I know God is calling, but how can I be sure when? How can I be sure of the next move? How can I be sure this is the right community? How can I be sure what God wants?
My life has been full of questions like these. As a child in grade school I wanted to be a teacher and all of my teachers were Sisters of St. Agnes, so naturally I wanted to be a Sister of St. Agnes, too. Then God made me question things by giving me a lay teacher in 5th grade. Yes, I still felt the call to be a Sister. When 8th grade came I prayed for guidance but didn’t get a clear answer as to when I should enter the convent. During my freshman year it became clear that now was the time. Various times during formation God seemed to put something before me to help me question, clarify and reinforce my sense of call. Before the time of making a permanent commitment to CSA and to God I questioned if this were the right community.
Hearing a call from God takes courage. I am grateful to God for that courage to give God the time, to talk with wisdom people and to wrestle with the questions that led me to answering the call.
Now, 35 years later I reflect on the blessings that God has placed in my life as a vowed member of the Sisters of St. Agnes. I am grateful for the time spent in the classroom with children and in school administration. Both gave me the opportunity to share my love for God with others and to help them along the way of a deeper relationship with God. I also received the love and support of the school/parish community. I received challenges that helped me grow. I give thanks for the opportunities I’ve been given to work with people of other cultures. The world is bigger than my little slice of it. God is bigger than my little view.
The call of baptism, the call of religious life is a call to a deep love relationship with God. This love spills over into love for others and for self. How do I know what God wants? Sometimes the process is messy, but I believe that all love relationships are messy. It is in the messiness that we learn and grow to become the person we are created to be. Sometimes by living in the messiness the voice of God becomes clearer. Sometimes we don’t know what God wants. We try one thing and then have to change because we know that it was a wrong turn. Religious life has been the life to which God called me, and it has brought me a sense of peace and love even in times of struggle. I know I am happier than I would be following any other life style. It’s right for me.
How does one know if God is calling her to religious life? How does one know that she’s chosen the right person to marry? Sometimes you just know.
Now, many years have passed since "I heard a call", but it is as vivid to me as if it happened yesterday. I didn't believe it. A “call" to religious life? It wasn't clear..."to become a Sister?" Was I dreaming?
It all started when a priest gave a sermon on God's calling each of us by name, and calling us to a particular walk in life. "Yes", he said, "and God may be calling one of you to become a Sister of St. Agnes...a missionary...who knows?"
After leaving Mass, I could not forget his final words, "Yes, and God may be calling one of you...who knows?" I had always dreamed of becoming a nurse, going to a foreign land to work with the poor...maybe join the Peace Corps...??
The internal struggle began. "Oh no, not ME! I'm about to graduate from nursing. I need to get a job and pay off my student loan. Not ME! I'm dating and he's a really nice guy. What would I tell him? Besides, I want to have children and raise a family. What will my classmates think? What will my parents and brothers and sisters say?"
I prayed for days that God would just let me forget the whole thing, that the very idea was absurd, that I wasn't worthy of receiving such a personalized message from God. All to no avail. My mind and heart were in turmoil and my emotions in upheaval. I couldn't eat, sleep would not come, and I cried night after night feeling so alone. Finally after a week, I confided in a trusted nursing instructor who was a Sister. My entire story came spilling out while she listened intently, and with deep respect asked all the details of my struggle, turmoil, and tears. When she felt I had exhausted all my excuses and protests against God, she asked gently, "Tell me, my friend, why would God NOT be calling you?" I had no good or reasonable response. She gave me time away, time to think, and she promised prayers and offered a listening ear whenever I wanted to chat. She waited until my "yes" could be spoken.
That was the beginning of my life's journey as a Sister of St. Agnes, living out the mission of Jesus through nursing, foreign missionary work, hospice ministry, community living, and many other experiences of prayer and ministry. I said simply, "Yes, Lord, I hear You." I repeat that daily. There are no regrets, because God's love for me far surpasses my human efforts.
Caryl (pronounced Carol) Hartjes was born at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, Wisconsin, just in time for breakfast. Caryl jokes that this is probably why she's been "hungry all my life" - hungry for freedom and justice and peace as well as food.
Caryl was welcomed into the world by her parents, Theodore and Alice Susan Ronning Hartjes, and Juanita ("Juany") who was thirteen months older. Little Jean came nine years later.
Caryl's great grandmother came from Germany and lived with Caryl's mother's family. So Caryl's mother grew up knowing about the German culture - holidays, food, and isolated German words. Although Mr. Hartjes' father came from Holland (Hartjes is a Dutch name), the family never spoke about their Dutch heritage. In 1991, after her parents had died, Caryl, Juany, and Jean went to Holland to find out about the Dutch side of their family.
