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Sister Jeannette Normandin; her ministry comforted needy

Sister Jeannette Normandin, in the Jesuit Urban Center.
Sister Jeannette Normandin, in the Jesuit Urban Center. (Globe Staff File Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

"It was quite innocent," Sister Jeannette Normandin said about those brief moments, those few gestures steeped in Roman Catholic tradition, that altered the course of her life when she was 72.

In October 2000 , she stood at the front of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the South End with friends -- two gay couples who had adopted young boys. With a priest nearby, she sprinkled water on one boy and anointed him with chrism oil during baptism and recited liturgy normally reserved for priests and deacons .

Within days, Catholic Church officials stripped her of her duties at the Jesuit Urban Center, based at the Boston church, and forced her to move out. She had never lived alone before, having entered the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Anne 54 years earlier. Many parishioners were outraged by the ousting , but Sister Jeannette did not join in the fury, even though she had long been active in social justice issues and was outspoken about the evolving role of women in the Catholic Church.

"`When I pray, I ask that the spirit of God touch my heart," she said a few months later. "I made a decision -- I could have filled my heart with hatred and anger, but instead I'm going to focus myself on prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to guide me not to be bitter."

Sister Jeannette, whose faith remained strong even as she suffered from dementia in recent years, died of a stroke Tuesday , a niece said. She was 77 and had lived at the Marie Esther Heath Center in Marlborough.

``She remained loyal to the Catholic Church and to her faith, which was just profound," said her niece Chris Normandin of Northampton. ``She lived more of a Christian life than most people who call themselves Christian. For that reason, she was deeply, deeply hurt, but she was not vengeful. She bore her burden."

Though the baptism and subsequent events made Sister Jeannette front-page news, those close to her noted that it was merely one event in a ministry that touched lives from one end of North America to the other. She was a counselor and spiritual advisor to women in prison and in 1994 founded Ruah , a home in North Cambridge for women with AIDS.

``She was on the front lines during the darkest ages of when AIDS was relentlessly ravaging people in the Boston community -- men and women," said Jonathan Scott , president and executive director of Victory Programs, a residential treatment agency for AIDS and addiction. ``Her perseverance to build and found Ruah was a remarkable achievement. It remains today just an extraordinary legacy to an extraordinary woman."

Ruah is now part of the agency Cambridge Cares About AIDS, which two years ago initiated an annual award in Sister Jeannette's name for those who honor her spirit working with people with HIV and AIDS.

``We feel tremendously privileged to carry on her work by continuing the work of Ruah," said John Gatto , the agency's executive director. `` She's an extraordinary example of tremendous gentle compassion combined with bold advocacy, and that's what we need in this work."

Sister Jeannette also had worked for several years with female prisoners at MCI-Framingham, and later moved to the nonprofit Social Justice for Women, working with troubled women through Boston Municipal Court.

Among her many honors were the Peter Medoff Award for creating housing for people with AIDS, the Jonathan Mann Distinguished Leadership Award for founding Ruah and her work in the fight against AIDS, and an award for her work with women in the criminal justice system.

Sister Jeannette grew up in Framingham and graduated from St. Anne Academy in Marlborough. In 1946 she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Anne in Lanchine, Quebec, pronouncing her religious vows two years later. She spent 21 years teaching at schools in British Columbia, Canada, and returned to Boston in 1970 when her father was dying.

S he earned a bachelor's in mathematics from Seattle University and a master's in theology at a college in California. In 2000, she was awarded an honorary degree by Anna Maria College in Paxton.

After the changes brought about by Vatican II in the 1960s , she dropped Sister Norman, the masculine name she had been assigned, and the full habit. Left to her own choices, her tastes were less muted.

``She loved clothes and she loved bright colors -- I wear some of her clothes now," her niece said. ``She enjoyed dressing up. She went from the habit to being a very smart dresser."

She cofounded a spiritual renewal retreat in Worcester, then moved in the 1970s to Washington, D.C., and worked for the national office of her order and as spiritual director for the Paulists. She returned to Boston in 1979 to be near her mother and began working at MCI-Framingham.

In an essay included as part of the book ``Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today," Sister Jeannette said that as a young girl she had wanted to become a missionary and strongly felt throughout her life that she was being led.

``I always know exactly where to move next because things fall into place for me," she wrote. ``It's always been clear. I very rarely find myself in the dark without seeing light somewhere."

In her social justice work, ``everybody to her was a child of God," said a friend, Richard Doherty of Wakefield. ``Regardless of what your past history was or your present history, God and Jesus loved you, and that's the way she looked at it."

``She did have an aura about her," said Suzanne Belote Shanley of Hardwick, who was in jail after a civil disobedience arrest when she met Sister Jeannette. Women in prison for serious offenses, Shanley said, ``called her `Sister God.' "

``Every encounter I had with her ended with her asking me to pray for someone," said Sonia Caus Gleason of Boston, who sought out Sister Jeannette as a spiritual advisor.

As part of the wake, prayer service will be held at 4:30 p.m. today in the St. Anne Convent Chapel, during which people may speak about Sister Jeannette's life, her niece said.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. tomorrow in the chapel. Burial in St. Mary's Cemetery, Marlborough.

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