‘Pause, pray and proceed’

Sister Brunilda Ramos follows devotion to God from one ‘shattered soul’ to next

March 14, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.
Sister Brunilda Ramos stands with a statue of St. Joseph, the saint to whom she turns over all in prayer, in the St. Joseph by the Sea Retreat House. Mike Ehrmann photo
Sister Brunilda Ramos stands with a statue of St. Joseph, the saint to whom she turns over all in prayer, in the St. Joseph by the Sea Retreat House. Mike Ehrmann photo (Michael Ehrmann)

By EMMALEE ITALIA
Contributing Editor

If anyone asks Religious Teachers Filippini Sister Brunilda Ramos, M.P.F., how she is doing on any given day, her response will likely be “Too blessed to be stressed!”

The sister, who celebrated 60 years of religious life in 2023, has cultivated this upbeat attitude after years of practice, asking for the Lord’s intercession in all her endeavors: teaching, leading retreats, counseling those battling addiction, and working as director and superior of St. Joseph by the Sea Retreat House, South Mantoloking – even through Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“I love my ministry, I love my journey – it’s been awesome,” she said emphatically, “and God has been so good to me in so many ways.”

Youthful Calling

To say that Sister Brunilda felt an early desire for the religious life would be a clear understatement.

Sister Brunilda smiles for a photo as a young Religious Teacher Filippini sister in the 1960s. Courtesy photo

Born in 1947 in New York’s Harlem to Puerto Rican parents Angel and Ana Ramos, at age 10 Brunilda began attending daily Mass before school with the Sisters of Charity, who taught in her nearby Catholic school, St. Paul Grammar School.

“They didn’t know why I attended with them; I just saw something in [the sisters] and saw Mass as something that I needed to do,” she said matter-of-factly. “I wanted to be a sister; by 11 years old I had this calling – I just fell in love with God so much.”

With her parents running their small grocery store on 117th Street from morning to night, Brunilda was charged with care of herself, the family home and her sister Gladys, three years her junior. With no English spoken in the home, the language barrier proved a struggle.

“I stayed back a year in third grade; there was nobody at home to help me with schoolwork,” Sister Brunilda recalled.

Upon talking with a cousin who had entered the Religious Teachers Filippini order, her desire to become a sister was solidified. Brunilda first queried the Sisters of Charity at her school, who told her that at 12 years old she was too young to enter. But that didn’t deter her enthusiasm.

“I went with my family to visit Villa Walsh, Morristown, where my cousin was; the mother general of the community asked me if I wanted to enter, and I said ‘Yes!’” she said. “My mother didn’t speak English – she had no idea what the sister was asking me!”

When the necessary paperwork arrived, Brunilda signed it and left it on the kitchen table for her parents to find when they returned from work. She sat across from Angel as he read the letter, waiting for his reaction.

“He asked me, ‘Is this what you want? Is it going to make you happy?’” she remembered. “I told him it would, and he said, ‘If it is, you may go.’”

Years later, she asked her father, “‘What were you thinking when you said yes to me then?’

“I think he saw something in me; he wanted to be a priest [before my parents married] but they were so poor,” she explained. “He devoted his life to the Church as Eucharistic minister, in Cursillos, as a lector – he loved Jesus and knew the Bible inside and out.

“On Dec. 27, 1960, at 12 years old I entered the [postulancy of] the Religious Teachers Filippini,” Sister Brunilda said. “I was very happy that I could give my whole self to God; that’s all I wanted to do.”

Early Experiences

Finishing her middle and high school education at Villa Walsh, Sister Brunilda became a novice Aug. 25, 1963, made her temporary oblation Aug. 28, 1966, and her perpetual oblation Sept. 7, 1969. She also earned a bachelor of science degree in elementary education from Seton Hall University, South Orange. She then dove into 28 years of teaching in Catholic elementary schools of Newark, New York and Harlem.

“It was always in the inner city, which was great because I was an inner-city kid,” she said.

Then, as she puts it, came something else.

“God was telling me something – in that [teaching] experience, I was learning more about what youth and families were going through with substance abuse; I saw a lot of that in New York City.”