Alice Ronning met Theodore Hartjes while she was directing a play in which he had a lead part one summer in Little Chute, Wisconsin. Mr. Hartjes was a bookkeeper, a credit manager at a furniture sotre, and several other places, including his brother's business. When the family needed money, he was able to do odd jobs like sell insurance for the Knights of Columbus. Even so, the Hartjes girls did without many things other children had, but it didn't bother them. Although Mrs. Hartjes was a stay-at-home mom, before her marriage she taught in a one room schoolhouse as well as traveled around the country doing plays in the summer. She passed her love of music, dance, and education onto her three daughters, especially Caryl who started taking piano lessons in the third grad. They had a piano in their home - a Christmas gift from their dad to their mom. Even though her mom was a pianist, the family didn't play music together. However, the girls practiced reading poetry and prose while their mother ironed. Mrs. Hartjes insisted on good diction and Caryl learned to love reading. Every Saturday she would go to the public library and come home with an armful of books. She never bought a book and even to this day doesn't buy books (unless they're needed for a class) or much else for that matter.
A simple lifestyle became part of Caryl's existence during these early years. She was happy, although the family didn't have much in the way of worldly goods. Her dad taught her the value of money. She babysat and did odd jobs for 25 cents a week. Her dad brought her a moneybag with a drawstring and a bankbook in which to record her income and expenses. Every penny had to be recorded. Her first purchases were a basketball hoop and basketball.
In the fourth grade, Caryl began playing the violin. She could rent a violin for $2.00 per year. She studied violin at the same time she was taking piano lessons. As a result, she didn't learn either well. She preferred the violin to piano so she stopped taking piano lessons and continued taking violin lessons with the same teacher through high school.
During grade school, Caryl began thinking about being called to religious life. Some day she'd like to be a Sister. She went with her parents to an open house at a convent close to her home. In the eighth grade Caryl was five feet, nine inches tall. It seemed to her that everyone at the convent was short, drab, and sad. There was no music and no color, only black and white. No that life wasn't for her!
In high school, music was Caryl's life. She bought a violin for $100 and joined the orchestra as well as a trio - piano, cello, and violin. She played the violin for forty years until she stopped playing in the 1980s. While she was in New York, her good violin was stolen and no other violin seemed the same to her. Also, she got so busy that didn't have time to practice. Rather than not sound as good as she wanted, she quit playing.
Although music was so important to her, she never considered playing professionally. Rather, she always wanted to be a nurse. Her mother had taken a home nursing course and was able to take good care of her family.
However, Caryl wanted to be a nurse tomorrow. She entered St. Agnes School of Nursing in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin right after graduation from high school because they promised her that she could be with sick people in six weeks.
Caryl was indeed engaged in nursing activities within six weeks. Moreover, she had a brand new experience - living in very close quarters with many other women her age. The rules at St. Agnes School of Nursing were very strict. Up until this time the role of a nurse was looked down upon and schools of nursing tried to upgrade the status of nursing. It was extremely important that no one, not even a student nurse, would embarrass the profession.
When Caryl was a freshman, she met Sister Corinne Heimann, CSA. To Caryl, she was everything a nurse and a sister should be. One time Caryl saw Sister Corrine jump over a hedge and Caryl realized that sisters could be playful. Caryl began thinking about becoming a sister again. She also believed that in addition to a call to religious life, a woman could receive a call to a specific community.
In January, Caryl made her first retreat. It was three days after that retreat that she and another student nurse, Rosanne Van Lanen, talked about going to the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes. Rosanne entered in the fall, but Caryl waited until after she finished her nurses' training. Rosanne did become a sister; she took the name Sister Anne Jude.
When Caryl told her dad she wanted to become a sister, he liked the idea. Her mom said that was because he wouldn't have to share Caryl with any other man.
During nurses' training, Caryl had fallen playing basketball and hit her head which resulted in a concussion. She was hospitalized for a while and missed two months of schools so she couldn't graduate with her class. Although she graduated in October, she had to work until January so that she could afford the fees and items to enter the convent. The sisters at St. Agnes Hospital made all of her new clothes. Caryl always said that going to the convent was not as big an adjustment as starting nursing school.
Caryl received the name Sister Theodine after her father Theodore. She became the night supervisor on the medical floor and Sister Theodine was happy about that and alternated being head nurse with Sister Anne Jude because Sister Anne Jude was her big sister in nursing school. During this time she had a variety of nursing experiences which was a great help to her future. After six years in Fond du Lac, she went to work at St. Anthony Hospital in Hays, Kansas. She didn't get back to work in Fond du Lac for thirty-five years.
