As she walks across the parking lot at St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln on a steamy afternoon in mid-September, Sister Elisa Grignoli steps with quiet conviction. About 45 third graders will be arriving for the first 90-minute religious education class of the year. The students are preparing to receive first Eucharist in the spring of 2011. She wants them to take their faith seriously at a young age.
Youngsters and parents file in and “70-something” Sister Elisa is there with a smile and a hug for each child. “Welcome back,” she says. “We’ve missed you.”
What most of the kids know about Sister Elisa is she’s quite a “no-nonsense” nun. She doesn’t like excuses for not coming to class every week, inquiries about early dismissal for sports practice, or seeing disrespect for fellow students. What they likely don’t know is that Sister Elisa, who speaks English, Italian, Cantonese and some Spanish, traveled a circuitous route to arrive at her current ministry as director of religious education. From serving as a missionary and nurse in Hong Kong for 20 years to ministering as a hospital chaplain in Vancouver, British Columbia, she’s responded to whatever mission she’s been called to in religious life.
She’s shown that same dedication in her ministry for the past 16 years at St. Joseph Parish, passing on the Catholic faith and values to each child who comes her way. This year that means more than 500 students in English and Spanish faith formation programs at St. Joseph, as well as its mission churches, St. Daniel in Wheatland, about 13 miles away, and St. Boniface in Nicolaus, about 15 miles away. Sister Elisa, who is in her 46th year as a member of the Canossian Daughters of Charity, has served through the tenure of four pastors. She’s been the glue that’s kept faith formation programs at the expanding parish growing and thriving. She drives from her convent in north Sacramento to work long weekdays, while working more hours on weekends. With her team she oversees the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, adult faith formation, and the EDGE program for teens preparing for confirmation. She also leads a Bible study on Tuesdays.
“The people here love me and I love them,” she says with a slight smile and a noticeable Italian accent. “St. Joseph is my second home. Our parish has changed greatly. When I first came to Lincoln, the town population sign said 8,200 people. Now we have 38,000 people.”
The area’s population explosion was triggered in 2000 by housing developments such as Del Webb’s Sun City Lincoln hills retirement community and the building of more single family homes. St. Joseph Parish has grown from serving 600 families in 1996 to some 2,300 families today. Lincoln is worlds away from where Sister Elisa grew up in the small town of Ronco Briantino, northeast of Milan, Italy, where she decided as a child to be a nurse and a missionary. “Missionaries used to come and speak to us. They had a lot of influence on us as children to go to other countries to help the poor and to make Jesus known and loved all over the world,” she recalls. Her spiritual director suggested she discern about joining the Canossian Daughters of Charity, the religious institute she entered at age 21.
After completing studies in nursing in Rome and studying English in England, she was sent to Hong Kong, serving as a nurse in a hospital run by the Canossian Sisters. “In those days they didn’t give us much training to be in the missions. They said you are needed there, so go, whether you were trained or not. I learned the culture by working on the job and I also learned how the people lived. I loved the Chinese people. I shared my faith on a personal level in the hospital and people were very responsive. Many people became Catholic.”
In 1987, Sister Elisa was sent to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to open a new convent with two Chinese sisters. She worked there for six years – days as a hospital chaplain at Vancouver General Hospital and nights and weekends as director of religious education at St. Augustine Parish, which included many children and their families from Hong Kong who had immigrated to Canada.
Her greatest challenge as a religious educator today is “to attend to the needs of the children and their families in a diverse multicultural community,” she says. “I want to make them understand that learning their faith and establishing a personal relationship with Jesus is a process that goes from the womb to the tomb. It’s not just receiving the sacraments. Our spiritual life needs to be nourished by the word of God and the sacraments as much as we nourish our physical life.”
Her students feel the effects when parents lose their jobs or experience marital difficulties. “I can see a lot in the children.” she says. “If they come from a family that takes care of them physically and spiritually, you see that right away. Unfortunately, there is a good percentage of divorced parents, so often the children split their lives after school with either of the parents. I’ve also had children come to me in tears when one or both of their parents have lost their job and they don’t know how to help. The children are the ones who suffer the consequences in these situations.”
Father Eric Lofgren, pastor of St. Joseph Parish since July 2009, says parishioners appreciate Sister Elisa “for who she is, what she has done, and what she has meant to our parish community all these years.
“She has a great sense of dedication, responsibility and love for the people and you can see it in her emotions. She has a strong will and determination to be successful, and she goes in the direction that the Holy Spirit is guiding her. She believes she’s in God’s hands and she will do what God has directed her to do, no matter what the ministry. She takes everything very seriously and doesn’t take the easy road.”
Passing on the faith isn’t always easy, Sister Elisa says, but it’s a neverending and heartfelt task. “I always remember and try to live the words my mother said long ago in Italy: ‘You do what you can, as much as you can. Everybody is necessary, but nobody is indispensable.’ We do what we can with the best intentions, with the love of God and everything in our ability.
“Our Catholic faith, if lived, affects the schools we attend, the place we work, the people we meet every day in our lives. We are the extended hands of God to spread his kingdom here on earth.”
Sister Elisa Grignoli, Canossian Sister, Religious educator serves multicultural community at St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln (Sacramento, California Diocese). This article was written by Julie Sly, photos by Cathy Joyce for the Catholic Herald Magazine of the Sacramento Diocese, January/February 2011 edition. Republished here with permission.