Remembrance of the Life of Sister Pearl McGivney SL
Editor’s Note: The following remembrance was prepared by Loretto Co-member Mercy Sister Alicia Zapata and Vicki Schwartz SL. It contains excerpts from Pearl’s autobiography, along with contributions from Mary Jean Friel CoL, Marian McAvoy SL and Marlene Spero SL.
A recording of her funeral may be viewed here.
In her autobiography written in 1980 Pearl states, “Born in the shadow of and named in memory of the suffering at Pearl Harbor, I have lived 38 years trying to participate compassionately in the great human venture. As I move toward mid-life, I look back with gratitude for who I have become and forward with expectation of what can be.”
Pearl goes on to write about her childhood and adolescence in Brooklyn, N.Y., surrounded by her parents, Hugh and Alice O’Donnell McGivney, two sisters, and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. She took for granted that after high school she would get a job and help support her family. She says, “I believe the deepest of who I am now was nurtured during those family years.”
Pearl experienced much happiness in those early years, as well as challenges. Her father suffered an addiction, about which Pearl writes, “Perhaps more than anyone, my father influenced my life. We all suffered greatly when he was beyond control, yet I understood and shared his sufferings, as well as being victimized by it at times. My greatest gifts in life have grown from that experience: the gift of tears – I am sensitive and ‘touch-able,’ and have grown through my own pains to see and touch the pains of others; the gift of listening – I have learned to enter into the lives of others and really hear their inner self; the gift of sharing – having known weakness and anger and gentleness and violence, I can usually speak what is most real within me. Learning from my mother something of the amazing strength of love and fidelity in struggle, I began to understand the bitter-sweet realities of life at a young age, in ways that continue to open me more and more to the mysteries of being human.”
At age 17, Pearl entered the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, N.Y. In an addition to her autobiography written in 2012, Pearl remarks, “The Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood were my teachers throughout elementary and high school. I do recall the day I received First Communion and decided I would be a missionary to the poor. This, I believe, was inspired by the values and teaching of these sisters.” As a Sister of St. Joseph, Pearl earned a bachelor’s in education from Brentwood College, and a master’s in theology from Manhattan College. She taught for eight years – first, fifth, eighth grades and all the high school grades. She writes, “I believe I’m a ‘natural teacher,’ and enjoy exploring life and knowledge and wisdom both on my own and with others in studying, and in teaching/learning experiences.”
Pearl taught in the Rockville Center and Brooklyn, N.Y., dioceses 1964 to 1972. Her last assignment as a teacher was at Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School in Brooklyn. That is where she met Alicia Zapata. Alicia was in Pearl’s religion class her senior year. The joke has been that Pearl taught a marriage class to the seniors, but it was wasted on Alicia, as she entered the Sisters of Mercy.
During Pearl’s time at Bishop McDonnell High School she profoundly touched the lives of the students. There are former students who today, 50-plus years later, will talk about how Pearl would rouse a friend from her sleep to go rescue a student from a challenging situation. This was before the time of openness in the convent. Pearl would sneak the student into the convent in the middle of the night and get her out of the convent, before any other sister realized she was there. The students remember Pearl with kind and profound affection, as they were either the recipient of the kindness or were close friends with the student in need.
It was through Pearl’s connection with the farmworkers that Alicia came to know the struggle of the farmworkers. Pearl in her commitment to the poor stirred in her students the desire to put themselves on the line for others. Students joined her on the boycott lines at grocery stores in the New York area. Those are times that her students remember as transforming events in their lives.
Pearl’s passion to work with farmworkers began in 1968 when she saw a documentary film, “Harvest of Shame.” In 1971 Pearl says she was reborn when she responded to an invitation from the Director of Organizing in La Paz, California, headquarters of the United Farm Workers to “come and see. Ruth Shy, SL is here.” On that visit, Pearl also met Mary Jean Friel. When Pearl joined the UFW staff in 1972, she and Mary Jean shared a room in the hospital that was part of the compound, and a lifelong friendship was born. Wherever the farmworkers were, Pearl and Mary Jean were with them. One Holy Week, Pearl was determined to participate in services somewhere. Neither of them had any money, so they hitchhiked to Monrovia and stayed with our sisters there to celebrate Holy Week!
As time went on, Mary Jean became Caesar Chavez’s executive assistant and was on the road a lot, while Pearl remained at the headquarters attending to administrative matters that Caesar entrusted to her, because of her compassion and her capabilities. Pearl says she learned much with the movement and experienced a powerful sense of what she believed to be her calling as a “contemplative in action.”
In the September 2012 edition of “Interchange,” Vivian Doremus wrote, “Ruth Shy welcomed her to California, and Pearl vividly remembers events surrounding the farmworkers’ strike in 1973. Ann Pat Ware and Cathy Mueller were sent from the Assembly in Kentucky to post bail to release Mary Jean Friel from jail. … Several times, Pearl was a member of accompaniment teams such as Peace Brigade and Grupo Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Support Group) in Guatemala. She has visited Salvadoran refugee camps in Honduras and seen the suffering of those displaced by war and poverty. She reflects, ‘Perhaps this is where I really learned what faith in God means; the people taught me incredible hope.’”
In the late ’70s, Pearl moved to Florida. While the Farmworker Ministry office was in Central Florida, the ministry extended to the entire state and often to neighboring states. There were years when more time was spent on the road than at the office. As the farmworker community came to know the ministry, it was not uncommon for farmworker families to travel several hours to receive the service they needed. A bond of trust was forged between the farmworkers and Farmworker Ministry that continues today.
