Poor Clare Nuns Witness to ‘Everyday Heroism’ of Living Organ Donors
One gave a kidney, while the other received the necessary body part.
CLEVELAND — Before dawn on the morning of April 13, 2021, Sister Mary Joseph of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus left her Poor Clare monastery in Cleveland and reported to University Hospitals Medical Center to undergo surgery. In choosing to donate a kidney to an anonymous stranger, Sister Mary Joseph demonstrated the “everyday heroism” Pope St. John Paul II described in Evangelium Vitae.
“There is an everyday heroism, made up of gestures of caring, big or small, which build up an authentic culture of life,” the saint wrote. “A particularly praiseworthy example of such gestures is the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope.”
According to the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, each day 17 Americans who await organ transplants die. More than 106,000 desperate patients wait for healthy lungs, livers and other organs. The greatest demand is for kidneys.
Answering and Needing
So Sister Mary Joseph answered the call.
Sister Mary Joseph was already a registered nurse in 1995 when she entered the Adoration Monastery in Cleveland, the same monastery where Mother Angelica, foundress of the Eternal Word Television Network, had begun her religious vocation. Sister Mary Joseph embraced the Poor Clares’ mission of penance and perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Later, while serving as the community’s infirmarian, she witnessed firsthand the need for organ donation.
Sister Jacinta of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is the youngest of the monastery’s 15 nuns. Born in 1980, she joined the Poor Clares in her native Bangladesh and came to the United States in 2003. The Poor Clares rarely venture outside their monastery except for medical appointments, but several years ago Sister Jacinta attended the ceremony that made her a U.S. citizen.
Sometime in 2019, she began to feel tired, weak and always cold. That November, her blood pressure skyrocketed, and she woke up struggling to breathe. Hospitalized for 10 days, she underwent multiple tests and learned she suffered from Berger’s disease, an autoimmune kidney ailment. Afterward, she met with a nephrologist, a kidney disease specialist, every month. He sent a nurse to the monastery in the summer of 2020 to discuss different kinds of dialysis. Sister Jacinta had entered a waiting list to receive a kidney from a deceased donor. The nurse informed the nuns that Sister Jacinta would receive a transplant sooner if she could find a suitable living donor. None of Sister Jacinta’s relatives lived in the States, and thus they could not be tested as possible matches. Sister Mary Joseph quickly volunteered.
“I would do it for a biological sister,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “Well, we are sisters in Christ.”
Her blood type was incompatible with Sister Jacinta’s, but because University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center partners with a paired donation program called The National Kidney Registry (NKR), she could donate a kidney to a stranger instead.
“NKR takes this concept a step further by offering the Advanced Donation Program,” said Peggy Schuster, living donor coordinator at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. “This program allows a living kidney donor to donate before their intended recipient is ready for transplant. When the recipient is ready to receive a kidney transplant, they are activated in the NKR program and matched with a living donor from somewhere in the U.S.A.”
Sister Mary Joseph started her application process, which includes numerous medical tests and blood draws. In addition, she attended a virtual class for donors. Required meetings with a social worker and with a patient advocate ensured she understood all aspects of organ donation and confirmed that she freely had made the decision to donate. These measures conform with the Church’s insistence that living donors must understand and accept the risks involved and that they choose organ donation of their free will. The Church condemns the buying or selling of organs. In addition, donors must be able to continue a healthy life post-transplant. In Sister Mary Joseph’s case, she would live a normal life with only one kidney.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient” (2296).
The “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concur: “The transplantation of organs from living donors is morally permissible when such a donation will not sacrifice or seriously impair any essential bodily function and the anticipated benefit to the recipient is proportionate to the harm done to the donor. Furthermore, the freedom of the prospective donor must be respected, and economic advantages should not accrue to the donor.”
By December 2020, Sister Jacinta was in the final stage of renal failure. Always exhausted, she fainted while helping decorate the cloister for Christmas. That winter, a Poor Clare was hospitalized with COVID-19, and Sister Jacinta and eight other sisters contracted the virus. She was removed from the transplant waiting list until a couple of months of consecutive negative tests proved she had recovered. Sister Mary Joseph, the primary caregiver for the ill sisters, repeatedly tested negative for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Sister Jacinta became extremely anemic, and she retained water. Sister Mary Joseph took her to three-hour-long dialysis treatments three times a week. Because the other nuns depended on her, Sister Mary Joseph also scheduled many of their medical appointments before her transplant surgery. She knew she wouldn’t be able to accompany them during her recuperation.
