Strength through service

Jill Underdahl
Sister Jill Underdahl celebrates a butterfly release in the same garden with her goddaughter, Nora.

The good Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have been a fixture in St. Paul for 168 years and now, and although their numbers are shrinking, their resolve and influence to support their community is as strong as ever.

Recently the sisters held their annual Carondelet Gala at the Minneapolis Hilton. More than 500 guests showed up to mingle, drink, dine, dance and bid on auction items, raising more than $300,000 — the most successful gala ever. The funds support seven ministry programs, including a school for adult immigrants, health clinics for the uninsured and a shelter for women.

Over the decades, the sisters have been nurses and healers, educators, builders, gardeners, administrators, poets, artists and social justice activists. They’re still active in running Carondelet Village, a premier assisted living facility with Presbyterian Homes & Services.

I’m on the community’s waiting list because I have a feeling the sisters would be good company in my old age. I got to know one of the sisters when we served together on the board of CommonBond, which provides affordable housing.

Students from St. Kate’s
Students from St. Kate’s and supporters of the Sisters build a community garden in St. Paul.

A legacy built to last?

Mary Heinen, who died a few years ago at age 81, joined the sisters’ St. Paul province when she was still a teenager. We sat next to each other at board meetings and I soon discovered she was feisty, fearless and funny. She’d smile and poke me in the ribs when some “suit” was giving a long-winded speech.

She always spoke up for single mothers, senior citizens and struggling families. She knew, perhaps better than anyone at the table, that the path to progress started with a place to call home.

Mary’s legacy is now in the hands of 150 local sisters, down from more than 1,250 in 1950.

But encouraging signs abound. The newest sister took her first vows this year and Sister Jill Underdahl, one of the youngest and more recent additions, took her final vows in 2006.

Underdahl — a 1988 Hopkins High School graduate, who got her bachelor’s degree in English from the College of St. Catherine — got up close with the Sisters of St. Joseph on a two-week field trip to Selma, Alabama. It was more than a civil rights’ history lesson.

“I loved being a part of a community, doing meaningful work and being in the rhythm of contemplation,” Underdahl said. “I told one of the sisters, ‘You know, I think I want to be a Sister of St. Joseph.’”

Undaunted and unafraid

Now Sister Underdahl, along with a “civilian” partner, runs the young adult spirituality program. One of the projects is planning, planting and tending a community garden — growing healthy food, using organic methods and distributing the harvest to those with the greatest need.

“We’re working with the laity, introducing them to the sisters and their work, building a sense of community with each other and
a spiritual connection to the earth,” she said.

The garden is almost a year-round project, growing plants from seeds and collaborating with students at St. Kate’s in their environmental studies, where the garden becomes kind of a laboratory.

Sister Underdahl has embraced the changing nature of the religious life for nuns across the globe. She is undaunted and unafraid.

“Yes, we are sisters,” she said, “But we are also part of what is needed in this world. We are in relationships with a great many, with people who are willing to be partners in service. That gives us strength.”

What I admire about the sisters — of St. Joseph in St. Paul and Visitation Monastery in Minneapolis — is that they seek out lay people, including a Prodigal Son like me who, at this stage of his life, simply wants to be a part of doing the right thing.

You can get to know the sisters this fall at Septemberfest with live music, food and more in St. Paul on Sept. 5:


What: Septemberfest, now in its fifth year, features live music, food trucks and craft beer, plus a chance to celebrate community and meet the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

When: 5–8 p.m. Sept. 5 (rain or shine)

Where: Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul

Cost: Admission is FREE.


Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].