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Faith is not easy to come by for everyone. It is often earned through suffering and the persistent act of facing fear, doubt and heartbreaking challenges. Sister Judith Terrameo's journey has not been an easy one, but the faith, joy and compassion she exudes in her life and her work belie the obstacles she has overcome.
Educational and professional achievement were once goals that Sister Judith thought were out of her reach. As a child and young adult, she struggled to learn and did not do well in school.
However, Sister Judith was blessed with patient, compassionate sisters who taught her in elementary school and lovingly encouraged her in spite of her struggles.
"The sisters were always so patient with me," she said. "If I had difficulty understanding something, they would take the time to explain it. And in my early years, I thought, 'Gee, I'd like to be like that someday.'"
She never forgot these lessons in kindness and has used them as her guiding principle throughout life.
Raised in Niagara Falls by Italian-American Catholic parents, Sister Judith belonged to St. Joseph's parish (now Holy Family). She and her family attended weekly Mass and confession, and she was educated at Catholic schools.
Although she was introduced to faith at a young age, she lacked loving, emotional support at home.
"My mother would get on my case and yell at me and tell me I was never going to amount to anything," she said. "When I didn't do well in school, she would start hitting me and pulling my hair. And if I got up from the table, she would poke a knife at my stomach and tell me to get back."
Sister Judith's academic struggles plagued her throughout the years she was preparing to become a sister and in her first year of college. Because of this, her religious community told her she would be a domestic sister, taking care of the housekeeping, cooking and laundry.
Motivated by this disappointment, she said, "I spent the next 25 years of my religious life proving myself to everybody and it was difficult."
Academics were not her only challenge. In 1967, at the age of 18, she entered the convent with 17 women, but only three made their final profession together. By 1975, the other two had left. Since that time, she's been the only sister remaining from her class.
"People asked me, 'Are you stupid or are you stubborn?' because so many sisters had left," she said. "So I was really struggling with my vocation."
In the 1980s, while still struggling with doubts about her intelligence and leadership abilities, Sister Judith turned to alcohol. But in 1994, she entered treatment and followed the 12-step program, which helped her not only become sober, but also deepened her spirituality. She has now been sober for 21 years.
Throughout her life, there were signs that spoke to Sister Judith and buoyed her along her faith journey—from the sisters who helped her in school to surprising turns of events and prayerful inspiration.
In high school, Judith and her friends would go to dances at the neighboring boys' school. During senior year, she was repeatedly drawn to the large crucifix in the gym and she got the sense that there was something more she wanted to do.
At that time, she was dating a young man in college who asked her to marry him, and she said, "No. I'm becoming a sister!" Her response was as much of a surprise to her and her family as it was to the young man.
"In that moment, saying no to him and saying I was becoming a sister was a revelation to me, too," she said.
Years later, as she struggled with her vocation, she prayed at the grotto at St. Bonaventure University. Shortly thereafter, she attended a presentation where a slide image of her came up with the voiceover saying, "You have not chosen me. But I have chosen you." (John 15:16) Yet another sign.
Sister Judith did indeed prove herself. Not only did she earn a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in education administration, but she was also recognized for academic excellence at St. Bonaventure.
When called to serve, she did so with grace, compassion and a strong sense of social justice. She began by championing the early education of African-American children when she served as a preschool director in St. Petersburg, Florida.
While working there, she noticed the secretary tearing up a form in front of a father because he had filled it out wrong. She invited the father into her office, helped him fill out the form, and talked with him awhile.
After he left, she told the secretary, "I will never see that again as long as I'm the director here. We are to respect everyone."
Sister Judith explained, "I have great fondness for the people I've fought on behalf of. They have deep faith. And I think that's because they've suffered. They walk with the Lord and the Lord walks with them."
She went on to teach grade school in Florida and New York; taught middle school in New Jersey; then became principal of Blessed Sacrament in Utica, New York. In each of her assignments, she helped students who struggled with learning as she had.
In one instance, she recalled a sixth-grade teacher who had nine students and was going to fail three of them. She looked at the tests the teacher was giving and noticed that many questions were worth 30 points, so if a student was struggling with one question, they would fail.
She told the teacher, "You're not going to fail these kids. You're going to do remediation with them." And she's happy to report that one of those students is a psychologist today.
She was later invited to join St. Francis's parish in the heart of Utica's inner city. She was tasked with serving as chaplain at the nearby psychiatric center where she taught Bible studies and ministered to the mentally ill—once again championing the cause of the suffering.
Sister Judith currently serves as chaplain at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston, New York, where she ministers to patients and their loved ones. She spends every Thursday at the hospital's clinic for the poor, attending to their spiritual needs, as well as helping them cope with everything from domestic abuse to accessing available services. She calls it "waiting room spirituality" and is deeply moved by the struggles and faith of those she meets.
In December, Sister Judith will complete her Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry at Christ the King Seminary (CKS). She is also in the process of becoming board certified as a Catholic chaplain.
"My studies at Christ the King Seminary have helped me be more knowledgeable about my faith and explain our doctrines in a more intellectual manner," she said. "So when people ask, 'What does this mean in the Catholic church?' I can be confident in explaining the theology."
Sister Judith likes the diversity of learning and doing field work in the community with a variety of students at CKS.
She said, "Being in class with seminarians, deacons and lay people has helped broaden my own views, and I can see that we're all here for the same thing: the kingdom of God."
As she completes her second master's degree, Sister Judith looks forward to continuing her path of lifelong learning in future classes at CKS.