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Everyday Evangelists: Sister of Charity ministers to the broken-hearted

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June 22, 2011

By Mary Caffrey Knapke 


DAYTON DEANERY — For a quarter-century, Sister of Charity of Cincinnati Therese Dery has worked as a mental health therapist at Samaritan Behavioral Health in Dayton, where she strives to bring patients “to an awareness that the kingdom of heaven is happening in their very midst as they heal, grow and find acceptance.”


 Sister of Charity of Cincinnati Terry Dery (Courtesy photo)

She has ministered to adult individuals, couples and groups — many of them Medicaid recipients or uninsured — since 1986. With deep faith and sharp wit, Sister Terry helps clients address their struggles with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.


“I feel like I’m walking on holy ground” as a therapist, Sister Terry said.


Counseling others about profound life challenges is “a precious place to be, and I feel like people need the support in our society today. To see the change in them as they go through therapy is rewarding,” she added.


A diverse background helped prepare Sister Terry for her clinical practice. She was born in Lowell, Mass., where her grandparents emigrated from Quebec in the late 19th century, seeking work in the city’s textile mills. Growing up in a tightly knit French-speaking Catholic community, Sister Terry spoke only French until her early teens, even at school, until the archbishop instructed the local parochial schools to begin conducting classes in English. It was an environment that has given Sister Terry insight into other cultures and immigrant experiences through more than 50 years of religious life.


She was inspired to become a Sister of Charity of Ottawa because she appreciated the “sense of community, sense of belonging and time for prayer. I wanted to work with the underprivileged, and that was one avenue where you could do that.”


She later transferred to the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati and worked as an elementary and high school teacher, ministered to Hispanic communities and earned a master’s degree in Spanish. She then volunteered to join the mission in Peru, where she lived among the Quechua Indians at an elevation of 13,000 feet in the Andes.


For seven years, Sister Terry and the other Sisters there provided whatever service was needed. She formed a parish choir, taught high school, established a library, hosted llamas in her backyard, harvested piles of potatoes and once even delivered a baby. She also served as co-administrator of the village parish, which included baptizing the children, giving retreats and conducting prayer services. Sister Terry also ministered to communities even higher in the mountains, taking a Jeep, then a horse, and then hiking to reach them.


Sister Terry was deeply impressed by the strong faith of the Quechua people, who constantly trusted in God’s will in the face of struggle and hardship. 


“You know, we think we go there to evangelize them, but I believe they evangelize us…. They’re beautiful people,” she said. “I enjoyed it. Those were my favorite years.”


The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati no longer maintain the Peruvian mission. As Sister Terry explained, “Our goal is to go and prepare the people to take over. So we move on. But our work goes on through the catechists and the women who continue to make crafts that are sold at the annual Christmas fair trade sale at the Bergamo Center in Dayton.”


After returning to the United States, she earned a master’s degree in counseling from Loyola University Maryland. Her work at Samaritan Behavioral Health includes assessing, diagnosing and treating mental and emotional disorders such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress. Her clients also struggle with abuse, addictions, financial stress, grief issues, job loss and violence. The work can be mentally exhausting, but Sister Terry can handle it.


“I’m used to crises and tragedies,” she said. “I lived in Peru and had three attempts on my life. You need a certain personality to do this work.”


Her background as a teacher also inspires her to approach her current work as a form of teaching. She often talks with clients about basic life skills, parenting skills, dealing with anger and the importance of sleep and good nutrition. Her no-nonsense attitude helps ensure that she works only with clients who exhibit their desire to get better through a strong commitment to their treatment plan. Drawing strength from Luke 4:18, Sister Terry strives to proclaim liberty to those who are prisoners of their own depression or anxiety.


“I see their strength,” she said. “They may be depressed, but they go on. They raise their kids; they go shopping; they do what they need to do. They keep fighting…. I admire that in them, because they don’t give up.”  

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