Eldest Sisters reflect on the Community’s growth and change while remaining true to its founding call of 1868
by Renae Bauer
Consider this: Some of our Sisters have been members of this Community for nearly half or more of its history.
“I’ve known all but 16 or 18 of our Sisters,” says Sister Jeanne Jarvis who will mark her 80th jubilee this August. She, like many of our eldest Sisters, has seen a dizzying amount of change in her lifetime.
To get a sense of what has endured and what has evolved in the latter half of this Community’s 150-year history, eight Sisters who are either in their 90s or professed at least 70 years ago shared their observations. Sister Bridget Stumpf, who will celebrate her 70th jubilee in August, is featured in a separate story on page 5.
All the Sisters agree that the Community’s mission and values have remained true to the founders’ vision.
“We have been and continue to be prayerful,” says Sister Mary Ellen Lowney who professed her first vows 78 years ago. “We have always been known as a Community, and we are aware of the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and Father Edward Daems,” a Crosier priest who along with four Sisters founded this Community. Together, the five worked tirelessly to provide catechetical, educational, and medical care to the immigrants of the Bay Settlement area as well as parts of Kewaunee, Door and Brown counties.
“We’ve retained our simplicity and held on to our ministry of helping the poor,” says Sister Urban Schumacher who entered in 1941. “In the beginning our assignments were among the rural poor and we
maintained that as our Sisters sought ministries among the poor.”
“Wherever we went we’d ask, ‘How can I be of service here?’” says Sister Concepta Wavrunek of the class of 1947. “We always kept in mind the importance of building the Church and the Community.”
And build they did. Many of the Sisters spoke of their first years as teachers, often having 30 to 40 children in a classroom. Even during summer, many Sisters taught two weeks of catechism at rural parishes without schools before they relocated to St. Boniface School in De Pere. One block from St. Norbert College, St. Boniface’s classrooms were converted into dormitories and served as the Sisters’ temporary residence for six weeks as they studied for their teaching degrees at the college.
“The highlight was being together and getting to know older Sisters who taught me in grade school,” says Sister Urban of her time at St. Boniface. “We enjoyed the camaraderie.”
As summer waned, the young Sisters turned their attention to “the list.”
“Come the 15th of August the list (of assigned ministries) would come out,” says Sister Mary Paul Thetreau, a classmate of Sister Bridget’s. “You didn’t know from year to year where you would minister.” With assignments announced, the Sisters packed their trunks and moved to where they were needed. Some Sisters taught in parish schools, some were convent housekeepers, some served at Catholic institutions such as the McCormick Home for seniors in Allouez or the Crippled Children’s Home in Champion.
No matter to what ministry a Sister was assigned – be it familiar or unfamiliar -- she was encouraged to trust in the grace of God.
For Sister Virginia Churas, the challenge was to master unfamiliar work. The residents at the Crippled Children’s Home (children with a range of physical and/or cognitive disabilities) often required personal care in addition to classroom instruction. Sister remembers one girl who had soiled herself: “She looked so scared but I started laughing. She was relieved.” Those moments with the children taught her about God’s love, says Sister Virginia.
Emphasis on uniformity
Also common before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was the emphasis on uniformity.“When I entered they had just put together the common life (book) where everybody would do the same thing at the same time,” says Sister Jeanne. “We prayed at the same time, we got up at the same time, we went to bed at the same time, we observed silence at the same time. The emphasis was on rules, customs and required vocal prayers.” And strict rules.
“We had to ask for everything,” remembers Sister Mary Ellen. If a Sister wanted to write home, she had to ask for paper. Letters were inspected before they were mailed. Permission was also needed for personal items. And all the Sisters recalled the hardship of not seeing their families more than once or twice a year. Several Sisters remember their parents crying at the end of visits or being told years later of how sad their parents were to see their daughters leave home.
“I think it was harder on our parents than it was on us,” says Sister Jeanne. “We all left someone behind,” says Sister Mary Paul, “but I think that’s true in any life choice.”
Unofficial mission: Candy
Within the daily regimen, the Sister managed to have fun – in prescribed and unprescribed ways.
“There was a store near the convent and of course we weren’t supposed to go over there but a number of us did,” says Sister Mary Ellen. “One would be at the convent watching and a couple of us would go over. I did plenty of that.” When asked what was at the store, she chimes, “Candy!”
But this austere, nearly monastic, way of living changed radically after Vatican II. Above all, the council fathers examined and put into motion how the Church would relate to the modern world. Among council documents and decrees was Perfectae Caritatis, which addressed the renewal of religious life.
Congregations were challenged to shift from individual sanctification to sanctification of the world -- and
the Sisters gave a full-throated response.
“After Vatican II,” says Sister Concepta, “you were to pray about where God was calling you to serve and you entered into a discussion with leadership.”
“We moved to a sense of responsibility as an adult,” says Sister Urban. “You were encouraged to seek your own ministry with consultation” of Community leaders. “It wasn’t that you weren’t asked to do something but you were consulted. You didn’t just get it on a slip of paper.”
Like never before, Sisters were discerning ministries in nursing, social work, chaplaincy, and missions to remote, impoverished parts of the world.
Following the call
Attracted to chaplaincy, Sister Martin Vandervest enrolled in a program in Milwaukee. As part of her internship there she visited patients, some from cultures not common in Green Bay at that time. She remembers one patient who gave her a grapefruit with a bow on it. For her, it was a sign she could do this ministry. Sister Martin went on to minister for 14 years at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago near Gary, Indiana, before returning to Northeast Wisconsin.
Fifty years have passed since Vatican II and undoubtedly there have been tectonic shifts in the customs, governance and lived gifts of women religious but the core remains unchanged: the Sisters trust in the grace of God to serve the Lord and the needs of the people.
“It has to be God working through you,” says Sister Jeanette Peplinski. As a missionary to the First Nations people in Tache, British Columbia, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Sister Jeanette learned that one’s ministry doesn’t depend on what you do but rather on how your relate to others. “That’s the way God works. He touches one person at a time.”
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