There was a time, many years ago, when most of the women religious encountered by the public were teachers or sometimes nurses.
The resulting stereotype of women religious lingers today, noted Walworth native Sister Colleen O’Toole, who currently is completing her second novitiate year and hopes to soon profess her temporary vows as a Sister of Mercy. Sister O’Toole first began contemplating religious life in high school, but dismissed the idea at the time because she didn’t want to become a teacher.
“I thought that was all they did,” she recalled.
After spending more time with women religious, however, Sister O’Toole learned that while many women religious are excellent teachers, they also serve their communities in a wide variety of other ways. This point is borne out by the group of Sisters of St. Joseph and Sisters of Mercy celebrating jubilees this year, who have served in numerous ministries in both the Rochester region and far-away locales.
Sisters of Mercy
After joining the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Borromeo Povero, who is celebrating her 75th jubilee this year, became a teacher and never looked back.
“Teaching was my favorite ministry. I enjoyed learning and wanted to pass it on to others,” she explained.
Sister Povero was a foreign-language teacher for 52 years, teaching at high schools in Cayuga, Chemung, Monroe and Steuben counties. She frequently took students on field trips to Europe, and spent one year teaching on the grounds of the Sacchetti Pine Forest Park in Italy. After retiring from her full-time job, she continued to educate students as a tutor. She also is a crafter and has helped impart those skills to others as well.
Sister Dorothy Loeb did not start her career as a religious by teaching in local Catholic schools. Instead Sister Loeb, who will be celebrating her 75th jubilee this year, became a nurse after entering the Sisters of Mercy. She worked as a staff nurse, instructor and director of nursing at St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell and ministered to poverty-stricken residents of Selma, Ala.
“This period was the most meaningful in my life, and I loved being of service to (patients),” Sister Loeb said of her 40 years as an active registered nurse.
Sister Loeb later worked in Rochester as a school nurse and social worker. She also worked in parish and school ministry and served on the staff of Melita House, which provided housing for single mothers with newborn children, and Bethany House, which provides food and temporary shelter for women and children.
Sister Anne Marie Lennon also served in parish ministry as a pastoral assistant at two Rochester parishes. Sister Lennon, who is celebrating her 70th jubilee this year, also taught at Our Lady of Mercy High School for 31 years. She said she found both school and parish ministry to be quite fulfilling.
“Through my ministries I met thousands of students and adults to whom and with whom I ministered. They have enriched and blessed my life immeasurably, and I hope I have enriched theirs as well,” Sister Lennon remarked.
Sister Noreen Graney, who also is celebrating her 70th jubilee this year, began her ministry in the classroom, teaching at high schools in Monroe and Chemung counties as well as an elementary school in Steuben County and Catherine McAuley College in Rochester.
But she said her favorite ministerial experience was the 11 years she spent with Tioga County Rural Ministry, an Owego-based ecumenical outreach that provides food, supplies and other services to residents of Tioga and surrounding counties. She also spent eight years as outreach coordinator and housing manager with Mercy Residential Services in Rochester and currently is involved in the Sisters of Mercy’s prayer ministry.
Sister Susan Cain also has been involved in rural ministry within the Diocese of Rochester. Sister Cain, who is celebrating her 60th jubilee this year, taught for several decades before becoming executive director of Steuben County Rural Ministry in 2000. She led the Canisteo-based agency for 13 years and still volunteers with the ministry, which provides food, clothing, household items, emergency financial assistance and referrals.
Like Sister Cain and her fellow Sisters of Mercy, Sister Jane Kenrick also devoted much of her life to carrying out the corporal works of mercy.
“Being a Sister of Mercy has given me the opportunity to work with the very poor, who have evangelized me,” remarked Sister Kenrick, who is celebrating her 60th jubilee this year.
Sister Kenrick taught for six years before moving to Chile in 1966 to work with her congregation’s mission there. In Chile her favorite experience was ministering to people suffering from AIDS and their families. In 1994 she established a support group for patients and their families with the goal of “helping them live rather than accompanying them on their journey to death.”
Sister Kathleen Kolmer, who is celebrating her 50th jubilee this year, said she considers herself lucky to be able to live out a religious vocation while also serving as a mother of sorts to many children. Sister Kolmer is codirector of Rochester’s Andrews Center, which provides foster care for children who suffer from physical, neurological and emotional disabilities. She and the rest of the staff of Andrews Center work with each child into adulthood and also offer emotional support and supportive child care for the children’s parents.
“We work with families to keep them unified,” she said.
Sisters of St. Joseph
Many Sisters of St. Joseph did in fact become teachers shortly after entering the congregation, enjoying decades of work in the classroom.
