By Tanya Connor
Nuns ran the Church, she thought. So she joined them.
Fifty-two years later, she’s still a sister – but for a different reason.
Sister Theresita Donach told this story when she was back in the Worcester Diocese this past summer. She was here to receive the Service to Humanity Award from Forward in Health at its annual golf tournament that supports its clinic in Haiti. This year’s tournament in Winchendon raised $39,000.
Paula Mulqueen, a surgical nurse who started Forward in Health with her husband, John, a doctor, said the Haitian clinic was to celebrate its grand opening today.
“This was all due to Sister T,” she said. She said her husband heard Sister Theresita speak about medical needs in Haiti at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Gardner in 2001.
“It was my debut of speaking on Haiti in parishes,” said Sister Theresita, then associate director of the diocesan Haitian Apostolate.
The Mulqueens, now members of Annunciation Parish in Gardner, took people to Haiti to treat the sick, formed Forward in Health and built the clinic, with help from people in the Gardner area.
“A lot of what Sister T has taught us is the building of relationships through caring and understanding,” Mrs. Mulqueen said. Sister Theresita has influenced many people through many ministries.
“In sixth grade I wanted to be a sister because I thought they were the ‘cat’s meow,’” she said. “You didn’t have many opportunities as a woman. It was mother, teacher, nurse, secretary. None of those were appealing. I wanted to be on top of the pile. I thought the nuns were running the Church.” (She said she later learned they just did all the work!)
She likened her situation to that of the apostles.
“Let’s leave these smelly, fishy nets and join the Messiah,” they probably thought. “Little did they know they were all going to die. But they fell in love with the Master. And so the same thing: I stayed for a different reason than I went in.” She said she remained a sister because she came to love their mission – ministry to families.
In 1963, at age 15, she entered the only congregation she knew of – the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth – who taught her. She made her first vows in 1966 and final vows in 1971.
She studied at Sacred Heart and Fairfield Universities in Connecticut, taught at St. Mary Elementary School in Worcester from 1968 to 1970, then served in Connecticut as a teacher, pastoral associate and youth ministry director.
In the mid-1980s she went to Haiti at the invitation of Bishop Reilly, who then headed the Norwich Diocese in which she was serving.
Once in Haiti, “I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “We really were giving people a hand up and not a hand out. I identified with the simplicity and the happiness of people having so little.”
She said she went to Haiti about 20 times, mostly after becoming associate director of Worcester’s Haitian Apostolate in 1999.
“I guess that was my most exciting time, because I worked with multiple parishes” here and in Haiti, and schools here, she said. Among her other jobs were working with the parish nursing program in the Worcester Diocese, doing parish work in Long Island, and raising money for her congregation, Forward in Health and other non-profits.
Now she’s the national vocations director for her congregation.
“What’s exciting is meeting different women that are interested in developing their spirituality,” she said. Traveling enables her to learn the stories of her fellow sisters.
“I’ve always been able to use the gifts God has given me, and I thank the community for that,” she said. “It’s just one exciting journey after another. And there’s more to come.”
By Tanya Connor
MILLBURY – There’s a 90th birthday cake in front of Assumption Elementary students.
Not for their school – although it is 90 too – but for a woman who’s been a fixture at the school and its parish, Our Lady of the Assumption, for years.
She is Sister Jeanne Richard, a Sister of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Asked how many students she taught, she replies, “Oh, in the thousands, I think. I never counted them – I don’t think I could count that far.”
She blows out her candles, cuts the cake, receives handmade cards and chats with students.
“That one, I fell in love with her,” she tells The Catholic Free Press. “I taught her dad’s sister.” She says this second-grader – Jane Belsito – hugs her when they meet.
“Aren’t they cute?” she muses. “And the Catholic school uniforms do so much for them. And yesterday I was in Wrentham at the taking of the habit of one of our former associates … .” More on that later; for now she’s beginning her story, noting that she was born Sept. 7, 1925.
“God has gifted me with good health,” she says. “I do a lot of phone calls,” checking on the homebound and contacting parishioners at Millbury Health Care Center, for which she schedules priests for the weekly Mass.
Now she’s got her own schedule; the rest of her story must wait, as she stops to chat with the school principal.
