic and Latino community (in New York) and I was very happy that Bishop DiMarzio wanted to recognize her very long and dedicated service to the Diocese of Brooklyn,” Father Oliveira told The Anchor. “It was a very nice ceremony and I was proud to be there.”
Like many Holy Union Sisters, Sister Alice began her ministry as a teacher.
“We all served as volunteer catechists in a number of parishes (in the Fall River Diocese),” she said. “But once I left for New York, I’ve been mostly involved with Faith Formation. I loved teaching — I also taught in East Harlem for years — but there was something in me that lent itself to catechesis and evangelization.”
Sister Alice can recall first learning about evangelization from one of her theology teachers, Sister Gretchen Margaret.
“I felt like I wanted to be involved with that, although I never expressed it at the time,” she said. “But God had it in His plan and all aspects of my mission, my life, have been involved in one way or another with catechesis and evangelization. Even my outreach to the poor — it’s still intertwined with evangelization.”
In fact, Sister Alice’s first encounter with her future order was through weekly CCD — or Faith Formation — classes at her parish.
“Actually, I was a public school student all my life,” she said. “But I did faithfully go to what in those days was called catechism classes. And the Holy Union Sisters used to be brought in on Sundays and Wednesdays to help teach. I became very close to them and I felt called to this life. That’s how I got to know the Holy Union Sisters.”
That’s why she maintains that it’s important to reach out to students in all schools about potential vocations.
“We need to encourage not just students in Catholic schools, but those in public schools as well,” she said. “I’m a product of a public school and, thanks be to God, here I am. We need to encourage them through our parish programs and our parents need to be more encouraging, too.”
Although it may seem that vocations are on the wane, Sister Alice said “there are young girls out there who are interested, we just need to keep encouraging them and they need to see that those of us who are still around are very happy and we’d do it all over again. I think that’s important.”
“I would say to any young woman who is considering a vocation: try it, you’ll like it,” she added. “It’s a wonderful life and it’s a blessing. There may be challenges, as any life would have, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to grow in your own faith and be instruments in helping others to grow, too. And especially now, where there are a variety of ministries and different ways in which you can serve, I just think it’s wonderful.”
Looking back on her more than half-century of service, Sister Alice said there have been so many highlights, “it’s hard to pick just one” that would be her favorite.
“One of my missions is the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and I was on the national team for many years and that took me all over the United States, teaching and preparing teams, and that was very joyful because I got to meet so many people,” she said.
Being able to speak multiple languages — Sister Alice is fluent in English, Portuguese and Spanish — doesn’t hurt either.
“I was chosen to be part of the Holy Union Sisters’ chapters to be a translator for our Sisters, and that has also brought me to many countries where I never would have gone otherwise,” she said.
Of course, there are few who can claim to have received a medal of honor from the pope, so Sister Alice can now count that among her lifetime accomplishments as well.
“I just think Pope Francis is God’s gift to us at the right time,” Sister Alice said. “I think he embodies the message of the Gospel. He is so sincere and I love his openness and inclusivity. And our charism is ‘to foster unity and reconciliation,’ which I think speaks to his message.”
Sister Alice also appreciates the fact that Pope Francis appreciates the work that those in religious life do for the Church, as evidenced during his recent visit to the United States.
“I was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he celebrated Mass here (in New York),” Sister Alice said. “At one point the pope specifically mentioned us and, because the cathedral was jammed, when he said that there was a spontaneous round of applause and people started making circles around us. It was very beautiful and it almost brought me to tears.”