Pearl’s time in Florida was filled with many joys and challenges. The initial hope was to assist the farmworkers in their efforts to organize for better wages and living conditions. The farmworkers were ready to join the struggle, but the agricultural owners in Florida were not willing to come to the table. The struggle in Florida continues today.
The roadblock to organize didn’t end Pearl’s commitment to the people. The plan was to be available at any time that it became possible to organize for better wages and living conditions. Pearl saw this as the time to listen closely to the people and to respond to the needs as the farmworkers expressed them. She listened in a profound manner to their expressed needs, not imposing her ideas on them.
Early on the people expressed the need for better housing. They organized themselves into a housing committee. A group of families worked together to raise funds to give a loan to a family to buy a used mobile home. They chose the order in receiving a loan by pulling the family name from a hat. The loan was paid back without monetary interest. Instead the interest was the commitment of the family to remain on the committee raising funds for the next families on the list. This created a bond among the family members that was strong and lasting. The housing committee still exists today to give undocumented and economically challenged families a way to own their own dwelling.
There were many ways Farmworker Ministry responded to the needs expressed by the farmworkers. The model was to always listen to the expressed needs of the people without imposing other ideas. Farmworkers Ministry did not look to those from the more affluent community to impose their wisdom. To do so may have made successes less readily reachable. The farmworkers took pride in reaching their goals on their own.
Pearl remained in Auburndale, Fla., until she was elected president of the Loretto Congregation/Community to serve 2013-2018. When Pearl returned to Florida this past January, the people were delighted to have her among them. During the time of her illness while in Florida, the women organized themselves to respond to her needs. They brought her food and were physically present to her during her days in the hospital. The families considered her as family, and they would do no less for a family member. It was always known that Pearl was profoundly loved by the people, and their ministering to her in her time of need was a visible sign of their love for her.
Pearl transferred from the Sisters of St. Joseph Brentwood to the Sisters of Loretto in 1982, after working with several Loretto members in California, working at the Catholic Worker in Denver and working at the Motherhouse Infirmary. She related to many individual members of the Community at Assemblies, workshops and gatherings, as well as meeting with those in leadership at the time of her transfer, especially Marian McAvoy. Marian accepted Pearl on Aug. 12, 1982, at the Denver Catholic Worker. Alicia came to Denver for the occasion. Marian recently noted she is mindful that both Pearl and Alicia have served/are serving in community leadership. In her application for transfer, Pearl wrote, “I believe I have been gifted with a deep faith and have been living that faith through religious life and working with people, most especially the poor and oppressed. I see the Sisters of Loretto as seriously committed to the struggle for justice and as working to create a future for religious life.”
Shortly after arriving in Denver to serve as president, Pearl moved to an Hispanic neighborhood to feel at home with the music and language that were part of her life with farmworkers. During her tenure as Loretto’s president, Pearl worked closely with the Executive Committee, Community Forum and staff on numerous projects and gatherings. Some of the events during those years included the assessment and appraisal of the buildings at the Motherhouse and the Centers, the sales of both the Denver and St. Louis centers, the distribution of the funds generated by those sales, the conclusion of the Apostolic Visitation through the meeting with CICLSAL in Rome, the final vows of Maria Daniel SL and Samina Iqbal SL, the establishment of long-term financial support of our mission in Pakistan, and the revision of the Charitable Trust bylaws to conform with changes in Trust law. Most especially, Pearl related closely with individual members. Wherever she visited in Loretto, she cherished the moments she had one-on-one, and members appreciated her welcoming smile that clearly came from her heart. Let us recall what she revealed about one of her gifts. Through her experience with her father, she received the gift of listening. She reflected, “I have learned to enter into the lives of others and really hear their inner self.” Thank you, Pearl, for the gift of yourself to Loretto.
Thank you Sisters and all your extended community for such a such a loving tribute to Sister Pearl. I am grateful I was able to attend via Zoom. I was a member of Pearl’s group from 1959 in Brentwood. It was a privilege. May her light and peace and listening spirit console you.
Thank you, Sister Mary, and may Pearl’s light and peace console you and all your community, too.
This was a beautiful account of Pearl’s life. Having remembered Pearl Harbor l found it so interesting that she got her name from that event. I knew of Pearl’s wonderful work and her friendship with Alicia. It brought back memories of when some UFW lived on Lincoln Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the days of “Don’t buy grapes.” Rest In Peace, Pearl, for a life well lived.
Thank you, Sister Mary, for sharing with us your loving memories of Pearl.
To the family at Loretto: In 1974 I spent a summer volunteering as a law clerk for the UFW at their Office in Coachella, Calif. I have never forgotten the kindness and dedication of Sister Pearl and Sister Mary Jean to a young 22-year-old between 1st and 2d year of law school. They let me know what all was going on and gave me a wide berth of experiences for my summer. It was a treasure of my life which led to 33 years as a Public Defender. The Farmworkers of Coachella loved them, and especially Sister Pearl who was the leader of the pack in our little office. One most memorable time was when they arranged a showing of a movie which documented the prior summer’s (1973) strike against the Teamsters. It was standing room only and lots of pride and hoots and hollers as everyone saw themselves and friends and their success. The Sisters gave me the freedom of a multitude of experiences, both legal and in organizing, for which I am eternally grateful. Sister Pearl touched many lives and mine was tremendously enriched by observing her giving spirit and her commitment to Christian charity and compassion. Service is the evidence of a Spirit on Fire
Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful memories of your time with Pearl and Mary Jean in California, Ms. Gaines. It truly was evidence of a time “of the Spirit on fire!”