While teaching in Harlem, “I would see so much substance abuse and family issues, even a pregnant eighth-grade student who would come talk to me,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I need to move on, I need to do something more.’”

After being told by others that she would make a good counselor, she put the idea to prayer. “I asked God, ‘I come to you as I am, in all my brokenness; it is all that I have – what is your plan for me so that I can do it? But I can’t do it by myself; we need to do it together!’”

Being Present

Earning certifications as an addiction prevention specialist and certified drug and alcohol counselor, Sister Brunilda lent her compassion to various roles in counseling the addicted and the imprisoned.

Her experiences include detox/case manager in St. Francis Hospital, Jersey City; senior counselor in St. Michael’s Medical Center, Newark; counselor with the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Program for men on parole/probation; and ministry to women in prison through the Ocean County Department of Corrections.

Sister Brunilda’s brand of counseling involved a “pause, pray and proceed” method, with a heavy emphasis on listening. “When I listened, I felt their soul, their pain, their sorrow – all that was going on in their lives.

“In the field of addiction, it was … being a healing presence for them,” she continued. “I was able to go beyond the classroom and office to show compassion and love in a world that is hurting even today.”

Even amid what appeared to be a fitting calling, Sister Brunilda questioned her abilities.

“I would ask God, ‘How do you sit with a shattered soul?’ and ‘Why do you send them to me?’” she said. “I would read Scripture, pray and ask God to be with me when I sat with them … with great respect and tender strength, which came from my own openness to my own deepest wounding and deepest healing in my life.

“Sometimes there were no words, in the face of such tragic evil, with men, women and children suffering so much with any kind of addiction,” Sister Brunilda continued. “They were able to hear me only because God was in between all the time.”

Reflecting Christ’s Light

In working with those in prison or on parole, Sister Brunilda saw people who “had no knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness,” and she knew she had a particular role to play.

“I needed to be a witness … they were men and women of worth; they needed to find a true sense of hope in their lives,” she said. “I had to make sure I had that in myself, too.”

The youth who had been taken in by the lure of drugs, she noted, “came from homes where they saw the worst of the worst. … I saw people die, live, restore their lives, families brought back together.”

As she continued counseling, unbeknownst to her, the accolades were piling up. “I received awards I didn’t know I was receiving!” she laughed. “I was just putting one foot in front of the other, doing the work. But I saw the glow in their faces; I saw them returning to families who had shut doors in their faces.”

God continued to use her life in ways of which she was completely unaware, Sister Brunilda said.

“Sometimes I used to ask, ‘Why me, Lord?’ And then I would see the next suffering human being bring his life back to God,” she said. “Today I know that I’m the person God created me to be through my ministry.”

Accidental Director

Sister Brunilda’s next project came about gradually, beginning with requests for her to lead retreats in San Alfonso Retreat House.

“I had never done them before, but I started to read about them and attend meetings,” she recalled. When someone first requested that she lead a retreat, she didn’t feel ready and declined the offer. “Then all of a sudden, I don’t know what changed my mind, I said ‘OK I’ll do it!’”

Thus began her experience as retreat leader and director for Matt Talbot Retreats for men and women in San Alfonso Retreat House, West End; she also led retreats in various locations both in New Jersey and other states. “I loved every minute of it,” Sister Brunilda said.

Another opportunity arose for her to move to St. Joseph by the Sea and continue retreats there, where she soon became a minister of assistance. Within a short time, she had the rug pulled out from under her.

“In 2007, the director got called to Rome to become a general counsellor, and I was told I would be running St. Joseph’s – with no experience, just observance!” Sister Brunilda said. “I hung up the phone, went into the chapel on my knees, crying my eyes out. I said to God, ‘I don’t’ have big shoes, I only have sandals – please be with me!’”

Sister Dolores Bianchi and Sister Brunilda pose with hard hats, ready to work on Hurricane Sandy repairs; St. Joseph by the Sea Retreat House is seen through the window. Courtesy photo

And off she went, one day at a time, for nearly two decades, leaning on God as she finished building projects in the retreat house, running the ministries and leading retreats, providing a place of respite.

