by Marna Persechini
Sister Nancy Braceland was born and raised in Newton, Massachusetts where she attended public school from the first grade through high school. Of this experience, she said, “As a young girl, I could not have even begun to imagine that my life would develop the way it has.” A large number of people were (and still are) puzzled as to how a young woman educated in the public school system ended up as a member of the community of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Sister stated, “It must have started in the home where I grew up. Both my parents were extremely active in the community. They not only encouraged, but also expected me and my seven siblings not only to become involved, but also to actively participate in all community activities and events.”
After graduating from Newton High School, Sister Nancy attended Framingham State College, later acquiring a Masters Degree in English from Boston College. It was while she was in college that she became acquainted with the Sisters of Saint Joseph and made the life-changing decision to become a member of the Order and to dedicate her life to missionary service.
In 1955 Sister Nancy became a CSJ and began teaching at a parochial school in Swampscott. Following this teaching stint, she spent one year at Saint Catherine in Charlestown, one of her favorite places because, as she says, “I really and truly enjoyed working with the families in the projects there.” The next stop was a teaching position in the North End, where, as she put it, “I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I dearly loved it there.” The North End was followed by a one-year stay at Sacred Heart in Roslindale and then on to Mount Saint Joseph for the seven years from 1968 to 1975.
At that point in time, Sister Nancy decided that she had gone as far as she could in the teaching field and wanted to pursue her first love, missionary work. She spent the next eight years in Peru working with The Saint James Society, doing outreach and missionary work in the community.
When a family crisis occurred, precipitated by several deaths among her relatives, Sister Nancy felt that she needed to return to the States to be near her loved ones. She took a position at Our Lady of Lourdes and worked with the Hispanic community for almost 22 years. The crisis in her family having eased somewhat, Sister Nancy decided to spend the next eight months in Missouri, helping to reorganize and reorder a parish disrupted by a farm crisis in the state.
Missouri was followed by fourteen years in Nashua, New Hampshire working with Hispanic immigrants, welcoming them to the parish and helping them to adjust to their new country, new home and a completely new language.
In 1997, when the community of the Sisters of Saint Joseph was planning the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the Order in Boston, they decided that they wanted to create something of a more permanent nature in a culturally and ethnically diverse Boston neighborhood populated with a large number of immigrants. The idea for Casserly House was born. It was named after Mother Mary Regis Casserly, the founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston.
Sister Nancy, who had been thinking of returning home, was one of the Sisters who volunteered for the daunting task of creating a living presence in the Roslindale neighborhood that would further foster the unity of the people with their God and the unity of the people with one another. Casserly House fulfilled all her dreams and ambitions. She was being both a missionary (reaching out to help people and bringing them into the community) and a sister serving in and giving back to the community where she lived.
The dream of Casserly House became a reality in 2000 with the purchase of a triple-decker house on Stellman Road in Roslindale that provides both ministry and living space for five Sisters of Saint Joseph. At Casserly House, they provide that living presence and service to the neighborhood. The Sisters in residence are: Nancy Braceland, full-time staff at Casserly House; Mary Ann Doyle, who has a part-time position at the Archdiocese and a part-time position at Casserly House; Deirdre Griffin, who works as a lawyer at The Massachusetts Board of Medicine; Sister Olga Viasus who works as a nurse at the Kit Clark Center; and Sister Charlotte Gulino who is at Cathedral High School.
Sister Nancy began her ministry in Roslindale in 2000 by attending various neighborhood events and community meetings, the objective being to get to know the neighbors and the Roslindale neighborhood and to introduce them to the idea of Casserly House. She started to meet activists, and service providers who were involved in the local scene. Becoming acquainted with Cathy Slade, who is the director of Healthy Roslindale, a Crime Watch organizer, and the leader of the Rossie Reps, Sister Nancy willingly plunged right into community activities.
Sister is now on the Advisory Board for Healthy Roslindale and sits on the Domestic Violence Committee; she serves on the Roslindale Adult Literacy Planning Board and on the Roslindale Planning and Rezoning Advisory Committee, along with the Roslindale Youth Providers Network and Healthy Roslindale. Sister Nancy is also a very active member of Neighbors Together (consisting of members from Archdale Housing, Archdale Community Center, Temple VietNam, Florence Apartments, and Casserly House).
Since October 2005, the Sisters at Casserly House have organized and participated in the following activities, among others: Thanksgiving Prayer for Neighbors (a prayer service which at least 32 people attended); sharing Thanksgiving food from MSJA and Fontbonne Academy with neighbors; a Christmas party for the adult students at Casserly House; and a children’s Christmas party in collaboration with Walnut Park School, Sacred Heart School, the Boston Police, Regis College, and the Watertown Police.
They have also taken part in the CDC Annual Meeting, a Youth Scavenger Hunt in Roslindale, and the Domestic Violence Vigil in Adams Park for the third year in a row. Sister Nancy is always seen at other Roslindale annual events, including the Christmas Tree Lighting, the Easter Egg Hunt, and the Annual Spring Clean-up, now called “Boston Shines,” but formerly known as “Broom to Bloom.”
The majority of Sister Nancy’s time is, of course, spent at Casserly House where she works with immigrant adults and children who speak little or no English and whose educational levels vary. Casserly House has a tutorial program with computer-assisted aids enabling students to progress at their own pace and accommodate different work schedules. Students are also helped with preparing for the citizenship exam or and are assisted in learning to negotiate the legal, immigration, medical and/or educational system in Boston.
Volunteers who help with the programs come from Regis College, Fontbonne Academy, and Mount Saint Joseph Academy. Retired teachers and novice nuns also help. ESOL students at Casserly House come from at least fifteen different countries, including: Haiti, The Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Argentina, Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru, Honduras, Togo, Cameron, Guinea, Sierra Leon, Brazil, Ukraine, and Albania.
The after-school program at Casserly House offers a unique place for students in grades one through eight to come and complete their homework. Students from local area high schools, including Catholic Memorial, serve as the tutors and mentors. Access to the Internet and other educational resources that are not available in the participants’ homes help foster consistency and academic success.
Casserly House also offers a two-week summer program. A theme is chosen, and participants explore that theme, while at the same time developing computer, reading and craft skills. As with all other programs at the House, there is a waiting list for participation.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph in Boston funded Casserly House for five years. Now that those five years are up, the Sisters at the House will need to start fund-raising. A large portion of Sister Nancy’s time will be dedicated to finding the necessary funds to ensure that Casserly House continues to be a living presence of service to the neighborhood and the larger community of Roslindale.
In the meantime, as Sister Nancy Braceland herself puts it, “I’m exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do, teaching and serving the community. It is missionary work as it should be and at its best. I am blessed. Everyone should be so blessed.”
To which we add our sentiments that every community should be as blessed as Roslindale is in having these devoted Sisters living and working in our midst.