Sincerely caring about others sometimes requires stepping out of our comfort zone. It means out-of-the-box thinking and risk-taking, the very virtues that have built great Franciscan ministries worldwide.
“Every story you hear about the beginnings of our community is about people going out on a limb and not knowing how it’s going to end,” said Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel, OSF, Program Manager of the Franciscan Adult Day Center. “The Sisters became successful because we set out what we intended to do. Taking risks were not uncommon at the time.”
Sister Norberta has always been a natural risk-taker. She needed to be adaptable and fearless growing up because her father set up plants for Chrysler Corporation, requiring her family to uproot and relocate every few years. After spending the first seven years of her life in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where her mom worked as a registered nurse in a hospital, her family was always on the move.
She spent most of her time in public schools, but Sister Norberta said she kept losing credit for high school courses, so she convinced her parents to be a boarder at a convent school while she was a junior, so that she could finish up high school.
An Encounter with the Sisters
Sister Norberta received more than she asked for. She was able to graduate a year ahead of schedule. More importantly, she had an opportunity to experience the Sisters of St. Francis firsthand.
“The single most important thing was that the Sisters were joyful and happy people and that ‘s what drew me to them,” Sister Norberta recalls.
She considered becoming a s Sister because she “wanted to make a difference in the world and thought being a Franciscan might help me do that.”
Her family did not take that well, even though both of her parents were Catholic. “I did not tell my mother that I graduated early and she was looking forward to me walking down the aisle with cap and gown.”
Stepping Out of Her Comfort Zone
Sister Norberta spent nearly eight years in Syracuse, but eventually was transferred to Hoboken.
“It was my first experience in the inner city. They were having a lot of riots at the time, so it was kind of an exciting time,” said Sister Norberta, who served as teacher for the seventh and eighth grades. “At first I hated it. The heat, the smells, and the kids sat on top of one another, all very close together. I absolutely hated it, but by December of that year, I was falling in love with the children and spent the next 35 years in Hoboken doing a variety of things, so I obviously I loved it.”
She was transferred to South America for a while and returned back to New York to teach at an Italian school. “After learning Spanish, I was put in an Italian school,” she laughed.
From Teaching to Community Organizer
Sensing the need to reach out to those with housing issues, Sister Norberta eventually switched her ministry from teaching to working at a shelter to support those without a place to call home.
“There were lots of arson. We had some 250 people in a mile square city die from the arson attacks, and 46 of those were children,” said Sister Norberta, who was one of the founding members of the Hoboken Clergy Coalition to address the homelessness resulting from arson incidents.
Since she had to earn a salary, Sister Norberta worked in the school cafeteria, while she did the housing organizing. She persevered for the next 25 years, working in a new shelter formed by the Hoboken Clergy Coalition in the basement of a Lutheran Church.
One day, the local welfare agency contacted Sister Norberta about a woman who had two young children who needed shelter. Since the shelter was only for adults, the woman’s son and daughter were placed in foster care.
“The mother was this little tiny women, who must have weighed all of 75 pounds and didn’t speak a word of English. She only spoke Cantonese and Fang, both languages of China,” she said.
“I knew she couldn’t survive the shelter life, so I uncharacteristically invited her home. She had a lot of issues. She had gone through some very traumatic, awful things and she became quite emotionally and mentally ill,” Sister Norberta said. The women’s children would visit the mom on weekends. When the woman was hospitalized for a year, Sister Norberta would pick up the children from their foster home to visit their mom in the hospital.
Becoming a Foster Parent
“Finally, the children said, ‘Please, won’t you be our foster parent?’” Sister Norberta prayed about it and asked for advice from her friend, Sister Agnelle (Geraldine) Ching.
“I have this problem. I have two kids,” she recalled telling Sister Geraldine. “I would after the fact tell the community.” Someone would take care of them during the day, and Sister Norberta would take care of them during the night. She ended up taking care of the two children, who were 11 and 12 at the time, for the next six years.
“I grew to know what single parenting was all about and how to manage teenagers,” Sister Norberta said.
Today their mom is out of the hospital and living in a supervised situation. Both children graduated from high school, attended college and are actively employed.
Being Open to Learning from Others
Sister Norberta said she has wanted to be of service to others and to be open to new experiences. She said many times what she learned has come from homeless people.
“I got off the path train by Macy’s all dressed up in my habit down to my ankles, with the big veil and so forth. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this older lady and she kept following me. I thought, she’s going to ask me for a handout. I was walking faster and she was walking faster. I was getting ready to say, ‘I don’t have any money,’ but she said, ‘Here sister take this money and say a prayer for us.’ Help comes from unlikely places.”
Words of Wisdom
Sister Norberta, who has been serving as Program Manager for the Franciscan Adult Day Center since March 2013 retired from that position in late February 2016. She shares advice for the St. Francis Healthcare System: “No matter what position you hold in the healthcare system, you should spend time with the people you serve so that you have the resources and people to emulate.”