“A lot of people come here soul-searching,” Sister Brunilda pointed out. “They come in and say, ‘I’m home,’ they’re at peace when they walk through the doors.”

Another providential moment came when her provincial inquired whether the facility had flood insurance. Upon discovering none existed, applications were made – and just in the nick of time.

“One month before Hurricane Sandy hit, we got insurance,” she recounted. “What belongs to God he will take care of.”

The substantial storm damage – first floor flooding and furniture destruction in the retreat house and several feet of water in the convent basement – took only seven months to repair, with Sister Brunilda and fellow Sister Dolores Bianchi on site every day to assist with the reconstruction.

“People were here for us seven days a week, and we came and said our prayers in the car each morning before work began,” Sister Brunilda said. “I passed around St. Joseph medals to the construction workers; the insurance adjustor got us hard hats with a cross on the front and a fish on the side!”

She and Sister Dolores were not above doing the heavy lifting, donning boots and using tools. “Every shovel was a prayer,” she attested.

Credit where Credit is Due

Sister Brunilda firmly believes all she has been able to achieve was through God’s grace.

“He sent so many people to help me out,” she said. “There would be a time when things wouldn’t go well, and then it would come through; I would go in the chapel on my knees and say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t trust you.’

“That happened three times,” she continued. “After that I said, ‘I’m done, I trust him implicitly.’ I don’t get excited or anxious anymore; if something doesn’t work, it’s OK – I trust him. My prayer is that everything I think, say and do will be an example of who God is.”

Her strength comes, as one might expect, “through my prayer life – the Mass and the Eucharist is so important to me, receiving Jesus every day. I cannot be without him ... the Eucharist is the living center of my ministry.”

Sister Brunilda leans heavily on the intercession of St. Joseph, turning over concerns to him, including the monthly bills. She also is encouraged by “people who are affirming, even in the lowest times of life; that affirmation comes from God through them. That’s very uplifting.”

If she had to relive her life from the beginning, she said, she would choose it all over again.

“What inspires me is that I still love the ministry – It’s so edifying for me,” she said. “If you look up Psalm 23 and the song ‘Amazing Grace,’ those say it all. … I pray for energy and strength every morning to do [God’s] ministry, not mine.”

Diaconate candidates and Conventual Franciscan Father Michael Lorentsen, pastor of St. Junipero Serra Parish, Seaside Park, visit with Sister Brunilda during a retreat March 1-3. Mike Ehrmann photo

 


If anyone asks Religious Teachers Filippini Sister Brunilda Ramos, M.P.F., how she is doing on any given day, her response will likely be “Too blessed to be stressed!”

The sister, who celebrated 60 years of religious life in 2023, has cultivated this upbeat attitude after years of practice, asking for the Lord’s intercession in all her endeavors: teaching, leading retreats, counseling those battling addiction, and working as director and superior of St. Joseph by the Sea Retreat House, South Mantoloking – even through Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“I love my ministry, I love my journey – it’s been awesome,” she said emphatically, “and God has been so good to me in so many ways.”

Youthful Calling

To say that Sister Brunilda felt an early desire for the religious life would be a clear understatement.

Sister Brunilda smiles for a photo as a young Religious Teacher Filippini sister in the 1960s. Courtesy photo

Born in 1947 in New York’s Harlem to Puerto Rican parents Angel and Ana Ramos, at age 10 Brunilda began attending daily Mass before school with the Sisters of Charity, who taught in her nearby Catholic school, St. Paul Grammar School.

“They didn’t know why I attended with them; I just saw something in [the sisters] and saw Mass as something that I needed to do,” she said matter-of-factly. “I wanted to be a sister; by 11 years old I had this calling – I just fell in love with God so much.”

With her parents running their small grocery store on 117th Street from morning to night, Brunilda was charged with care of herself, the family home and her sister Gladys, three years her junior. With no English spoken in the home, the language barrier proved a struggle.

“I stayed back a year in third grade; there was nobody at home to help me with schoolwork,” Sister Brunilda recalled.

Upon talking with a cousin who had entered the Religious Teachers Filippini order, her desire to become a sister was solidified. Brunilda first queried the Sisters of Charity at her school, who told her that at 12 years old she was too young to enter. But that didn’t deter her enthusiasm.

