by Sister Mary Flick, justice coordinator
For years, Sister Carol Brouillette, an accomplished musician and fine arts teacher, found herself with her own holy longing. “People will say they have no religion, but are seeking a deeper spirituality,” she relates. “I, too, was looking for something deeper,” even as she played piano and organ and dabbled with at least three other stringed instruments. “I was listening for a sound.” A certain tonality, a desire of her heart.
Perhaps she heard a hint of it at Fontbonne College’s Sleigh Bell Ball, which she attended with a friend when a high school senior. It was her first encounter with the Sisters of St. Joseph. “Jeanne introduced me to the sisters there and I remember thinking, “These people are real! They have fun and they laugh!” She entered the CSJs after she graduated with a major in music education from Fontbonne in 1957.
Certainly she heard a note of it in the organ recital she gave to the novices at the motherhouse the summer before she entered the CSJs. And again in the musical stirrings of her students at Rosati-Kain High School where she taught choral music and general music for 20 years.
It was only after her decades in the classroom and parish work, while caring for her mother that she discovered the sound her heart had been seeking. It was the resonant vibrational sound of the harp. In that long-sought vibration, she discovered her life’s newest ministry, a ministry of justice: playing healing harp to comfort and pray with those in hospitals and care facilities.
“Caring for our elders is an ever-expanding need in our society, and an issue of justice,” S. Carol says. “By playing for them I hope to ease their life journey, their transition to the next step, whether it be a serious illness or a long life. I want them to be aware that people care, that God cares.”
That care has been a justice outreach for S. Carol throughout her 60 years as a CSJ, but in a new way these last 20 years. It is a ministry that is ever new and deeply appreciated by those who receive the music she plays on the harp’s strings.
In the late 1990s, S. Carol met Amy Camie, a healing harpist who performed at hospitals and nursing homes. She was attracted to the sound and the ministry. “I remember thinking, ‘I can read piano music. If the harp has those octaves, I can play it.” But it is about much more than octaves. Camie, herself a cancer survivor and S. Carol’s teacher, has been involved in scientific studies showing how the brain processes vibrations. The brain’s Beta waves move faster with familiar music and often stimulate those with memory loss. The slower Alpha waves activated by unfamiliar music, help diminish anxiety and promote relaxation.
An entirely new ministry opened for S. Carol when she accompanied Camie to a residence care facility. “She would play in the hallway and talk as she performed,” S. Carol remembers. “It was a way of reaching people, another outreach. I remember coming to the realization that people in a residence receiving health care support would find harp music relaxing.”
S. Carol finds the healing comes not just in the physical relaxation the harp provides, but in the prayer that she can offer. “I often end my performance by playing ‘Adoro Te’,” she says, a melody attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. She sings several updated texts she has created. One verse asks, “Precious Lord, come walk with me, hold my hand this day. Let me know your love and care, show me how to pray. Help me to accept what is, all I can’t foretell, trusting in your promises, all will be well.”
The balance between relaxation and prayer, to combination of harp and sung prayer, she says, “helps people feel better about where they are. If it helps them meditate or feel more comfortable about their situation, we’ve achieved our goal.”
She and her former Rosati-Kain colleague, Sister Gerard Mobley, SSND, perform at eight to 10 locations in the St. Louis area on a rotating basis. Many are under Catholic sponsorship, like Nazareth Living Center, though not all. In addition to planning and practicing their musical program – S. Carol on the harp and S. Gerard on the tenor recorder – it can be daunting to load the car with instruments, stands, music and benches on the day of the performance.
Often after their performance, S. Carol says, they share their blessings. “How blessed we have been with good health and the support of our communities,” she says. “We are giving back while we still can.”
Often it’s the unexpected blessings that linger. Recently they played at Lemay Care Center. When they had finished and were packing to leave, the center’s director approached to ask if they would come and play for a newly-admitted patient who was actively dying. Her answer was, “Of course.”
The two took their instruments and music and traveled down the hall to find the woman in bed, eyes closed and breathing heavily. The woman’s two daughters sat nearby. After playing a piece and closing with ‘Adoro Te,” S. Carol touched the woman’s shoulder and said, “We will pray for you as you journey home to God.” As she left, she said, “I looked and saw tears in her daughters’ eyes.” Healing was happening beyond the physical.
Such special moments bring S. Carol a deepened realization that this is a ministry of justice, and another way a Sister of St. Joseph responds to whatever need calls. “It is another way of helping each of those dear neighbors see the grace and love of God,” she says. “I really believe that there is definitely healing in vibrational medicine,” S. Carol says. “And healing, whatever form it takes, is a ministry of justice that brings joy and hope to a special population struggling with huge life changes.”