That knock at the door might not be a sales person. Sr. Margery Therese Harkin, PVMI, with her soft Irish brogue and sparkling blue eyes, is out pounding the streets, looking for the lost sheep, even as the summer’s brutal heat beats down on her pale blue dress and veil.
Accompanied by seminarians or lay people, Sr. Margery visits homes, inquiring if there are any baptized Catholics in residence and inviting them to church. A religious sister belonging to the New-York-based Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate, Sr. Margery said some of those whom she visits decide to attend her RCIA classes.
“We always tell them that the priest sent us,” Sr. Margery said. “Just as the Apostles were sent, we never go in our own name.”
She and two other sisters reside in a convent at Christ the King Parish in Mesa, but 30 hours a week, Sr. Margery is working to bring people into — or home to — the Catholic Church at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Phoenix.
This is her third year at the west-side parish and she estimates she’s visited about 4,000 homes. Previously, Sr. Margery worked in the neighborhoods surrounding Queen of Peace and St. Timothy in Mesa and St. Daniel in Scottsdale. She’s also trained teams of parish visitors in other states.
She doesn’t pressure people — she merely invites them and lets God do the rest.
In Florida, a woman answered the door and admitted she hadn’t been back to church in 30 years because something a priest did offended her.
“We’re taught we have to listen,” Sr. Margery said of the encounter. “She needed to tell her story.” Though apprehensive, the woman decided to come back to the Church.
There’s more to Sr. Margery’s story than knocking on doors, however. She spent 11 years as a missionary in Africa, working among the poor and helping to establish a PVMI convent in Nigeria.
So how did a farm girl from County Donegal wind up as a religious sister in Nigeria?
Sr. Margery credits an encounter with Christ in the sacrament of confession when she was 15 years old. It happened during a parish mission and she said that although the confession didn’t seem like much of a breakthrough, she prayed in front of the Blessed Sacrament afterward and had a religious experience.
“It was as if I knew Jesus in a very intimate way, and I knew I was forgiven,” Sr. Margery said. “I left the church that evening a new person and knowing for the first time in my life that I was loved by God.” And there was something else: a deep desire to pray and give her whole life to God.
She’s been learning to let go, even when it hurts, and leave everything to God ever since.
Though it was difficult, at 22 she left Ireland to accompany her younger sister to the United States. In New York, she got involved in the charismatic renewal and the Legion of Mary. She enjoyed her work as a bookkeeper but knew something was missing. At 33, she left all her friends in Brooklyn behind to enter the convent.
In 1991, she left the United States and was sent to Nigeria where there was no running water or electricity. It was not an easy life, but she grew to love the people there and said she was sad to leave Africa.
“It’s been a life of deep peace in the Lord,” she said, “peace even in the midst of chaos at times, but His peace, which is beyond all understanding.”