“I went with my family to visit Villa Walsh, Morristown, where my cousin was; the mother general of the community asked me if I wanted to enter, and I said ‘Yes!’” she said. “My mother didn’t speak English – she had no idea what the sister was asking me!”

When the necessary paperwork arrived, Brunilda signed it and left it on the kitchen table for her parents to find when they returned from work. She sat across from Angel as he read the letter, waiting for his reaction.

“He asked me, ‘Is this what you want? Is it going to make you happy?’” she remembered. “I told him it would, and he said, ‘If it is, you may go.’”

Years later, she asked her father, “‘What were you thinking when you said yes to me then?’

“I think he saw something in me; he wanted to be a priest [before my parents married] but they were so poor,” she explained. “He devoted his life to the Church as Eucharistic minister, in Cursillos, as a lector – he loved Jesus and knew the Bible inside and out.

“On Dec. 27, 1960, at 12 years old I entered the [postulancy of] the Religious Teachers Filippini,” Sister Brunilda said. “I was very happy that I could give my whole self to God; that’s all I wanted to do.”

Early Experiences

Finishing her middle and high school education at Villa Walsh, Sister Brunilda became a novice Aug. 25, 1963, made her temporary oblation Aug. 28, 1966, and her perpetual oblation Sept. 7, 1969. She also earned a bachelor of science degree in elementary education from Seton Hall University, South Orange. She then dove into 28 years of teaching in Catholic elementary schools of Newark, New York and Harlem.

“It was always in the inner city, which was great because I was an inner-city kid,” she said.

Then, as she puts it, came something else.

“God was telling me something – in that [teaching] experience, I was learning more about what youth and families were going through with substance abuse; I saw a lot of that in New York City.”

While teaching in Harlem, “I would see so much substance abuse and family issues, even a pregnant eighth-grade student who would come talk to me,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I need to move on, I need to do something more.’”

After being told by others that she would make a good counselor, she put the idea to prayer. “I asked God, ‘I come to you as I am, in all my brokenness; it is all that I have – what is your plan for me so that I can do it? But I can’t do it by myself; we need to do it together!’”

Being Present

Earning certifications as an addiction prevention specialist and certified drug and alcohol counselor, Sister Brunilda lent her compassion to various roles in counseling the addicted and the imprisoned.

Her experiences include detox/case manager in St. Francis Hospital, Jersey City; senior counselor in St. Michael’s Medical Center, Newark; counselor with the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Program for men on parole/probation; and ministry to women in prison through the Ocean County Department of Corrections.

Sister Brunilda’s brand of counseling involved a “pause, pray and proceed” method, with a heavy emphasis on listening. “When I listened, I felt their soul, their pain, their sorrow – all that was going on in their lives.

“In the field of addiction, it was … being a healing presence for them,” she continued. “I was able to go beyond the classroom and office to show compassion and love in a world that is hurting even today.”

Even amid what appeared to be a fitting calling, Sister Brunilda questioned her abilities.

“I would ask God, ‘How do you sit with a shattered soul?’ and ‘Why do you send them to me?’” she said. “I would read Scripture, pray and ask God to be with me when I sat with them … with great respect and tender strength, which came from my own openness to my own deepest wounding and deepest healing in my life.

“Sometimes there were no words, in the face of such tragic evil, with men, women and children suffering so much with any kind of addiction,” Sister Brunilda continued. “They were able to hear me only because God was in between all the time.”

Reflecting Christ’s Light

In working with those in prison or on parole, Sister Brunilda saw people who “had no knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness,” and she knew she had a particular role to play.

“I needed to be a witness … they were men and women of worth; they needed to find a true sense of hope in their lives,” she said. “I had to make sure I had that in myself, too.”

The youth who had been taken in by the lure of drugs, she noted, “came from homes where they saw the worst of the worst. … I saw people die, live, restore their lives, families brought back together.”

As she continued counseling, unbeknownst to her, the accolades were piling up. “I received awards I didn’t know I was receiving!” she laughed. “I was just putting one foot in front of the other, doing the work. But I saw the glow in their faces; I saw them returning to families who had shut doors in their faces.”

