My Aunt’s Remarkable Life of Service and Innovation

In one of her last visits to Washington, Sister Serena is surrounded by some family members in this 2001 photo.

In one of her last visits to Washington, Sister Serena is surrounded by some family members in this 2001 photo.

“Hear you’re some talker, and the boss of Third St.,” my maternal grandfather Taylor Branson wrote in postcards to his oldest daughter Mary Serena in the fall of 1914. My grandfather sent a postcard a day to her while on a two-month tour with the Marine Band, as first violinist. In May of 1927 he became the 20th leader of the President’s Own, and led it until he retired in March 1940.

When my grandfather sent his postcards, Mary Serena was 20 months, and Third St. was the family home on 3rd St. NE on Capitol Hill. Mary Serena became Sister Serena Branson DC in 1931.

She was some talker courting donors and legislators to support her innovative work on behalf of poor persons and persons on the peripheries. And Sissy, as we affectionately called her, was an extraordinary boss of numerous social service programs, most notably as the Executive Director of Catholic Charities in Albany, NY from 1974 to 1990.

I’m reviewing my grandfather’s postcards to Serena for research for SISTERS, a book I plan to write about her and her sister Anna Marie. (You can read more about her remarkable life here.)

As we celebrate what would have been her 102nd birthday today, it’s apposite to recall this prodigious advocate, fundraiser, innovator, and administrator, who in 72 years of service lifted up many poor and marginalized persons. It’s equally important to recall what she meant to our family and what it meant to be Sister Serena Branson’s nephew.

Like Anna Marie, Serena was Sister Serena to us, but we knew her better than Anna Marie. Serena lived to be 90, spent her life in the Northeast and visited us frequently while attending conferences and meetings.

She consistently engaged her nieces and nephews, writing each Christmas and Easter, and enclosing a check. Serena knew everything about family members: the names of their spouses and children, where they lived and what they did for livings. If you had lost touch with a cousin, Serena was the best source to obtain an update. After my grandmother died in 1976, Serena became the Branson matriarch.

Serena visited us when a conference took her to our cities, and in my case, because we worked in similar arenas, our paths occasionally crossed at conferences, and throughout my adult life, I have happily, frequently heard this question: “You’re Sister Serena Branson’s nephew?” Her reputation and legend preceded her

First is the word often associated with Serena’s work. In 1952, she became the first administrator of the Astor Home for Children in Rhinebeck, NY, the first residential treatment program in the United States for emotionally troubled children. Serena, in 1958, also became the first administrator of the Kennedy Child Study Center in New York, the first day treatment center for exceptional children in the United States.

Serena’s most significant first occurred in 1974. When she became Executive Director of Albany’s Catholic Charities, Serena became the first woman in the United States to run a diocesan wide Catholic Charities agency.

Setting up programs to help babies born with HIV and addicted to crack in 1980s before others comprehended how HIV and crack ravaged low-income communities is an outstanding example of Serena’s innovation during her Catholic Charities’ tenure.

Serena often didn’t have any idea how to fund many of her efforts. She trusted the money would come, for good reason; she was an astonishing fundraiser, who courted the powerful to help the powerless. They said she took your money with one hand while shaking your hand with the other, and she had each Albany legislator wrapped around her little fingers.

When she became Executive Director in 1974, Catholic Charities served 3 counties and had a $500,000 budget. By the time Serena stepped down as Executive Director at 77 in 1990, the agency had a $30 million budget and served 14 counties.

After that retirement, Serena worked as the Albany Diocese’s Director of Special Projects until 2002, when she was 89, and illness prevented her from working anymore.

That year, Catholic Charities USA bestowed their highest honor upon Serena, their Vision Award for promoting Catholic Charities USA’s mission of supporting families, reducing poverty and building communities. Desmond Tutu and Sister Helen Prejean CSJ are among this prestigious award’s recipients.

Whether in the New York Assembly’s halls or a homeless shelter, comforting a troubled child or courting the Kennedys, Serena always manifested Christ’s love.

With SISTERS I hope to perpetuate her legacy of service, charity, and justice. If it appears I may fall short of my aim, I trust Serena will lift me up as she did so many others during her long and remarkable life.

