“Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission — to be of service to them whenever they require it.” – St. Francis of Assisi
Sister Eileen Connelly remembers the one-word prayer she uttered the day she was running errands, left her car door open for a moment and watched as a cat dashed across the street and jumped inside: “Seriously?”
Cats are not, by a long shot, the Ursuline Sisters of Cincinnati nun’s vocation. She is devoted to God, her religious order and serving others as news editor of the Catholic Telegraph and in various volunteer roles. Still, cats’ appearances in her life have been more providential than incidental.
There was the cold, rainy Ash Wednesday when a skinny stray appeared from beneath the car next to hers seeking human help. There was the Good Friday when an injured Siamese turned up in the midst of a colony of feral cats she feeds. Or the Holy Thursday a call from a neighbor reported a hungry stray eating out of garbage cans.
Cats — their coats covered in ice — have emerged before her on the street on sub-freezing days. They’ve turned up hungry at her front door. “It’s not like I go out looking for cats. They find me,” says the nun, who keeps a statue of St. Francis of Assisi at her front door. “There are times I wonder how the heck I ever got involved in this because it’s not something I ever imagined doing. I find myself asking, ‘Why me?’” But then a stray or injured cat turns up needing help, and the question quickly becomes, “Why not me?” Every day she uses her lunch hour or stops on her way to work to feed street cats, devoting more of her salary to cat food than to her own needs. “It’s just a matter of prioritization,” she says. Through the services of Ohio Alley cat Resource where she volunteers, she’s made sure the feral cats have had medical treatment and been neutered or spayed.
She’s been a foster caregiver to dozens of rescued cats that needed socialization before they were ready for adoption. The spare bedroom she thought would hold nieces and nephews or friends has instead been temporary shelter for Snickers, Danny Boy, Sugar, Asher and Frankie - named, of course, for St. Francis. Meanwhile, she has trapped and rescued more than 100 strays from her neighborhood and the feral cob- fly she unofficially oversees, either having them spayed or neutered and releasing them or helping them find homes.
It all sounds much easier than it’s actually been. Needy cats have a habit of appearing at the least convenient moment, the Holy Thursday cat being a case in point. “I remember driving home thinking how much I was looking forward to a reflective Good Friday and Easter and didn’t want anything to complicate that,” she says. Instead, Lacey the stray was waiting to be rescued. That she died a few months later from multiple health problems mad her rescue only that much more meaningful.
Earning the trust of a terrified street cat — which car take Connelly as long as two years – is her chief reward. But just as poignant is being part of a circle of volunteers who stay with an injured or ill animal during its final moments. “To be present with a human or an animal in the process of losing its life — oh, gosh, it’s an honor to be part of that,” says the nun, who has been a hospice volunteer. “Some cats were in such bad shape they had to be put to sleep, but at least they didn’t die alone. They had people there who cared.”
But she’s cautious about to whom she says such things. Cats are neither a vocation nor an obsession for her, nor can she be a depository for any more of them. But she knows, as cats keep singling her out that they are creatures she is called to serve.
“I think of a song we sing that says, ‘We are called to feed the hungry at our door.’ I can’t say for sure that God wants me to help cats, but when one runs across the street and jumps into my car?” She shrugs and smiles in resignation. “How else can I view that?”
By Krista Ramsey (I give voice to people whose stories matter but are seldom told. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.) The Enquirer, November 15, 2013 Page C4