BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — While the Vatican and the largest group of nuns in America debate the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church, the School Sisters of Notre Dame here quietly continue their mission of teaching English and basic life skills to low-income women and children.
The women work out of a simple, yellow house on Stillman Street in the city’s East Side. The focus in the colorful, toy-filled preschool rooms at Caroline House is on learning the ABCs, numbers and colors in English.
And, in the adult classrooms here, the emphasis is on learning how to communicate and assimilate in this country.
“We’re not here to evangelize,” Sister Connie Carrigan, a staff member since 2001, said quietly. “We are here to be good people, and good people are good people.”
The nuns help to break down communication barriers between children and their parents. It is this evolving dialogue that makes Caroline House work, the women say.
Alma Farez has been in this country for eight years and can speak some English.
“But one day my child come home from school and asked me, ‘What is this word?’ and I didn’t know the meaning of the word,” Farez, 30, said.
She promised her 8-year-old son, Steven, that she would find the definition. After being referred to Caroline House, Farez no longer has trouble communicating with her son or helping him with his homework.
It’s the nondenominational setting the nuns work in that makes Caroline House appear worlds away from the politics of the Catholic Church.
Last year, the Vatican accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in this country of “serious doctrinal issues” and “radical feminist themes.”
The nuns group, which represents 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, was reprimanded for raising questions about the church’s all-male priesthood, its stance on contraceptives and for not condemning gay marriage and abortion while the nuns carried out their work.
As a result, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered a restructuring of the group. The results of a separate investigation — called a visitation by Catholic officials — have not been made public.
Lyndy Toole, of Westport, volunteers her time to teach students Zumba dancing. She’s also in charge of the children’s music program at Caroline House.
Toole sees the positive impact the nuns at Caroline House have in the lives of the women they serve.
“They’ve changed my life more than I’ve changed theirs,” she said of the adult students, “through their joy, sharing things from their culture and sharing their children with me.”
Toole’s husband, Patrick, a deacon, sits on the Caroline House board.
“Part of being a Catholic is helping whoever, wherever there is a need,” he said. “You can’t pick and choose.”
And that’s what Eunice Alonzo, 28, of Bridgeport, thinks the nuns would have to do if they added the Catholic doctrine to their curriculum. She tells a story similar to the one shared by Farez.
Alonzo, who has been in this country for eight years, signed up to learn English at Caroline House when her 10-year-old asked for help with his homework and she couldn’t explain it to him.
She recently took a placement exam to begin the classes.
“I thought (the nuns) were going to talk to me about religion but they didn’t,” said Alonzo, who is a practicing Pentecostal. “I wouldn’t come if they had because I’m not going to change my mind. But you can tell they have a love for teaching.”
And it’s that love for teaching that drives the nuns to serve others — regardless of their religious beliefs.
Sister Peg Regan, Caroline House’s executive director, told Connecticut Magazine in September that her job is to help women, not judge them.
“I believe in a loving God who loves all of us, warts and all,” she told the magazine. “And I don’t have to judge anybody. I mean, Jesus never condemned anybody.”
Regan recently declined to discuss the Vatican’s assessment other than to say she doesn’t think it will impact the nonprofit negatively. The nonprofit’s funding comes from private donors and fundraisers, not the Catholic Church.
And while the nuns don’t impose their beliefs on students, they don’t hide their faith, either. All of the women are always available to pray with a student who asks for prayer.
They joke good-naturedly that half of Bridgeport’s residents made their first Holy Communion — and maybe confirmation, too — with the organization’s former director, Sister Ann Moles.
Moles headed the catechism program at St. Charles Borromeo Church on East Main Street for years.
After its annual conference last August, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious made it clear it does not agree with the Vatican’s assessment. However, it hopes to establish a “dialogue” about the findings and the future structure of the organization.
No matter what happens, the work at Caroline House will always be focused on empowering low-income women and children through learning.
“Every community of (Women Religious) has a mission,” Sister Lorraine Quinn said. “For the CND (Congregation of Notre Dame) and the SSND, our basic mission is to teach.”