After turning 50, Sister Chala changed her life. She joined a 100-year-old order of nuns in Harlem and has served the poor for 14 years.
Turning 50 prompts some people to start dreaming of retirement. Others may imagine a second career or a moving to a vacation spot year round. Sister Chala Marie Hill felt a different calling. She wanted to become a nun.
Around her 50th birthday, Sister Chala, a widow, was washing the dishes in her kitchen and looking outside of her window, when she had this very strong feeling. “I felt like I was watching my first 50 years of life,” she tells Guideposts.org. I thought, ‘My first 50 years was for man. My next 50 years will be for God.”
Still, the Caribbean native and lifelong Catholic wasn’t sure just how her service to God would manifest. She’d been a social worker in New York City for years in a homecare agency in quality assurance. Though faith wasn’t directly involved, she’d always dedicated her life to serving others, ever since her family moved to New York in 1923.
“Growing up, I strayed away from the Church, but I always had faith. I got married, had children and grandchildren and was practicing my faith ‘cafeteria style’: I’ll take some of this, some of that. But my friends, people around me, could see that I had an anointing."
At work, when people were arguing, Sister Chala could calm people down just by placing a hand on their shoulders.
“I didn’t hear God’s call too well at first, but other people would notice the effect I had, that I was peaceful and joyful and wanted to share the joy of the Lord with others. They’d ask me, ‘Have you ever thought about being a nun?’”
Sister Chala put the thought from her mind because at the time there was an age-limit for becoming a nun set at below 45 years old for the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary (FHM) . Some orders of nuns didn't want women with children, even if the children are adults, thinking that mothers will always have to put the needs of their children above any needs a nun must serve. At the time Sister Chala was over 50 years old, with children and grandchildren. She decided to become involved in other activities in her Harlem, New York, church, such as street ministry, or sidewalk counseling.
Still, she would see sisters from FHM around Harlem and appreciate their ministry. The FHM, located on 124th between 5th Avenue and Lenox Avenue, is one of only three African American orders of nuns in the country.
Created in Savannah, Georgia in 1916 as a result of segregationist laws that banned White religious leaders from educating or providing pastoral care to Black people, FHM continues to provide care to the poor in Black communities 100 years later. In 1923, the same year Sister Chala moved to New York, FHM relocated to Harlem and launched one of the first preschool programs in the country.
“I would see the sisters and talk with them from time to time,” Sister Chala says. “I admired them very much for their ministry with the poor in Harlem. All of those things attracted me to this order because I was a social worker. I just felt like it was the place for me. Somewhere in my mind I had this feeling that I would one day be living in Harlem with them.”
In 2002, Sister Chala called and met with FHM's vocation director to express her interest in being a nun. As is customary, she also wrote a letter expressing her interest in being considered as a candidate. During her 9-month candidacy period, she lived with the sisters but continued to work as a social worker, helping out at FHM where she could. After her candidacy was over, in 2003, she wrote another letter expressing her continued interest in becoming a nun. She resigned from her job and entered into formal training as a novice. On October 16, 2010, after FHM's 8-year formation period from candidacy to final vows, Sister Chala became a nun.
“I would definitely be called an exception,” Sister Chala says of becoming a nun later in life. But she’s convinced her social worker background prepared her for ministry.
“The nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Social workers are never going to make a lot of money and you have to follow so many rules,” she laughs.
In addition to caring for the senior sisters in their independent living center, Kittay House, Sister Chala and the other sisters feed the hungry and provide clothing to those in need, including Christmas gifts and toys for children. For the past 100 years, the sisters have operated the St. Edward Food Pantry, serving more than 20,000 families a year. They have also led several preventative care medical missions to Nigeria, serving about 2,000 people per mission since 2000. To celebrate their centennial of service, the sisters initiated 100 Days of Kindness, asking people too commit an act of kindness a day until April 17. Sister Chala is also informally know as the "House Mommy" for the sisters in her house, "serving the sisters and making sure all is well with them," she says.
“I come to ministry with a clear understanding of human development and psychology," says Sister Chala, explaining why her social worker background is essential to her ministry. That work has given her an awareness of "some of the systemic challenges that many of my brothers and sisters have to deal with, like the impact of the neighborhood you live in and affordable housing on your chances of going to college, of having good health and access to health care."
“I come with the understanding that not everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Depending on who they are and how they look, people are held back and restricted and they find life very challenging getting ahead. I understand the intricacies and the layerings of how things work. So I think that helps with ministry.”