While in Kansas, Sister Irene Kohne invited her to develop a countywide home health agency. Sister Theodine loved it in Kansas, the driving back and forth to work, the hot, sunny weather, and the German culture. She discovered the need to connect between the hospital and home health care. Home health care instructions needed to be followed up in the home, not just given in the hospital.
Sister Theodine was sent by Sister Irene Kohne to Kansas City to learn how to setup an Intensive Care Coronary unit. While she was in the process of developing this unit, she was sent to work in Spanish Harlem in New York City.
By this time she had decided to resume the use of her baptismal name of Caryl and she learned that she was called to develop programs, not just to maintain them.
In order to work in Spanish Harlem with the Puerto Ricans, one summer Caryl took a Spanish language intensive program at St. Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin. The next summer she participated in a diocesan Spanish language program being offered in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She spent two months studying at a university and the third month living with a Puerto Rican family.
While walking the streets of Harlem, Sister Caryl learned about different Spanish cultures, health care on the streets, the connection between poor housing and poor health, and that serving the poor was really serving Jesus. When she saw a gentleman sitting in his doorway, these words came to her, "What you do to these you do to Me."
The Little Sisters of the Assumption in Harlem asked Sister Caryl to design a "Grandmother Program" to train women who had raised their children to become mentors to other mothers so they could learn health and child care. She coordinated this program for three years, but worked in Spanish Harlem for many years.
Even when Sister Caryl was in Kansas, she began to realize she as being called to a specific kind of ministry. She worked with her superiors to match her skills with the needs of the Church. While she was in Harlem, she became part of a group of people with different religions who studied non-violence. They looked at the examples of men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. They wanted to bring these princples of non-violence to local people. Sister Caryl also began to examine the areas of violence within her.
After this non-violence training, she began to follow the revolution in Nicaragua, a country in Central America. When the revolution was over Sister Eileen Mahony, CSA, who was nursing in Nicaragua, asked Caryl to come to Nicaragua to take her place. Sister Caryl agreed to go to Nicaragua because she wanted the experience of living in a country that was being recontructed after a war. In Nicaragua, she experienced another culture - the Miskito Indian culture. She was a nurse in the clinic in Waspam, Nicaragua. While Sister Caryl was in Waspam, she encountered a particular circumstance that made her feel as if she were really serving Christ's poor. During Lent a woman came to the clinic every week to have her blood pressure checked. Her son was put in prison by the government and his mother was very worried about him. As Sister Caryl shared this mother's painful story, she felt as if she were walking with Christ and Mother Mary as He went through His passion. When the prisoner was released on Easter morning, Sister Caryl felt as if she gone through the Way of the Cross with Christ's Mother through the Crucifixion until the Resurrection.
After Sister Caryl returned from her thirteen months in Nicaragua - a "year of learning" - she went to Maryknoll School of Theology to get a Masters Degree in Theology with a concentration in Justice and Peace. It was a wonderful experience for Sister Caryl. She studied with people from all over the world and learned about their different ways. She had chosen this course of studies because she believed that people in countries like Nicaragua were suffering as a result of some of the policies of the United States Government. Going to school at Maryknoll in New York State helped her to realize that there might be some truth in this.
Newburgh (upstate), New York was the next place that Sister Caryl went to serve poor people. Her friends had gone there the year before to open up a "drop in" center for people who lived on the street. It was Sister Caryl's first experience living with five sisters from other religious communities. She learned that she didn't need to do things for poor people but to help them know how to help themselves. There she founded an organization that would rebuild houses.
At this time Sister Caryl realized that she was being called to do two more things in her life - work with Native Americans as well as people who had AIDS. Next she went out to Navajo, New Mexico which was a lumber company town on a Navajo reservation. She worked with Sister Josephine Goebel, CSA, teaching religion. This was a year of great internal growth for Sister Caryl. She realized that the Native American reality was much different than what is taught in United States history. Every person in the world can make a contribution. Respect for the earth and prayer of the universe became important to her. Her prayer life had grown and expanded everywhere she had been. She had prayed with yoga and dance in New York. In New Mexico, she incorporated playfulness into her prayer life.
After a year in Navajo, Sister Caryl was appointed to be one of the leaders of the Sisters of St. Agnes. This happened at a good time in her life and she was glad to be back in her own culture. For four years, she worked with Sisters of St. Agnes in the Southwestern United States, Kansas, Boyle Apostolic Center and St. Agnes Convent in Fond du Lac.
Then she had a year's internship in a Washington, D.C. AIDS group. She lived with people with that disease and learned a lot about it. After that year she went to Pennsylvania where some peole she knew from Newburgh had opened a hospice for AIDS patients. For four years, she treasured walking the death journey with people there. When new drugs decreased deaths from AIDS, her work became more focused on the addictions and lifestyle, which were responsible for people getting AIDS.
