Melissa Camardo '96 and Jennifer Gordon '98

Sisters for life

Melissa Camardo '96 and Jennifer Gordon '98

Rejane Cytacki

When Melissa Camardo and Jennifer Gordon were growing up, neither had an inkling that they would one day become Roman Catholic nuns. Even though both had grown up in households grounded in Catholicism, joined the Duke Catholic Center as first-year students, and embarked on several faith- and service-based extracurricular pursuits during their time on campus, it took years for them to find their calling.

Still, for both women, there were moments at Duke that provided glimpses into what joining a religious community might look like. For Gordon, it was a retreat weekend during her sophomore year. A sister who worked with the Catholic center asked Gordon whether she had ever considered religious life. "I really hadn't," recalls Gordon, "but I wasn't surprised by the question. I think God had already planted that seed, even though I wasn't aware of it."

For Camardo, similar fall-break encounters her sophomore and senior years—immersion experiences working with the poor in Honduras and in Durham—shaped a vision of how she could combine her deepening faith and commitment to international service work.

By design, the process of joining a religious order in the Catholic Church takes years. After graduating from Duke, both Gordon and Camardo worked or volunteered for faith-based organizations at home and abroad. As they found meaning and sustenance in the work, they began to realize that they were being called to a life of faith-based service. They joined the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, a community of women who have dedicated their lives to serving God through attending to women, children, and the poor in the areas of education, health care, social services, and pastoral ministry.

Camardo made her perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 2006; Gordon, in 2009. Today, Camardo is vice president for mission and sponsorship at Exempla St. Joseph Hospital in Denver. She focuses on the hospital's mission of providing health care, particularly for the city's neediest populations, as an expression of faith.

This includes determining whether a new medical initiative complements the institution's mission, working with community-outreach initiatives, and supporting a values-based hospital culture. (The Sisters of Charity founded St. Joseph Hospital in 1873 and cosponsored the creation of Exempla Healthcare in 1998. Camardo is one of ten Sisters of Charity working at the hospital.)

Gordon works in what's called mission integration at Providence Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, and at St. John Hospital in Leavenworth, Kansas, coordinating the hospitals' community-benefit activities and providing support to employees, patients, and their families. "Of course there are fewer sisters than there were fifty years ago, and that's okay," she says. "Religious life will look different in the future, but it is still a viable option, and God is still calling people to this life."

Both Camardo and Gordon laugh at the outdated notion of nuns as stern women cloaked in habits. They wear street clothes, cheer for Duke basketball, and belong to the Sisters of Charity Facebook page. "Being a sister is life-giving," says Camardo.

"My Duke experience was pivotal in shaping my spiritual and professional journey. Some people think that valuing the intellectual is antithetical to valuing the spiritual, and I just don't see it that way. Being committed to a religious and spiritual life is the fullest expression of who I am as a person." 

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