Golden Jubilarian, 2017 - Sister Mary Louise Lisowski, SC
“Becoming a sister was something that had always been on my mind,” recalls Sister Mary Louise Lisowski. “I knew the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill who taught me at Saint Philip School at my home parish in the Crafton neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It just seemed a natural step for me to take.” Sister Mary Lou entered the congregation of sisters who taught her on August 27, 1967. She explains, “I am passionate about the concept of charity––it’s embedded in my life.” Sister Mary Lou will celebrate her Golden Jubilee at a special Mass of thanksgiving on July 9, 2017.
Having earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and elementary education at Seton Hill University and a master’s degree in religious studies from Boston College, Sister Mary Lou spent her early years of ministry as an educator. She taught at Saint Pius X School (formerly Saint Bernadine/Saint Joseph), Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and at Elizabeth Seton and Seton-LaSalle High Schools, Pittsburgh. Parishes of the Dioceses of Greensburg and Pittsburgh benefitted from her service as a religious education coordinator before Sister Mary Lou turned her focus to pastoral ministry. Sister served five parishes of Preston County, West Virginia from 1982 to 1988. As director of social concerns for the Catholic Churches of Preston County, her ministry exposed an ecumenical thread that would be consistently woven into the pattern of her religious life. She served as president of the Valley Ministers Association for four years and co-chaired the Preston Memorial Hospital Chaplaincy Committee during a three-year process of planning and implementing a pastoral care program.
In 1988, Sister Mary Lou was awarded a master’s degree in social work from West Virginia University. She returned to Pittsburgh and began her social work ministry at Focus on Renewal, a community development organization that provided social services to benefit body, mind, and spirit of underprivileged persons of the Sto- Rox neighborhood. After one year, she began to serve as a therapist, adoption specialist, and in-home status offender (youth) counselor with Catholic Charities, Washington, Pennsylvania.
Sister Mary Lou was drawn back to West Virginia in 1993 where she continued her social work ministry in Wheeling with Catholic Charities West Virginia Pregnancy and Parenting Program. She founded The Gabriel Project of West Virginia, Inc. in 1996, to help support pregnant women and mothers of young children with inadequate resources. The program expanded from an alliance of volunteers from three churches to an interfaith network of more than 50 congregations throughout the West Virginia community. This group has provided assistance to clients in 30 West Virginia Counties with caseloads that grew to as many as 4,000 per year. Sister Mary Lou served as board president from 1996 until 2000 when she became the executive director of The Gabriel Project.
Sister Mary Lou was tenacious in her work for the poor, embracing the words the iconic Mother Jones, champion of the downtrodden working class of the early 20th century, who said, “Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living.” Believing it her mission “to make the Charity of God present in the world,” Sister shared her knowledge as an adjunct faculty member in the social work department at Seton Hill University in 2007. She was also appointed executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in that year, a position she held until 2010.
“The aspect of religious life that I found most impressive was learning how to pray––to move away from recitation to learning how to sit with God in silence,” reflected Sister Mary Lou. “Wanting to pray is praying.” Sister’s interest in ecumenical relationships included prayer, as well. In 2006, 2007, and 2008, she participated in the Mystic Heart Meditation Program at Chautauqua Institution (New York). Each week, the program shared a meditation from a different tradition, and she led the morning centering prayer during the week that explored the Christian tradition.
Once again, in 2010, Sister Mary Lou returned home to Pittsburgh, where she was an active volunteer at Saint Norbert Parish. She retired to Caritas Christi in 2016. In reflection on living Vincentian spirituality in the Setonian tradition as a Sister of Charity, Sister Mary Lou disclosed, “I had one of my great “aha moments” in the whole idea of becoming the ‘Company of Charity.’ It meant that it was important in my ministry––whether it was teaching or pastoral work––to make the Charity of Christ visible and real. That was big for me.” Her Vincentian-Setonian spirituality of caring for the poor and vulnerable among us continues to thrive to this day with her ongoing volunteer activity with The Gabriel Project and life of prayer with her community.