So Sister Caryl once again experienced God's call. This time she felt the urge to come back to Fond du Lac where a new Hospice Home of Hope had been opened. Geographically, she had come "full circle."
Meanwhile, Sister Caryl had been watching the "School of the Americas" in Fort Benning , Georgia. It is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). She had seen the effects of this school while she was in Nicaragua. Native soldiers would torture and sometimes kill their own people, using the training they had received at WHINSEC.
Also, while she worked with the Navajo on the reservation, she learned the value of the earth and the damage that was done by the violence of nuclear testing. One year a whole group of Sisters of St. Agnes went to the Nevada test site and had a prayer service there. Sisters Caryl and Marie Scott, CSA were arrested for defying the authorities. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the two of them were confined in the hot desert sun for several hours. This was Sister Caryl's first taste of frustration with the United States Justice System.
For the past ten years, Sisters of St. Agnes and associates had gone to WHINSEC to protest their method of training soliders. They would join thousands of others who would stand outside the gates of Fort Benning to ask the United States Government to stop their teachings of violence.
Then in 2002, while she was at the annual demonstration, God opened Sister Caryl's ears to really listen to the speech of a woman from Guatemala who had lost members of her family to violence. Sister Caryl heard the woman say, "Stop training our soldiers to rape, torture, kidnap, and murder our people. Jesus says, 'What you do for them, you do for me."
Sister Caryl knew she had to do something to try to close that school. Although she was "frightened out of her wits" she knew she had to commit an act of civil disobedience, that is to cross the line of federal property. That action would certainly end in her arrest.
Sister Caryl was arrested, fingerprinted, photographed and taken to the local jail in wrist and ankle chains. She wanted to get across the message that the school needed to be closed. She was arrested by a United States Army officer and kept in jail overnight. The next morning she was taken to a judge. Ths Sisters of St. Agnes had to post $500 bail and Sister Caryl was released.
She returned two months later before the same judge in the same courtroom. There were 65 in the group, but ten were underage, so 55 were given sentences. The $500 were returned upon request. Sister Caryl was sentenced to serve three months in a Federal Woman's Prison in Danbury, Connecticut.
In Danbury, Sister Caryl had two life-changing experiences. Number one, of course, was prison itself. Her first four days were spent in maximum security because she was considered "a risk" even though there was nothing in writing that said she was a risk. She stayed the next two months in medium security, which was a little less restricting. While in prison, Sister Caryl experienced a torn retina in her eye. She was taken in chains between two guards to the eye doctor. It was hard to see other people's reaction to her. They looked at her like she was a criminal. The last month of her prison term, she was permitted to be in minimum security which was where she was supposed to be in the first place. One of the things about prison that bothered Sister Caryl the most was the constant noise. Noise is violence. During all this time Sister Caryl was supported by prayer, letters, and visits from Sisters of St. Agnes, friends, and family.
The second amazing event that happened while she was in prison was that she received a letter stating that in 1930, Alice Susan Ronning delivered a baby girl at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and she was adopted by a Catholic family. The writer of the letter was this adopted baby who was raised as an only child, lived a normal life, married her high school sweetheart, and had four boys. After her adoptive parents died, Delores (Dodie) wondered if she had siblings or a family. She looked for twenty years without results. She contacted a genealogist and looked at the 1930 census to find an Alice Susan Ronning in Ashland, Wisconsin. She looked up the current U.S. census and did not find Alice Susan Ronning. She did find an obituary for (Grandma) Anna Ronning which listed a daughter Alice, wife of Ted Hartjes, and grandchildren Juanita in Appleton, Jean in Canada, and Sister Caryl Hartjes. Delores got a tour of St. Agnes Convent, got Sister Caryl's address, and then wrote to Sister Caryl in prison. Dodie is now living in Milwaukee and was warmly welcomed into the family by Juany, Jean, and Sister Caryl.
Today Sister Caryl volunteers at Hospice Home of Hope in Fond du Lac, gives talks about her prison experience, tries to get across the message that WHINSEC needs to be closed, participates in weekly peace rallies at Veterans' Park in Fon ddu Lac, and she also volunteers at local prisons. She visits with Juany and her "new sister" Dodie and Jean when she comes from Canada. Unfortunately, Sister Caryl is on the Federal Criminal List since her arrest at Fort Benning so she cannot travel to Canada. This shows that all of our choices have long-range consequences.
Above all, Sister Caryl appreciates her precious freedom - freedom to live her life as she sees right, freedom to continue to answer God's call as a Sister of St. Agnes and freedom to go where she is led next, whereever that may be.
© 2009 Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes
When was my vocation planted? I guess I could say when I was about five years old. My mother had three of us siblings at her knees teaching us night prayers. At one point she made a comment, “Wouldn’t it be nice if one of our girls would become a Sister?” For me the seed was planted!
