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May 23, 2006 > A fulfilled life

A fulfilled life

by Vidya Pradhan

In 1944, 14 year old Eileen Shea and her family left the comfort and security of their lives in Butte, Montana to "go west." Eileen's father worked in the copper mines near Butte, a job even more dangerous than it is today. They decided to relocate to San Francisco to find a safer way to earn a living.

It is said, "You can take a person out of Butte but you can't take Butte out of a person" and this was certainly true for young Eileen. The narrow confines of her apartment in San Francisco were a sea change from the open plains of her hometown. The clamor of street cars and city life added to her confusion. Eileen entered Immaculate Conception Academy High School on 24th Street in San Francisco, still struggling with the transition to city life. Then basketball season started and the athletic Eileen found some measure of acceptance.

"It wasn't till I started giving of myself and playing for my team that my attitude changed and I was able to feel a great sense of belonging," said Sister Charlotte Shea (who took the new name when she took her vows). Her bright eyes twinkle as she reminisces. To this day, she follows sports ardently and is an avid fan of the San Francisco Giants.

To Eileen's young and impressionable eyes, the Dominican Sisters in her high school were wonderful role models. They were kind and giving, devoted to a life of active service. These qualities appealed very much to Eileen's energetic personality. Right after high school, Eileen joined the Dominicans as a postulant. Over the next four years she completed both her secular studies and her religious training to be reborn as Sister Charlotte.

Asked if it was a difficult decision to give up on secular life, Sister Charlotte responds with a smile, "You have more chances to opt out of a religious life than a marriage!" Indeed, novitiates to the order are given several chances to leave should they feel they are not suited to the life. But Sister Charlotte had no such doubts.

In fact, with the whole-hearted support of her family, she threw herself into her life with enthusiasm, teaching at several parish schools. It was not long before her abilities were recognized and in a sweet twist of fate, she was nominated as the principal of Immaculate Conception Academy in 1961, a mere 13 years after she graduated from that august institution. "It was wonderful to go back," she said. She still keeps in touch with some of her former pupils and is excited about an upcoming reunion organized by the alumni.

After other teaching stints, Sister Charlotte came back to Mission San Jose to become the development director of the Dominican Sisters in 1985, a post she held until her retirement in 2005. While working to promote the order and to solicit contributions, she was also involved in the community.

To this end she sat on the Education Committee of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce. Later, she joined the Mission San Jose Chamber of Commerce where she is currently president. She has also been active in the Olive Festival held at the Mission San Jose where, among other jobs, she has helped visitors park their cars! Her ebullient personality has also made her the right choice to play Santa Claus at Mission San Jose Christmas ceremonies.

Sister Charlotte also finds time to be a chairwoman of the Historical Architecture Review Board in Fremont and volunteers at the Tri-City Homeless Coalition.

For her numerous achievements, Sister Charlotte has been awarded the Ohlone Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution Award for Excellence in Community Service and she was nominated by residents of the 18th Assembly District for consideration as a Citizen of Distinction, 1991. On April 30 of this year, the mayor of Fremont, Bob Wasserman, awarded her with a City Proclamation for her years of service.

Still spry at age 76, Sister Charlotte's retirement will feature the same energy and vigor she brought to her working life. In the pipeline are visits to all the devoted supporters of the order. She will continue as moderator of the Immaculate Marycrest Alumni Association in Portland, Ore. She also wants to do outreach to women who have left religious life.

Sister Charlotte has come to believe that life for today's youth is incredibly complicated and full of distractions which may well account for declining interest in joining religious orders. She notes, however, that the Dominican Sisters look forward to welcoming two new members this summer.

The new postulants are older and more educated, mainly looking for a life of prayer and spirituality. "In my younger days," she said, "the choices for young women to live a purposeful life of service were much more limited. Today there are so many more options and opportunities." She encourages young people to seek out ways to be involved in service, whether it is something like the Peace Corps or simply volunteering in their community. Sound advice from one who knows whereof she speaks.

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