God continued to use her life in ways of which she was completely unaware, Sister Brunilda said.

“Sometimes I used to ask, ‘Why me, Lord?’ And then I would see the next suffering human being bring his life back to God,” she said. “Today I know that I’m the person God created me to be through my ministry.”

Accidental Director

Sister Brunilda’s next project came about gradually, beginning with requests for her to lead retreats in San Alfonso Retreat House.

“I had never done them before, but I started to read about them and attend meetings,” she recalled. When someone first requested that she lead a retreat, she didn’t feel ready and declined the offer. “Then all of a sudden, I don’t know what changed my mind, I said ‘OK I’ll do it!’”

Thus began her experience as retreat leader and director for Matt Talbot Retreats for men and women in San Alfonso Retreat House, West End; she also led retreats in various locations both in New Jersey and other states. “I loved every minute of it,” Sister Brunilda said.

Another opportunity arose for her to move to St. Joseph by the Sea and continue retreats there, where she soon became a minister of assistance. Within a short time, she had the rug pulled out from under her.

“In 2007, the director got called to Rome to become a general counsellor, and I was told I would be running St. Joseph’s – with no experience, just observance!” Sister Brunilda said. “I hung up the phone, went into the chapel on my knees, crying my eyes out. I said to God, ‘I don’t’ have big shoes, I only have sandals – please be with me!’”

Sister Dolores Bianchi and Sister Brunilda pose with hard hats, ready to work on Hurricane Sandy repairs; St. Joseph by the Sea Retreat House is seen through the window. Courtesy photo

And off she went, one day at a time, for nearly two decades, leaning on God as she finished building projects in the retreat house, running the ministries and leading retreats, providing a place of respite.

“A lot of people come here soul-searching,” Sister Brunilda pointed out. “They come in and say, ‘I’m home,’ they’re at peace when they walk through the doors.”

Another providential moment came when her provincial inquired whether the facility had flood insurance. Upon discovering none existed, applications were made – and just in the nick of time.

“One month before Hurricane Sandy hit, we got insurance,” she recounted. “What belongs to God he will take care of.”

The substantial storm damage – first floor flooding and furniture destruction in the retreat house and several feet of water in the convent basement – took only seven months to repair, with Sister Brunilda and fellow Sister Dolores Bianchi on site every day to assist with the reconstruction.

“People were here for us seven days a week, and we came and said our prayers in the car each morning before work began,” Sister Brunilda said. “I passed around St. Joseph medals to the construction workers; the insurance adjustor got us hard hats with a cross on the front and a fish on the side!”

She and Sister Dolores were not above doing the heavy lifting, donning boots and using tools. “Every shovel was a prayer,” she attested.

Credit where Credit is Due

Sister Brunilda firmly believes all she has been able to achieve was through God’s grace.

“He sent so many people to help me out,” she said. “There would be a time when things wouldn’t go well, and then it would come through; I would go in the chapel on my knees and say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t trust you.’

“That happened three times,” she continued. “After that I said, ‘I’m done, I trust him implicitly.’ I don’t get excited or anxious anymore; if something doesn’t work, it’s OK – I trust him. My prayer is that everything I think, say and do will be an example of who God is.”

Her strength comes, as one might expect, “through my prayer life – the Mass and the Eucharist is so important to me, receiving Jesus every day. I cannot be without him ... the Eucharist is the living center of my ministry.”

Sister Brunilda leans heavily on the intercession of St. Joseph, turning over concerns to him, including the monthly bills. She also is encouraged by “people who are affirming, even in the lowest times of life; that affirmation comes from God through them. That’s very uplifting.”

If she had to relive her life from the beginning, she said, she would choose it all over again.

“What inspires me is that I still love the ministry – It’s so edifying for me,” she said. “If you look up Psalm 23 and the song ‘Amazing Grace,’ those say it all. … I pray for energy and strength every morning to do [God’s] ministry, not mine.”

Diaconate candidates and Conventual Franciscan Father Michael Lorentsen, pastor of St. Junipero Serra Parish, Seaside Park, visit with Sister Brunilda during a retreat March 1-3. Mike Ehrmann photo

 

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