Arriving at the age of thirteen, I questioned my vocation. I desired fun times like going out dancing with my friends, or joining a group doing things for the parish. My uncle, a Divine Word priest, was sure I had a vocation to the Sisters of Divine Word. I told my mother I didn’t want to go there, neither did I want to go to any convent!
Yet God kept calling, inviting but not pushing. The thought kept coming to my mind again and again. It was almost as if a stationary cloud was over my head. I began praying the Memorare each evening before retiring. I wanted to do God’s will, believing only in that will I would be happy. I struggled with myself for six years. Finally, one night while waiting for sleep to come, I pictured myself in a convent. An utter peace came over me. That was it. I no longer wanted to struggle with the idea. I got myself ready with the help of some wonderful Sisters of St. Agnes.
On August 31, 1947 I entered with my sister who was six years younger than myself. Never have I regretted this decision. I have found utter joy and peace with the Congregation of St. Agnes. Struggles came, yes; but they always helped me mature and become a better person. Thanks be to God.
Family has been the real source of my vocation to consecrated life as a Sister of St. Agnes. I grew up with six sisters and my parents. I was number six of the seven girls. At a very early age I learned the give and take rule necessary to live in community. God was very much a part of my life growing up. We lived across the street from the Catholic Church so I had the opportunity to go to Mass during the week when I felt like it. I saw my mother go pretty regularly so I started going as well. My mother also prayed the rosary during the week, often with the radio rosary, and many times I would pray with her.
When I was in 6th grade one of my older sisters joined the Sisters of St. Agnes. She had gone to college to become a nurse but then entered religious life. We could go to visit her three times a year and I always enjoyed the visits. I got to meet other sisters in her group and sisters who were her teachers. Everyone was so nice and so welcoming. I believe the seed that was planted in my family experience was being cultivated during these visits with my sister and all with whom she lived.
My years in high school and first years of college were pretty regular I would say. It had the normal amount of studying along with plenty of extra curricular activities. There was band, chorus, cheerleading, church choir, girl scouts to name a few. Dating was part of the high school and college experience as well. In college I was wondering what I was supposed to be feeling as I was dating. There always seemed to be something missing in the experience.
After my first year of college at UW Sheboygan, WI I transferred to Marian College in Fond du Lac, WI. Somewhere inside of me I knew I needed to be in a place where I could better discern my call to religious life. At Marian, along with all the normal college activities, I had opportunities to interact with young women who were in the formation process to become sisters. Talking with them assured me that they were normal folks and very happy people. It assured me that God doesn’t call us to be unhappy, but happy.
During that year at Marian I had the opportunity to talk with a sister on the formation team who helped me to ask the right questions and then to move in the direction I felt God was calling me. I wrote a letter to the Mother Superior asking to be accepted into the community. Upon receiving an affirmative reply I then had to tell my parents and sisters. I was a little nervous facing my parents and letting them know that I felt called to become a sister. They were reservedly happy for me at that moment but as time went on and they could see that this is what would really bring fulfillment and joy in my life, they became very happy and supportive of my decision. My sisters were generally supportive. My younger sister was disappointed at first; she wanted me to get married, but she came around and then was happy for me as well.
Throughout my life as a sister I have been called to discern many different things; what ministry am I called to? Where, in the community, does God want me to minister? Is this community one where my time and energy will be used well for God? I have taught in elementary grades in WI, NY, IN and been a campus minister at Marian College in Fond du Lac, WI as well as at Arizona State University in AZ. It is through continued prayer and a deepening relationship with God that I know what God is asking of me. My sisters in community allow God to speak through them to help me know and continue to respond to God's ever growing call to love.
There were three answers I would give when, as a child, I was asked: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I was going to be a Marine - my uncle, who was my hero, was a Marine; I was going to play center field for the New York Yankees - somewhere along the line I had read a book about Lou Gehrig; and I was going to be a Sister - though I was fascinated by religious ritual since kindergarten, my first encounter with Sisters was in third grade. I gave up on a career in the Marines when my uncle died; I realized that playing for the Yankees was out of the question; but I never stopped wanting to be a Sister.
I must admit that I have no idea what attracted me to religious life. I was certainly too young to think about mission or commitment. It was not unusual in those days for young girls who went to parochial school to entertain that possibility. All I know is that I never really wanted to be anything else. I admired the Sisters who taught me and I wanted to be one of them. For me, the issue was not why I entered, but why I stayed. For me, discernment took place after I entered the congregation, not before. One might ask: „How did you know?‟ I don‟t know how I knew; I just knew. That is not to say that there was no uncertainty. I do not believe there is any life where one does not struggle with some kind of uncertainty. However, I firmly believe that if we follow the insights that we gain along the way, even if we make mistakes, those mistakes will not destroy us. We might have to suffer because of them, but if we are faithful to the insights, life will unfold with marvelous possibilities.