At that time, Sister Mary Joseph also made another important decision: Organ recipients learn the identity of their donor only if both parties are willing. Sister Mary Joseph opted to remain anonymous. Her duties keep her so busy that an ongoing correspondence would be difficult.
“And then, if something didn’t work out, I would feel so badly,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “I thought, ‘better to leave it in God’s hands.’”
To this day, she doesn’t know the age, gender or any other details about the kidney recipient.
“But it was so nice when a nurse told me everything was going well after they received my kidney,” Sister Mary Joseph said of the April 2021 surgeries.
She left the hospital four days later to continue her recovery at the monastery.
On June 2, 2021, Sister Jacinta received a kidney from an out-of-state donor, and she returned to the monastery after five days in the hospital.
Doctors estimate the new kidney will serve Sister Jacinta for about 20 years. She will need anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life. She continues to pray for the donor, who, like Sister Mary Joseph, chose to remain anonymous. If she could speak to that individual, Sister Jacinta’s message would be, “I’m so grateful! I’m doing well.”
Months after their respective surgeries, the sisters have resumed their roles within the cloister. Both look forward to the monastery’s belated 100th anniversary celebration, which had to be postponed because of a local surge in COVID cases. The fundraiser gala is now scheduled for Sunday, April 24, with Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski scheduled as keynote speaker.
To Catholics considering whether to become a living donor, Sister Jacinta said, “It’s the greatest gift he or she is giving to a person: It’s giving another chance to that person.”
For her part, Sister Mary Joseph still prays for the stranger who received her kidney. She admitted it took time to rebuild her strength after the operation.
“It’s a major surgery,” she said. “It’s not something to take lightly. But it’s worth the step I took. It’s a wonderful opportunity to extend the gift of life.”
Moral theologians have weighed in on living donors, too.
“Although all theologians loyal to the magisterium agree that organ donation and transplants from living donors are morally justified and are indeed noble and good actions so long as certain criteria are met, they differ however, in the reasoning they use to show this,” explained William E. May in “The Morality of Organ Transplants.”
“The more common position was developed by Jesuit Father Gerald Kelly, the most important moral theologian from the ’40s through the ’50s. This view holds that such donation and transplantation is justified by the principle of fraternal charity or love when doing so is of great benefit to the recipient, with the proviso that the harm suffered by the donor is limited and morally acceptable.
“It distinguishes between anatomical and functional integrity, maintaining that only the latter is essential for bodily and personal integrity. Thus Dominican Fathers Benedict Ashley and Kevin O’Rourke say: ‘The concept of functional integrity is the key factor in addressing the morality of transplants between living persons.’ They acknowledge that the donor runs a risk in giving an organ, but this is acceptable if it does not impair his own functional integrity (e.g., if he donates one kidney, his functional integrity is not impaired because he still has a functioning kidney). The transplant would be immoral if the organ’s removal were to impair the donor's functional integrity (e.g., removing one’s cornea to help another person see or removing both kidneys).”
May continued, “Germain Grisez and others think that organ transplants from the living can be justified by the principle of double effect. According to this principle, an action, having two effects, one good, the other bad, is morally good provided that the action is not morally wrong for other reasons, that the evil is not intended, that the evil is not the means to the good, and that there is a ‘proportionate reason’ for tolerating or accepting the bad effect.
“The morality of the self-giving of vital organs depends on how the acting person relates himself in his freely chosen act to the great goods of healthy functioning and life itself. If the harm (including the mutilation) suffered by the donor — but in no way intended either by him or those involved in the transplant — does not impair his functional integrity, the evil suffered is an unintended side effect of an act of self-giving, a morally good act. However, were the donor’s own functional integrity and hence his own health and life to be impaired, it would be wrong for him to choose to give it because the means he would choose, endangering his own health and life, is bad although intended for a good end, but one can never intend or choose evil for the sake of good to come.”
Jerri Donohue writes from Ohio.