To work anywhere for twenty-five years is rare today. You have to love what you do. My friend Michelle Yanche loves her work at Good Shepherd Services in New York City, where she is Associate Executive Director for Government & External Relations. Some issues she deals with include public policy, advocacy, government relations, and fundraising. Recently I had the chance to talk with Michelle about the work at Good Shepherd and the spiritual charism underlying that work.
In 1947, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd incorporated the Good Shepherd Residences today known as Good Shepherd Services, which grew from their work with marginalized young women and girls. What do they do today? They work from the same holistic, strength-based approach that integrates youth and family development and trauma-informed practices that was practiced and taught by their foundress, St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier (1796-1868), from the very beginning of the Order’s work.
The goal of the work is always to improve well-being, mitigate the impact of poverty, and improve access to opportunity for individuals living in under-resources communities, who have experienced trauma and challenging life circumstances. In New York City, Good Shepherd Services serves some thirty thousand people at over ninety sites each year. They operate, among other things, after-school programs, family counseling, and youth programs. In addition, they offer residential services such as supportive housing and foster care residences.
You can’t talk about the Good Shepherd charism without talking about a remarkable woman: St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, who founded the Sisters in 1835 at age 38. Then and now, the Sisters take an additional vow of zeal, a passion for the hardest work. Euphrasia wrote to her Sisters: “Go after the lost sheep without other rest than the cross, other consolation than work, other thirst than for justice.“
The genesis of their work was in post-revolutionary France, where many poor women and girls lived on the streets and were forced into the sex trafficking world, often imprisoned as a result. Even those who worked at the prisons realized this wasn’t a just situation. So the government asked Mother Mary Euphrasia to take charge of 75 prisoners. “Treat them,” she told her Sisters, “with nobility of soul.”
Young women flocked to join her community. “But we want.” Mary Euphrasia wrote, “strong, broad-minded, sensible and self-sacrificing women. None others can live our life and fulfill our mission.” Their ministry was to “children of the streets, often worse than orphaned”
In them, Mary Euphrasia urged the Sisters to see Jesus:
If it should happen that sometimes you perceive the poor children who come to us to be covered with dust from the world’s highway, to speak of nothing worse, follow the example of the holy woman who with her veil wiped the Sacred Face of her Divine Master; and upon their countenances you will be able to discern the Blood of the Saviour, by Whom they have been cleansed.
The numbers grew from there. In 1857, they came to New York, a city Mary Euphrasia called “the Babylon of the New World.” By the time of her death in 1868, the new community had become international, with over two thousand Sisters working in France and beyond. Although the work in New York City and world-wide originally began with marginalized women and girls, since the 1970’s it has expanded to include all people.
At the time of her death, one bishop observed: “If Mother Mary of St. Euphrasia had been a man, she would have been Pope.” A contemporary described her as “a product of that grand old French stock to whom the watch-word ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is familiar.” On May 1, 1940, she was canonized by Pope Pius XII.
The Sisters recognize that there are not as many of them as there used to be, and they have promoted a new generation of lay leaders as partners in mission. The Sisters instill a sense of mission through workshops and retreats at their motherhouse in Angers, France. They form Good Shepherd People. One need not be Catholic; their work resonates with people of all faiths and none.
The work at Good Shepherd Services is done by people from all walks of life, who have something in common. They all believe in the strength of the human person, and in the transformative power of relationships. They help people find strength to overcome what’s happened to them. They don’t ask, “What’s wrong with you?,” but “What happened to you?” In short, they help people reclaim their human dignity. In this way, they show by their work and their love that Mary Euphrasia’s spirit is alive and well in New York and beyond.
(*The drawing of St. Mary Euphrasia is by Pat McNamara.)