I always thought that I was destined to be with the Sisters of St. Agnes because I was born in an Agnesian hospital and had the Sisters of St. Agnes as teachers from grades 1-12. I, however, did not always dream that I would end up being a Sister of St. Agnes.
I enjoyed life as a teenager and early college student, but in the back of my mind something was missing. I wanted to give myself to something bigger than myself. In college I studied special education because that seemed like it was something in which I could make a difference. Even as I did my internships and worked with the special needs children there was a nagging thought in me that this wasn't it. I had always attended daily Mass and even this was not comforting to me as it once was. I was searching, but I did not know for what.
In high school and early college I was very active in my parish church. While I was in the folk choir several of the sisters joined our choir. I looked up to the sisters and thought, "Did I dare ask to be a sister?" And, I did not know if the Sisters would take me because I was from a divorced family. I was invited to visit the convent at our local parish and felt at home immediately. The sisters were very kind and caring to me. I became an affiliate and grew to know the sisters in my town a lot better. I traveled to Fond du Lac for information meetings and eventually took the big step to move to Fond du Lac to attend Marian College. This was a big step for me because it meant moving my entire life to a place that was unfamiliar to me. Slowly, I came to realize that my yearning was mellowing and that I was indeed going in the direction of doing something and joining something that was "bigger" than myself.
As I encountered some ups and downs in the days that followed my moving to and living in Fond du Lac, I was still determined to follow my heart and become a Sister of St. Agnes. It wasn't always easy. I had doubts and with every doubt I would go deeper inside myself to question myself and see if this was truly where I was being led. My belief in myself and in a loving God that I trusted immensely got me through a lot.
With every step I grew to love the Sisters of St. Agnes more and more. I professed my first vows and grew in the Congregation. With every year that I have lived as a Sister of St. Agnes I have learned more and more about life and about truly giving of myself. I know that I am doing something "bigger" with my life and am very happy. Twenty-five years have passed since I professed vows and I am not only living the life of a Sister of St. Agnes, I am living my life to the fullest and enjoying it every step of the way.
I entered the convent after eighth grade and graduated from St. Agnes High in three years before entering the novitiate. I received my degree in education from Marian College and Masters Degrees from Notre Dame and Loyola University of Chicago. I was privileged to travel abroad on several occasions: to a conference in Rome and while there to Assisi; to Greece for study via Catholic Theological Union in Chicago; to Israel and Egypt for several months. I have also been to Nicaragua several times and have set up a partnership mission with Waspam. I feel privileged to have learned from all these experiences about other peoples, especially in third world countries. I began ministry as a middle school teacher and later taught in high school. I became a Director of Religious Education and spent about equal time in that ministry before taking the position of Pastoral Associate. I went back to school for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE training) and am now a certified chaplain. I began my current ministry at Hospice Care Inc. in Madison as the Administrative Chaplain and am currently its Director of Psych/Social/Spiritual Services.
The Sisters of St. Agnes, who have influenced me the most, were my teachers at St. John the Baptist School in Waunakee. The life and ministry of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has motivated me as well.
I participate in the mission of Christ by joyful service in an interfaith setting. My ministry is to be present with the dying and to support their loved ones. The dying process can threaten the faith life of all and I want to honor and respect the dying by maintaining their dignity and sacredness. I feel that I stand on holy ground when I am in the presence of the dying and their families. I do not take away their hope but reframe it. Just as there is peace, joy and celebration at the birth of a child, I try to help the family and loved ones of the dying to open their hands and present their loved one to the Creator or High Being. We are birthing a person into eternity. That also includes labor pains, hurt, and emptiness. But, if we focus on the person who is dying, there is peace and joy and celebration in their leaving this earth. Each death is a blessed moment in time and in eternity and those I serve enrich me. It is truly an experience of transformation.
Each person I meet has a story and an experience of life that is unique and different. My passion is to raise each person up, honor their life's story and make them whole and complete. Each death is sacred and holy; I stand in the background and marvel at the mystery that is being lived out before my very eyes. My heart is touched at each death as I give them back to their Creator.
Mother Agnes knew how important it is to care for the sick and the dying without concern about money, race or faith. I am comfortable going into any room and leaving my agenda at the door as I welcome whomever greets me with open arms and a warm heart. I am very relaxed, meeting each person where they are in the moment, and developing a personal plan of care individualized for that person's needs and concerns. My goal for each person is that I be an attentive listener, a loving advocate, and a quiet presence. My energy is on being and not doing. At first this was very difficult for me since I wanted to fix the wrong, save the lost, and cure the ailment. Now, my ministry is to live in the moment, to respect the person, and to value each life story.
