Sister Judy Birgen
Sister Judy Birgen is passionate about helping people who hunger for food.
“When I read the Gospel, it’s not just about feeling good about helping people. It’s about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. I do it because of who I am. If you say you’re going to be living the Gospel of Jesus, that means helping to make the world a more just place, more of a place where people have what they need,” Sister Judy said.
So, how does she help? How does she live the Gospel?
She was the founder of the Illinois Hunger Coalition. She traveled the state with another community organizer, building momentum to help those in need. “That’s the only way Hands Across America would cut loose with state money,” she said.
She and two other principal researchers recently finished a major study on food security in northeast Illinois. Before that, she ministered with Catholic Charities in parishes with food cooperatives and food pantries. And in August, she will travel to Uganda as a Fulbright scholar where she will teach at Uganda Martyrs University to help establish a social science program. In addition, she will carry out research focused on educational resilience among AIDS orphans who manage to stay in high school.
Her determination to assist those in need also spurred her own education. Years ago, she was among people interviewed by researchers from the University of Chicago about homelessness. She and others offered some suggestions.
“When their study came out, and it was a very well known study, it said there were no unaccompanied homeless children. They had grossly underestimated the numbers because of their methodology. I was really frustrated,” Sister Judy noted.
So, after being contacted for reaction by the Chicago Tribune, she did some of her own research, which was published in the newspaper and, eventually, disregarded by state leaders. She believed the reason the governor of Illinois depended upon the researchers’ information was because they were doctors of philosophy from a university. Sister Judy went to work on her own doctorate in sociology, which she now holds.
“I wanted to have the kind of credentials and resources that could make a difference in terms of policy. One cut in food stamps means hundreds or thousands of children go to bed hungry, or seniors or other folks,” she said. “It might feel good to hand out bags of food, but it is policy that really makes a difference.”
And, then, her passion resurfaces as she recalls her days in parish ministry.
“I would always worry about the little kids who would come in and be excited to see a bag of groceries. Little kids should not be excited to see a bag of groceries. They should take it for granted. When I see little kids who are excited about food, it’s like this is not a good sign. Nobody should be hungry. That’s not rocket science,” she said.
“I don’t believe in handing out a bag of food with one hand and patting yourself on the back with the other. I do believe in finding out what’s underneath it. In this country, people aren’t hungry because there’s no food, they are hungry because they don’t have the resources to get it. You want to learn about what’s going on in their lives so maybe this doesn’t have to happen again,” she emphasized. “You have to try to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice. Because of my education, my opportunities, I think I can do that in some areas. I can help the system work for people.”
Among the opportunities that presented themselves to her, Sister Judy counts her membership with the Sisters of Providence as what she needed in her life.
“My decision to enter the community wasn’t an all-at-once kind of decision. It was something that crossed my mind. I played with it, talked to people about it. Eventually, after a lot of dead ends, the Sisters of Providence seemed to be the place where I would fit,” Sister Judy said.
“I am sort of a pragmatic person. It is important to me that there is diversity in ministry. I couldn’t see myself doing the same thing my whole life. It is also important to me that they are located across the country, not just in one place. I liked the different personalities. These are not people who are all the same.”
Sister Judy grew up in California with six siblings in a “hard-core Catholic family.” Daily mass was a way of life. The family prayed the rosary around her parents’ bed. And her parents were determined to make sure all the Birgen children received a Catholic education.
During her annual retreat in her senior year of high school, Sister Judy realized that “this was the last time a retreat experience would be handed to me. If my life, my faith, my relationship with God was going to grow, it would be my choice. It was really on our retreat that it seriously crossed my mind that maybe I should think about being a sister,” she remembered.
She first met the Sisters of Providence when she served as a counselor for a summer camp for girls in California. By the time she finished college, she had thought about a number of religious communities, but decided to look seriously at the Sisters of Providence.
Her reliance on prayer in different periods of her earlier life is still with Sister Judy today.
“My prayer life today is real important to me. I know it’s what keeps me going. Somewhere in my formation, I was sort of given the impression that morning is a better time to pray. I’m not a morning person, so I really don’t like to pray in the morning. I finally decided, well you don’t have to. I like to have people to pray with and daily liturgy is one way to do that. I kind of pray by myself in the evening,” Sister Judy said.
“Sometimes I use scripture, sometimes it’s just reflection on my day. I like the Ignatius Examen of Consciousness which gives me a chance to look at my life and see where God is in it. I find that it helps my day make more sense,” she said.
Having the benefit of being part of a large family, Sister Judy was prepared for community life.
“It’s a great way of life. There are incredible opportunities. There are incredible challenges. It’s not always easy, but easy and worthwhile aren’t the same thing. I like the person I am as a Sister of Providence. I like who I have become as a Sister of Providence. It has brought out the best in me,” Sister Judy said.
“Living in a community is like a rock tumbling in a stream. It knocks off the rough edges and makes me a little more aware of the needs of others, the roles others play in my life. Everyone I have lived with, I have learned something from.”
Favoritesfavorite food: pizza
favorite book: I can’t choose just one.
favorite holiday: Christmas
favorite movie: Groundhog Day
favorite TV show: don’t watch enough TV to have a favorite show
favorite vacation spot: Grand Canyon
favorite recreation: camping and hiking
favorite hobby: bicycle riding
favorite music/song: Anything by Sweet Honey in the Rock
favorite animal: dogs
favorite scripture: Matthew 6:34
favorite saint: Teresa of Avila
favorite sinner: Teresa of Avila
favorite hero/heroine: Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
favorite childhood activity: rock collecting—I had a really cool piece of iron pyrite
favorite course in school: Sociology
favorite time of day: night—it’s quiet and everyone else is in bed
favorite quote: “May God preserve us from stupid nuns” –Teresa of Avila