Answering God’s Call: Song spurred ‘God-sent moment’ for future Dominican sister
By Tim Puet
Catholic Times Reporter
Sister Robin Richard, OP, credits Simon and Garfunkel with a significant role in her decision to enter the religious life.
“Their song Bridge Over Troubled Water lifted me out of a sense of darkness at a time when that was most needed,” said Sister Robin, who has been on the staff of the Dominican Learning Center in Columbus since 2009.
“I had a slipped disc in my back and was in such pain that I barely could pick up the telephone,” she said. “Then one day, I heard that song, with the words ‘I’m on your side when darkness comes and pain is all around,’ followed by ‘Sail on, silver girl. Your time has come.’ All I can say was that, at that point, I had a God-sent moment.
“I sensed that those lyrics were a message from God. In an instant, I felt an immediate sense of hope. The darkness I was feeling lifted, and from that moment, I began to get stronger physically and spiritually.
“My mother and grandmother and an aunt were in Fatima on a pilgrimage at that time, and the next day, I found out that mom had gone to the shrine at Fatima to pray for me at a time that was early in the morning in Portugal and would have been about the time I heard that song. I don’t think that was a coincidence,” she said.
At that point in her life, Sister Robin, a New Orleans native, was a layperson and was in the midst of a nine-year period of teaching French at Ursuline Academy elementary school in her hometown. She said she had begun to discern the possibility of entering the religious life when she was in 10th grade, “but I had put it on the back burner for several years – a time I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
“If you have a serious vocation, God will come knocking again, and that’s what happened to me,” she said. “After this experience with the song, a Dominican sister called to ask if I would be interested in taking part in a ‘come and see’ weekend of prayer and discussion at her motherhouse for women trying to discern their vocation. I had declined the invitation several times before, but this time I accepted, and I think it surprised her almost as much as it surprised me.
“I was so deeply moved during the weekend that I knew it was not a question of where I would enter if I decided to become a sister, but if I would enter. Many women who become sisters attend ‘come and sees’ with several orders before deciding on one, but I felt an immediate connection with the Dominicans and felt that if I did join the order, it would be like coming home.”
After 22 more months of discernment as a lay Dominican affiliate, she entered the Dominican Congregation of St. Mary in New Orleans in August 1986. She took her first vows in August 1989 and her final vows seven years later. The time between her first and final vows was longer than the usual three to six years because her father died during that period.
Her congregation in New Orleans, along with the Columbus-based Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs and five other congregations, came together on Easter Sunday 2009 to form the Dominican Sisters of Peace and later were joined by another congregation.
Sister Robin, 65, graduated from St. Mary’s Dominican High School in New Orleans and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tulane University in 1977, a Master of Pastoral Studies degree from Loyola University in New Orleans in 1991 and a Master of Education degree with specialties in English as a Second Language (ESL) and adult education in 1996 from the University of New Orleans (UNO).
She taught Spanish and French at her high school alma mater from 1988 to 1993, and then was involved with the ESL program of the Archdiocese of New Orleans for 13 years.
“My ministry has evolved as part of the movement of the Holy Spirit in myself and in the Church,” she said. “When I made my profession of vows, I felt a specific calling to teach ESL for adults. In New Orleans, I was involved with Pax Christi, a justice movement ministering to the marginalized, and realized that I love languages, I love culture, and what better way to use that God-given gift of language than to share it with those who need it to survive?
“There wasn’t an ESL position available in New Orleans at the time, so I taught and became involved with youth ministry at my former high school. Then, all of a sudden, an ESL position opened up with the Hispanic apostolate of the archdiocese. When I learned I had been accepted for the job, I was standing in front of the education building at UNO and I remember saying, ‘Thank you, God!’ I was so happy that my burning desire had been fulfilled. I just had to wait on God’s time.”
Sister Robin evacuated from New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. She spent six weeks at a convent in Houston before she could return to start rebuilding her old ESL program at a new site. The original location was damaged by the flooding caused by Katrina.
“Katrina traumatized everyone who lived through it,” she said. “The recent Gulf Coast hurricane brought back a lot of memories, not just of the loss of buildings but of the layers of loss and all the steps that had to be taken to rebuild.”
About a year after Katrina struck, Sister Robin moved to Chicago, where she was on the staff of the Aquinas Literacy Center, a ministry of the Adrian (Michigan) Dominicans, a separate Dominican order. She came to Columbus and the Dominican Sisters of Peace in 2009, shortly after the Dominican Learning Center was founded.
“The center was looking for an assistant director for its ESL program. It was an ideal position for me,” she said. “I’ve been here for 11 years, and in that time, the center has taught thousands of ESL learners with the help of hundreds of volunteers. We never could do what we do without the volunteers.”
Until mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic caused most public life in Ohio to come to a stop, ESL classes were conducted at the learning center or at schools, libraries or other public buildings, mostly on a one-to-one basis. Sister Robin said there were about 110 student-teacher pairs for the classes, with another 250 to 300 learners being taught English in group classes at five diocesan parishes.
COVID-19 halted all of that for about two months, until the center’s ESL classes began to resume via the Zoom videoconferencing system.
“COVID is hard for all of us. It’s caused a level of anxiety that I compare with the kind of concern that occurs in New Orleans whenever a hurricane may occur,” Sister Robin said. “People who haven’t lived through a hurricane couldn’t have understood this feeling before, but we’re all living through the same sort of thing now. It calls for a level of patience we’re not used to. We just have to recognize we’re in a holding pattern and have to wait on developments and follow the health guidelines we’ve been given.”
Besides her position with the learning center, Sister Robin also is involved with her congregation’s recently opened House of Welcome on Columbus’ east side. The house serves as a residence for women in the formation process of becoming sisters and is open to other sisters, neighbors, women deciding whether to enter the congregation and anyone else who wants to stop in for prayer, conversation and food. “We’re a revolving door for prayer, dinner and hospitality,” Sister Robin said.
“All are welcome to the house. Just let us know you’re coming,” she said. “And there’s a great need right now for more ESL tutors who can teach via Zoom and other types of technology. I love working with our volunteers because their lives have been blessed. If you want to give back to the community, volunteering for the learning center provides a wonderful opportunity.”
For more information, contact Sister Robin at RRichard@oppeace.org.