My personal, ministerial dream for the future is to be free of rules and regulations that hinder God's work and presence. I want to be totally free within myself to be and to do as Jesus would be and do. My CSA ministerial dream is to enable our own Sisters to sense the sacredness and to experience the peace during the holy moments of the dying process. My church ministerial dream is to be able to administer the Sacrament of the Sick to the dying person whom I have come to love, honor, and respect.
The idea of becoming a Sister surfaced several times during my grade school years, but it was not something I took seriously until my freshman year in 1961. I had attended Catholic grade school from grade one through eight. I am the oldest of five children. I have two brothers and two sisters. This is significant because when I entered freshman year and enrolled in the public high school, I experienced a whole new feeling of freedom. I had no sisters and brothers to look after. I had fun and made several new friends.
As it turned out, looking after my sister is what opened the door to understanding my call. My sister, who was one and a half years younger than me, wanted to go to an open house at the Sisters of St. Agnes motherhouse in Fond du Lac, WI. She had no one to go with her. My mother more or less insisted that I go along and that is when it all began. I did not see my sister the whole day. She went with her age group and I went with mine. The gals that were in charge of each group were aspirants, high school girls, who lived at the motherhouse and attended the Catholic high school near by. There were a lot of them. They were friendly, happy, from just about everywhere, and most important, interested in me. The whole day was mystical. The sisters at prayer and Mass seemed to be angels praying. The hallways seemed to be oozing with mystery. I could not get rid of the feeling of wanting to be a part of this way of life.
I told NO ONE about this feeling that would NOT go away for at least three months until one noon hour I found myself walking from the high school to the Catholic grade school. I went to the Convent door and asked to see my former seventh/eighth grade teacher. Sister was very surprised but pleased to see me. I told her what I was experiencing and she immediately sat down. Her words were, “Well, God does work in strange ways! Are you sure? Your grades were never the best.”
Sister helped me write the required letters and then we waited for a response. NO ONE had known what I was up to and when I showed the letter to Mom and Dad it was a shock. Mom and Dad were quiet until Mom said “It must be your grandmother at work in heaven. She wanted to enter the Convent when she was your age but wasn’t allowed. Your great grandpa was adamant. She often told me of her feelings of being misplaced.” These statements bowled me over. Could I truly be answering a call that was my grandma’s? I was mystified.
The awareness of my grandmother’s part in my adventure gave me the fortitude to overcome all the new things that began to happen. Four months later, I had transferred to a new school, gathered all the personal items required and walked through the front doors of St. Agnes Convent as an aspirant. There were many challenges. The biggest was to BECOME a student. I discovered that I had learned a lot from the good sisters in grade school. The lack of distractions, and a quiet study atmosphere and help from nearly one hundred other aspirants and the two Sisters responsible for all of us got me through and prepared me for college.
I taught in Catholic elementary grade schools from 1968 until 2000 when I moved to Bisbee, AZ. My ministry was with Catholic Community Services until 2007. My ministry at this time is as a Director of Religious Education for St. Patrick’s Parish Mission at St. Michael’s in Naco, AZ. Life is wonderful and Sister was right…God does work in strange ways.
It was on a clear sunny morning on the west coast of Ireland that Bridie Johnston first saw the light of day. The next day she was carried to the parish church and baptized Bridget, receiving God's own life and light as a child of God.
Bridie grew up in a happy home nestled in a valley surrounded by a mountain and a hill.
She had six sisters and eight brothers. Life was simple, and though sometimes hard, filled with faith, joy, and beauty. There was not even a bicycle in the family so everyone walked everywhere, including Mr. Johnston who had to walk to the nearest village to get the doctor every time a new baby was born. New clothes were a once-a-year event when the family went back to school in September.
Both parents were interested in the children's education and saw that every one attended school when the weather permitted.
Everyone in the family had a chore to do. On Saturdays, Bridie polished the saucepans until they shone like the sun.
In spring, the Johnston children needed to pick stones from the fields. No one liked that job, and they were glad when it was completed. Also in the spring, the children helped Dad collect peat for fuel and set it out to dry. On sunny summer days long hours were spent "saving" hay. Winter was a quiet time on the farm. Mr. Johnston made a wicker basket and was proud of the finished product.
On Saturdays, everyone had fun playing school and having their oldest brother Eddie pretend to take them off to “jail.”
At night the entire family, after homework was finished, gathered around a blazing peat fire and said the rosary or listened when their grandmother and mother told stories of long ago.
Every night, Mr. Johnston visited an old man who lived down the lane. Since the old man could not read, Mr. Johnston enjoyed reading the daily newspaper to him and then discussing the news. When Dennis Gormally died, the father's reading for other people ended because the rest of the neighbors could read. Dennis was missed very much.