“It is hard to believe that 60 years have unfolded and I find myself still enjoying what I have always loved most — the education of children of various ages, needs and diversities,” remarked Sister Damian Goffredo, who this year is celebrating her 60th jubilee.
Sister Goffredo served at elementary schools in Monroe County as well as School of the Holy Childhood in Henrietta. She currently serves part time at Nazareth Elementary School in Rochester.
Sister Clare Francis Mogenhan, who is celebrating her 70th jubilee this year, devoted 60 years to the education of children, first as a teacher at diocesan schools in Rochester, Ithaca, Lima and Dansville. She later served as principal at two Rochester schools, and then as administrator and director at Trinity Montessori School.
Sister Ann Xavier Gantert, who also is celebrating her 70th jubilee this year, taught mathematics at high schools in Monroe and Ontario counties as well as an elementary school in Monroe County. She also wrote math textbooks, which enabled Sister Gantert to extend her love of mathematics beyond her own classrooms and to share it with others.
“When I was no longer able to teach or write, my ministry changed,” Sister Gantert observed. “I now use my sewing skills to produce useful things that bring the beauty of color and harmony of God’s world into homes.”
Sister Mary Christopher Kuchman, who also is celebrating her 70th jubilee this year, went into the field of health care instead of education. She served first as a nurse and then as teacher of nursing at local hospitals and convents. Later she became director of the School of Nursing at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, Ala. She currently volunteers at St. Francis and St. Clare Parish in Waterloo and Seneca Falls.
“Each ministry brought me close to the Lord, sharing his love and service,” Sister Kuchman said.
Many SSJ jubilarian sisters share similar sentiments. Sister Alice Cooney, for example, termed the opportunities that have come her way “profound graces” for which she always will be grateful.
Sister Cooney, who is celebrating her 60th jubilee this year, was an elementary-school teacher for several years after entering the congregation, but then embarked upon a new adventure in parish ministry.
“This was during the years of the unfolding of the teachings in the wonderful documents of the Second Vatican Council,” she reminisced.
Over the years she served as coordinator of religious education at parishes in Monroe and Ontario counties as well as pastoral associate and pastoral administrator at two Monroe County parishes. She also served for some time as Catholic chaplain at Monroe Community Hospital.
Sister Sheila Walsh, who also is celebrating her 60th jubilee this year, also has served in a wide variety of ministries. After teaching for several years she entered parish ministry, serving first as a director of religious education and later as a pastoral associate.
During her time as a pastoral associate Sister Walsh became a real-estate broker and in 1988 opened Sheila Walsh Realty.
“I wanted to try to work with low-income people, but also to raise money for the congregation,” she explained, noting that it is extremely rare for a woman religious to be a real-estate broker.
The real-estate company was sold last year, but Sister Walsh still works with the firm as an associate broker. She also has dabbled in theater, and in the late 1970s she brought teens from Rochester’s St. Augustine and St. Monica parishes together to form the Upstairs Youth Agency.
“We had about 60 kids on stage. A lot of them were street kids. They didn’t have to try out. We just wanted people clapping for them,” she recalled.
Sister Walsh served as executive producer for the Upstairs Youth Agency’s productions as well as the productions of the Second Time Around Players, a group formed in 2010 by former members of the Upstairs Youth Agency.
While much of Sister Walsh’s ministry has taken place in the Rochester region, the opposite is true for Sister Jean Bellini, who is celebrating her 50th jubilee this year. Sister Bellini has served in Brazil since 1976, when she joined the mission her order had founded there in 1964 in response to Pope John XXIII’s call for religious communities to establish missions in South America. Through this mission, Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester provide education, health care, counseling services and pastoral care for the Brazilians, many of whom live in very rural areas.
Sister Marilyn Pray, on the other hand, has spent much of her time ministering to people in urban areas here at home. Sister Pray, who also is celebrating her 50th jubilee this year, initially served as a teacher in two Rochester elementary schools. She also served at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, which feeds the hungry and shelters the homeless in Rochester, and at St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, which provides physical, dental and mental-health services to uninsured and underinsured families and individuals in Rochester. She also served as coordinator of evangelization at Rochester’s Holy Apostles Parish and as codirector of vocations for her congregation.
“Each experience opened up a new world of challenge and meaning. I learned to live in community differently at St. Joseph’s House with homeless guests and refugees. This life demanded growth in prayer, contemplation, advocacy and activism, including civil disobedience. This winding path led me to becoming a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, and who would have guessed … an elected leader,” said Sister Pray, who is currently vice president of the congregation’s leadership team.