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My Aunt, The Saint

Sister Anna Marie stands between me and my sister Sheila in this 1972 photo, taken in front of our rented Bethany Beach cottage.

Sister Anna Marie stands between me and my sister Sheila in this 1972 photo, taken in front of our rented cottage in Bethany Beach, DE.

“Sister A. Marie is a treasure. You have given a Saint back to God,”Sister Mary Basil Roarke DC wrote to my maternal grandparents Marie and Taylor Branson in September ’42. Sister Mary Basil was my aunt Sister Anna Marie Branson DC’s community superior at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Endicott, NY. Sister Anna Marie was 25 then on her first mission with the Daughters of Charity, teaching third grade.

However, as Sister Mary Basil in 1943, wrote again to my grandparents, “Sister Anna Marie is indeed an unusual soul. I believe God has set her apart for special work.” Mary Basil was prescient.

Anna Marie was set apart for special work, and what made her an unusual soul, a treasure, and a Saint, I’ll explore in SISTERS, a book I plan to write about her and her sister Sister Serena Branson DC. (She lived an extraordinary life in her own right, which I will write about in another post.)

Sister Mary Basil’s notes were attached to Anna Marie’s letters home, which I’m reviewing for the book. These letters reveal eternity was central to her spirituality. After Anna Marie’s siblings visited her on Easter 1948, she wrote to her parents: “I felt in my very soul that all our ties have been formed by God and meant for eternity, and all the glorification He allows us now, though he means them to be consolations to sustain us on the way are simply shadows of things to come. “

“I know He can make you feel what He lets me feel — simply this to lift you above all earthly happenings, even for a brief moment and let you gaze into the glory for which we are destined together.”

Discovering these spiritual pearls has been wonderful for me because I didn’t know Anna Marie that well. She left for Bolivia when I was 3, and I remember spending time with her during visits in 1972 and 1974 . After 1974, I didn’t see her again.

Anna Marie was always Sister Anna Marie to us. That seems odd because you don’t typically address family that formally. I’ve discovered however she and Serena insisted upon being called Sister to separate from their family. When they entered the Daughters, they died to their old selves and became new persons in Christ, to paraphrase St. Paul.

Anne Branson, Marie and Taylor Branson’s third child, the daughter of the leader of the Marine Band, who grew up near Lincoln Park, went to Holy Comforter and Georgetown Visitation schools became Sister Anna Marie.

That woman earned her Master’s in Nursing, and was Nursing Director at Providence Hospital and the Old Soldiers Home in Washington, DC, Administrator of Elizabeth Seton Psychiatric Hospital in Baltimore, and the Astor Home for emotionally disturbed children in Rhinebeck, NY.

Anna Marie’s domestic career and achievements would be book worthy. However, she will be remembered best as a missionary among Bolivia’s indigenous poor from 1963 to 1982.

Political upheaval, military coups and numerous labor strikes characterized Bolivian life in those years, but Anna Marie remained intrepid, determined, and innovative.

In the ‘70’s, she trained women to become health promoters, who worked to improve their barrios’ health by educating others how to prevent diseases and manage chronic health conditions better. This kind of popular education preventive health effort was 20 years ahead of similar programs established in the states.

Anna Marie, in 1981, a year before she died, started a home for 30 street boys, who, as young as 7, were forced to live on their own because their families couldn’t afford to provide for them.

Anna Marie became Madrecita to these boys, cooked for them, gave them a place to sleep, and listened compassionately to their problems and troubles and encouraged them to get educations and learn trades.

Anna Marie slept in a small room that doubled as a supply closet, although she fretted constantly about living simply enough in a country where the average annual income was $100 and people lived in huts with muddy floors.

The program she began with Sister Stephanie Murray DC has blossomed into Amanecer, which now provides medical and dental services, vocational training, a school and shelters and homes for boys and girls. One home there is named Casa Ana Maria Branson. Learn more about Amanecer here.

I believe the Pope from Latin America who wants a missionary and mystic church would identify with the mystic and missionary Anna Marie from Latin America. And the time’s ripe to advance Anna Marie’s Sainthood cause, which I’ll try to do with SISTERS.

The challenge daunts and humbles me, but I trust Anna Marie will guide me. Isn’t that, after all, what Saints do?

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