Bridie's First Holy Communion was a glorious day. After that, when she would receive Jesus, she often went outside to sit by a rambling, singing brook in buttercup-filled fields.
At the age of ten, Bridie was confirmed and received the Holy Spirit, Light of Lights, in a special way. At that time she was given her confirmation name: Josephine.
When Bridie was thirteen, she read about a holy woman who founded a group of sisters dedicated to the Sacred Heart. It was at this time that Bridie began to think that perhaps God was calling her to do something special.
When Bridie was seventeen, her aunt came from Chicago to visit the Johnstons. She invited Bridie to come and live with her and her husband, so she could go to school and get a job in the USA. Since there were no suitable jobs in Ireland and Bridie was the oldest child living at home, she gratefully accepted the invitation.
Thus, Bridie's eighteenth birthday found her 3,000 miles from home. She was lonely for the first ten years that she was away from her loving family, but the faith that she brought from Ireland helped her. She lived with a kind aunt and uncle in Chicago and became a secretary after a year of Business College. It was a proud moment when Bridie became an American citizen after five years of residency and great deal of intense study.
During this time, Bridie began to think more seriously about entering a convent to become a sister. She was interested in two groups — one in New York and one, the Sisters of St. Agnes, in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
Then one day, Bridie got the sad news that one of her favorite sisters, named Sister Marie Eugene, had died at a convent in France. When Bridie heard that, she knew that God had a job for her to do to continue Sister Marie Eugene's work to love souls and be a source of light and inspiration.
But where would she go to do this?
One day she discovered an interesting booklet: “Under the King's Banner.” It turned out that it was about the Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac. The Holy Spirit was lighting her way to join these women.
Early in the spring of that year, Bridie wrote to the sisters asking to become a Sister of St. Agnes. They were happy to accept her. She went back to Ireland for a visit because she thought this might be the last time she could go to see her family. When she returned to Chicago in the fall, she was too homesick to go to the convent in Fond du Lac, so she decided to wait a year. The following September she did join the Sisters of St. Agnes. It took three years of preparation and her name was changed to Sister Mary Ellen.
After Sister Mary Ellen became a sister, she went to teach in Hudson, Wisconsin, a long way from Fond du Lac. The winters were very cold in Hudson, and she caught several bad colds. At the end of the second year, she left for Crown Point, Indiana. She prepared the second and third-graders for two sacraments — Reconciliation and Eucharist.
She spent six happy years in Crown Point bringing her students closer to God and living with thirteen other sisters.
Sister Mary Ellen taught in the following places in Wisconsin: Kewaskum (twice); Sheboygan; North Fond du Lac; New Munster; Fond du Lac (three times); Marytown; and Milwaukee as well as Fort Wayne and Crown Point, Indiana; Evanston, Illinois; and Tucson, Arizona.
Sister Mary Ellen usually taught the middle grades. She didn't let a day go by without telling a story about when she attended school in far-off Ireland. Her former pupils in Kewaskum love to tell about how she would dance the Irish jig for them on St. Patrick's Day.
Living in Tucson was different from the other places. It was very hot with the temperature reading 100+ degrees in the summer. Snakes are plentiful there, too. One day Sister Mary Ellen almost stepped on one; both she and the snake were very surprised. The sunsets are very beautiful. Hopefully, everyone will get a chance to visit the picturesque state of Arizona.
Sister also spent many happy days in Evanston, Illinois. The city was very near the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan. She and another sister would walk to the lake and enjoy looking at the interesting stores along the way. Then, on the return trip, they would stop off and have coffee and a sweet roll.
Sister Mary Ellen also has been a school principal, secretary, and tutor. She is a good cook specializing in Irish soda bread. She has traveled many places to serve God in various ways.
Fortunately, she was able to return to Ireland several times, but it was very difficult for her parents to watch all of their children leave home. Seven went to England; four left for America; one went to France; and three stayed in Ireland. Eight have died and seven are living. When her brother, John, died in Ireland in the early 2000s things changed for the Johnston family. John was the last of the family to live and work on the family farm. Now their home and farm have been sold.
During retirement, Sister Mary Ellen gave more than 1500 hours of service to the Congregation of St. Agnes' Office of Justice, Peace, and Ecology. For the last few years, Sister Mary Ellen has been retired and living at Nazareth Court in Fond du Lac. She continues to spread her light in a thousand different ways — helping the elderly, visiting the sick, and doing other things other people aren't able to do. Yet she still finds time for extra prayer and reading.
Sister thanks God daily for having called her to be a Sister of St. Agnes, to be light to all those around her.
© 2008 Sisters of Saint Agnes