By Tom Rademacher, The Grand Rapids Press, August 3, 2013
You wonder from time to time whatever happened to that kid from grade school who used to kick all the rubber balls to the roof.
The girl who’d suffered, of all things, from polio.
A troubled boy who’d threatened our fourth-grade teacher to a fistfight.
These were real people I’d known. And they included a red-haired girl named Margaret O’Dwyer, who left our midst during the third grade.
Some 50 years later, I discovered the rest of her story, thanks to a phone call from her brother, Patrick, in Jenison, who wasn’t even aware that Margaret and I had enjoyed scant bits of history.
When we reunited last week, her first memory was of me sharing a joke with my classmates. Question: “What did the blanket say to the frightened floor? Answer: “Don’t worry; I’ve got you covered.”
But it’s Margaret O’Dwyer who has things covered now, one gentle gift at a time.
She works her magic thousands of miles from here, in the Cook Islands, a spattering of 15 small outcroppings located in the far reaches of the South Pacific.
And her name’s a little longer now: Sister Margaret O’Dwyer, D.C.
The acronym stands for “Daughters of Charity,” an order of nuns committed to serving Jesus by loving the poor and the marginalized. They are 17,000 strong and live in communities in 90 countries on six continents.
But before that, Margaret O’Dwyer was a lawyer.
After leaving St. James Catholic Elementary School on Grand Rapids’ West Side, she and her parents and six siblings moved to Grand Haven, and later Jackson. She graduated Lumen Christi High in 1972, then Grand Valley State University in 1978.
Along the way, she developed a love of writing, and worked part-time jobs covering sports for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, and the office of Sports Information at GVSU.
She became interested in the scales of justice, and graduated from Cooley Law School in 1985. That same year, she scored a job with the UAW & General Motors Legal Services in Saginaw.
Not far from her office loomed St. Mary’s Cathedral, where Margaret would go to worship, and eventually meet a sister on the pastoral committee who belonged to the Daughters of Charity.
“She was passionate about life as a sister, and very joyful,” Margaret recounts, emphasizing how she was also impressed with how this woman was a dominant figure, not at all serving in a subservient role.
Margaret moved closer and closer to the life of a nun by participating in “discernment weekends” at the order’s motherhouse in Evansville, Ind. She also befriended the late Bishop of the Saginaw Diocese, Ken Untener, who used to introduce himself with “Hi, this is Ken, and I’m here to be your waiter.”
He’d begin meetings with “How will today’s meeting affect the poor?” and Margaret, paying rapt attention, was filled with a growing need to serve others in ways lawyering might not provide.
In 1992, she entered the postulancy and was assigned to Mobile, Ala., where she filed political asylum claims for Haitian refugees. There, she met people who shared horrible stories of oppression and torture.
While attending a seminary in Maryland, she worked with the poor in Washington, D.C., and taught remedial high school. Her next two assignments put her in the midst of poor people in need of health care.
After committing to the order and taking vows of chastity, obedience and poverty (her sole possessions include clothes, books, a single woodcarving and a camera), she soon found herself on a nine-hour flight from LA to the Cook Islands.
Except for a visit to the U.S. just once every year or two, she’s been there since 2004, living on the largest island, Rarotonga, in the small village of Tikioki.
It’s there where my former classmate teaches at a Catholic high school, conducts retreats, directs after-school programs in reading and math, and reaches out to inmates on the island’s Arorangi Prison. So impressed with her cerebral knowledge are the incarcerated, that one of them once exclaimed, “Hey Sister Margaret, you oughta be an attorney.”
Some of Margaret’s family have visited her a half-world away, and returned with stories of goats employed to keep the grass short on an airstrip, of pitching in with their sister to wash prisoners’ feet, of witnessing her order’s goal in first-hand fashion: “…to change the world one person at a time.”
Though Margaret’s parents are both deceased, she sometimes leans on the words of her father, Bill: “Margaret, you don’t just represent yourself in your work for others. You represent the entire family.”
Margaret, in sharing with me that her vows are not of the perpetual sort but examined annually, likened it to any good marriage. “A couple celebrating an anniversary should be looking back and asking ‘How are we doing? Where do we go from here?”
I suspect too few of us couples do that well. And that once in a while, we need a person or place to motivate us.
I asked Sister Margaret if the Daughters of Charity have people with deep pockets to finance their ministries.
She smiled. “It’s not about deep pockets, but everybody lighting one candle.”
Want to help? Send a check to Sister Margaret O’Dwyer at P.O. Box 147; Rarotonga; Cook Islands; (New Zealand).