After she steps down as Director of the Office of Religious Education (ORE) for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast wants to take a sabbatical and visit places that have deep meaning for her: London (where she got her education certificate and was exposed to great art and museums), Boston College (where she received her Master’s Degree in Theology and met famed theologian Karl Rahner) and, of course, her Irish homeland.
“I want the land to lay fallow for a while,” she explains. “I need time to regenerate the fields.”
The metaphor is appropriate coming from the daughter of an Irish farmer who taught his six children the value of faith and action at an early age. For Sister Edith, it’s a faith that has challenged and nurtured her throughout the years. And it’s a faith she passionately wants to continue to share with others in a ministry that has included nearly 35 years of leadership in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
“It was my family who laid the foundation for my vocation,” she says, recalling praying the rosary with her mother Catherine and taking walks with her father, Richard. “I learned a lot from my father, he had a Celtic spiritualty of God in all things: the trees, plants, animals, us.”
Richard also taught her the power of charity. Often, the family home became a refuge for travelers or homeless who would knock on their door in the cold of winter looking for a place to spend the night. “We had an attic and they would stay the night and have breakfast with us the next morning,” she says. That experience paved the way for Sister Edith to later choose a vocation with the Sisters of Charity in 1959, taking a vow to serve the poor.
After her novitiate in Dublin, Sister Edith went to London to be trained as an educator, majoring in ecclesiastical art and divinity – two areas close to her heart that would become her unofficial ministerial themes, helping her bring people closer to God using the power of art, poetry and music. It was natural for Sister Edith to combine the two because as she says, “In the early years, catechism was done all through images. That was how people learned about their religion.”
Sister Edith had her first taste of the American school system in 1966, when she taught various grades in Southern California. The American system clashed with her English training. “In England we had color corners, art and all things to stimulate the students who worked in groups at tables,” she says, describing the straight lines of desks and empty walls of American classrooms of the time as “boring to students and teachers.”
Sister Edith believed then, as she does now, in experiential learning, a more tactile and personal exploration for students to grasp lessons. In this way, she would promote people taking active involvement in their education of and relationship with God.
“She was always in the heart of things, being in the right place at the right time,” says longtime friend Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, pastor at St. Monica Church in Santa Monica. This was particularly true for Sister Edith in the early 70s, when her religious community asked her to be involved in the formation process. She spent a year studying formation and how to become a spiritual director, a process she says “strengthened my own spiritual life.”
Upon her return, Sister Edith found challenges in the formation ministry because of the changes that Vatican II advocated. Many religious communities struggled internally on how to adapt and renew their commitments, a landscape which had to be navigated with sensitivity. These struggles deepened her, she says, and “hewed out a place in me to be non-judgmental and a good listener.”
Sister Edith next continued her education, enrolling as a graduate student in Boston College majoring in scripture. She would later return to parish work in Southern California.
By this time, Sister Edith had led many retreats, developing a creative and spiritual experience based on scripture that also included poetry. Her work caught the attention of Msgr. Torgerson, who was the associate ORE director at the time and who, after one interview with her, decided to offer her the position as the first youth ministry consultant.
“She has a great spirit for people and can see things in people that we can’t always see in ourselves,” he says. “We worked together on developing retreat programs for our Catholic schools and high schools as well as developing programs in youth ministry — it was the first time the archdiocese was involved in this outreach.”
From that platform, Sister Edith stepped up to duties as ORE associate director and was in charge of Youth Day for the Religious Education Congress, and then the entire Congress once she was named ORE director soon afterward.
Under her leadership, she expanded Congress, the largest gathering of Catholics in the nation, to reach a broad array of church ministries: social outreach, justice efforts and personal and human development, in addition to religious education and catechetical ministry. Multicultural workshops were added with a great emphasis on engaging Spanish-speaking communities. She was particularly involved in Youth Day, giving rousing and inspirational opening addresses.
“She took a great event and made it bigger and better. It is without question the best gathering anywhere in the world every year,” says Dan Mulhall, director of professional development and Hispanic ministry at RCL Benziger. “Only a papal visit might top it!”
“The liturgies are aesthetically appealing and create a sense of devotion and prayerfulness that cannot be expressed in words,” agrees Msgr. David Sork, pastor at St. John Fisher and former ORE director. “If anyone should have any doubt of the effectiveness of the reforms that came out of Vatican II, let them come to the Congress. The leadership of Sister Edith has made that happen.”
Overall, the influence of Congress has spread “beyond the shores” with similar gatherings in Ireland, Canada and England taking their cue from the Anaheim event.
In addition to shepherding Congress, Sister Edith expanded the nature of religious education, especially with the creation of the Bible Institute, an idea that was brought to her originally by Kay Murdy and Dorothy King, two laywomen. “It started like planting a seed that soon blossomed,” she says, pointing out that now the ORE commissions about 2,000 catechists and leaders (many of them young adults) at the annual ceremony.
“We want to form and inform adults without forgetting the children or the youth,” she explains. “Transforming lives, that’s our mission.”
All during her time at the archdiocese, her staff and colleagues have been enthusiastic about her leadership.
“She has a genuine respect for each person, and is able to bring forth their unique gifts,” says Jo Rotunno, publisher emerita of RCL Benziger, who worked with Sister Edith in various roles over the years. “If she had chosen a different path in life, we might be honoring her as a retiring CEO.”
“What I admire most in Sister Prendergast is her enthusiasm for the ministry, her commitment to make catechesis and youth ministry strong and viable in all the parishes,” says Maria Sedano, who served as her associate for more than 15 years.
“One of the most incredible gifts Sister ever gave me as one of her coworkers was the freedom to fail. I’m serious,” says Mike Norman, former associate director. “It is so empowering to have someone that supports you so completely. She has, in turn, helped me to become that kind of leader, as well.”
In addition to these duties in office, Sister Edith attended Claremont School of Theology, receiving a doctorate in ministry; served on the board of directors for the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (then National Conference of Diocesan Directors) to help increase lay involvement in spiritual formation and religious education and facilitated the International Consultation for Adult Religious Education, sharing stories and best practices with others across the globe.
Determined that people should be able to pursue a Master’s degree in Theology even if money is an issue, she set up her own endowment for laity. Every year, 12-15 people receive partial tuition scholarships toward their education which, in turn, they will share with others. “I think if you are passing on the faith, you have to have depth in yourself,” she explains.
Throughout all her many responsibilities, Sister Edith continues to participate in many catechetical and ecclesial events, often as an inspirational speaker and/or spiritual guide — a role she cherishes.
“I found that during Congress I had a forum during the opening talk, to get across my message, my vision and for people to know who I am and what makes me tick,” she says.
She takes a moment to recite the poem “The Avowal” by Denise Levertov. It sums up her strong faith, and perhaps also her faith journey that has brought her to this point in her ministry where the next step may be unknown, but nonetheless joyfully embraced.
"The Avowal"As swimmers dareto lie face to the skyand water bears them,as hawks rest upon airand air sustains them,so would I learn to attainfreefall, and floatinto Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,knowing no effort earnsthat all-surrounding grace.