'Retirement' only brings change of direction
Annual collection for retired religious will be taken this weekend across the diocese
By Joanne Flemming
What: Special collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious.
When: Dec. 8-9.
Where: Parishes around the Green Bay Diocese and across the nation.
Why: To help defray the unfunded retirement liability facing religious orders projected to be $6.1 billion nationally.
History: This is the 14th annual appeal, which has raised $350 million thus far, including more than $4 million from the Green Bay Diocese. Proceeds go for grants to needy communities.
For Sr. Mary Rose O'Connell of Manitowoc, the "high points" of her 55 years as a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity came in later life -- "what you call retirement" she said with a smile.
She entered that period in her life in 1985, she recalled. She went from teaching English at Xavier High School in Appleton to managing the Keen-Agers retirement home in the former St. Therese convent.
"It was a very wonderful time, just working with the people and discovering that God could use me the way he used me," she said of her two-plus years with Keen-Agers.
Since then, she said she's learned that God has many ways of using her to help people -- as a pastoral associate, pastoral minister, Marriage Encounter and TEC team member, Koinonia spiritual director and a Bible study facilitator.
The Appleton native said the two reasons she chose to become a nun were her father's strong faith and the sisters who taught her and whom she admired.
However, she added, "Basically I'm sure it was God calling me."
Sr. O'Connell majored in music in college. She began teaching in grade school, then music education and high school English, in Ohio, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
After Keen-Agers, she went to St. Mary Parish in Kaukauna where she spent eight years as a pastoral associate.
She also worked two days a week as a pastoral minister at St. Paul's Home, where the dying and their families were her special ministry.
"God used me very well to help the dying person to take that step across the threshold into the next life without being afraid or as little afraid as possible," she said.
She did this by reminding them of Jesus' promises and that he kept saying, "Be not afraid. Be not afraid."
As pastoral associate, she trained parishioners in Befriender Ministry, introduced Elizabeth Ministry and organized a grief support group.
Sr. O'Connell worked next as pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Parish in Manitowoc. She became part of a Marriage Encounter team when friends from Kaukauna asked her help. She now receives calls to do follow-up work with couples who participate in Green Bay and Lakeshore Marriage Encounters.
Primarily, in those ministries, she listens, Sr. O'Connell said. The secret to being a good listener is recognizing that "people have a story to tell. Hearing them tell it is one of the great healing things. If I'm tuned in and have prayed about it, I am able to touch right in at the core of where they are and help them take a step out of it or go into it with more peace," she said.
Sr. O'Connell has a hard time determining which ministry is her favorite. "When I work with a TEC, I think that's my favorite. When I work a Marriage Encounter, I think that's my favorite. Everyone of these is very dear to me."
Last Lent, she was asked to lead a Bible study on the Book of Revelation at Mishicot. This fall she had classes on the Book of John in Mishicot and at Holy Family Convent in Manitowoc, where she lives. She will lead another study during Lent, 2002.
One joy of being a woman religious, Sr. O'Connell has found, is "relating to other people. Being a rather sensitive person, I am keen to people's sufferings ... more keen to their sufferings than to their joys. I have known some of the suffering they've had. That's why I can listen and say the right words to help them move forward."
Prayer has also been her first priority, she said. "I'm so aware that I would fall on my face again and again and again if God weren't holding me up."
Besides her teaching and ministries, Sr. O'Connell has traveled in Europe and the Holy Land.
She sings in the choir and plays piano and organ. While she doesn't spend as much time with her music as she wishes she could, she said she is happy to work in the ministries God has given her.
You see, she continued, she has a deal with God. She'll do what he wants her to do now on earth, if he'll let her pursue her music in heaven.