“I had a nice piece of cake and I thank you,” she tells John Hoogasian, Assumption Elementary’s principal.
“Continue to be our pillar of strength,” he says.
She informs him she’ll be at the school’s jog-a-thon. She walks each year, raising money for the school.
“She’s a ray of sunshine,” says Valerie Cote Dumphy, school secretary. “I call her the Energizer Bunny, because she doesn’t skip a beat. I think she could put some younger people to shame in terms of her energy level, her memory. Spiritually she’s got it together. … She’s so faith-filled.”
“I left home January 31, 1945 to enter community,” Sister Jeanne begins her life story again in a later interview, away from the bustle of the birthday party.
She was taught by the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in grades 1-12 in Salem and joined them six months after graduation with two friends.
“I think we were with the sisters so much,” she says. “We found joy in being with them … I didn’t feel called to anything else.”
Her mother said, “I’m not going to stop you.” The night before she entered the convent, Sister Jeanne saw her father kneeling, sobbing “tears of joy, but having to let go.”
Religious life wasn’t foreign to the family; Sister Jeanne had a great aunt and two second cousins in the Sisters of the Assumption. She says when she was young her cousins dressed her in part of the their habit.
Sister Jeanne was in formation from 1945-1947 at the motherhouse in Nicolet, Quebec, Canada. She made her first profession June 14, 1947 and her final vows Aug. 14, 1950.
From 1947-1967 she taught primary grades in St. Peter Elementary in Northbridge, and in Nasonville, R.I.; Barton, Vt.; Dracut, and Greenville, N.H. In Northbridge and Nasonville she was also principal and superior of the community.
After 20 years, she prayed for a change.
“God answered my prayer,” she says. Her provincial was seeking sisters to study the Montessori method of education. She volunteered and “passed with flying colors.” (Maria Montessori’s son Mario examined the students.)
Sister Jeanne helped start a Montessori school in Petersham, and then one at Assumption Elementary, where she taught from 1971-1990.
“I fell in love with it,” she says. “My Montessori years were my best years of teaching,” because the method took each child where he or she was at. The preschoolers loved a challenge, even learning the name of “Webster Lake” – Chargoggagoggmanchaugga–goggchaubunagungamaugg – which she found on a root beer bottle.
One student was a significant challenge.
“God was speaking so loudly in my life,” she says, recalling how the spoiled child she had taught before misbehaved on the first day of school in 1989. “I said, ‘God, look at that! I have to spend the year with her!’ It wasn’t that bad, but it made me realize I had come to the end of my Montessori career.”
After she finished teaching in June she entered the Diocese’s Master Catechist program, specializing in adult education. Her desire to lead a Little Rock Scripture study dovetailed with the desire of Assumption parishioners to learn more about their faith after participating in the Renew program.
Sister Jeanne says she led Bible studies until 2009, and now attends one led by Father Daniel R. Mulcahy, pastor of Assumption and St. Brigid parishes.
She was a lector and still takes Communion to the sick and shut-ins, leads communion services and washes altar cloths.
Father Richard A. Fortin, a retired priest who was Assumption’s associate pastor from 1978-1981 and pastor from 1992-2012, says Sister Jeanne also decorated the church and administered the parish food bank and people liked working with her. She was a regular at daily Mass and Sunday vespers.
Sister Jeanne says that in 1985 she initiated her congregation’s lay associate program in this area, which now has 34 members.
“We had a little saying … If you got within 10 feet – look out, because she’d volunteer you for something,” Assumption parishioner Roland Bazin says of Sister Jeanne. “And she had a way that people just wouldn’t say ‘no.’”
He says she “volunteered” him for the lay associates, and he worked with her on Bible studies, adult confirmation, Mustard Seed soup kitchen dinners and helping a pregnant woman and child.
“Every day she walked the school yard saying her rosary,” Mr. Bazin says. She walked fast and “we’d say, ‘There goes the Energizer Bunny.’” Other times she was there just being present to the students.
In 2003 Sister Jeanne closed the convent beside Assumption Church when the other sister there went elsewhere. She moved to the Millbury apartment where she still lives.
On her walls are testimonies to her life’s impact. Her lay associates gave her a papal blessing for her 50th Jubilee, a gift repeated by Assumption Elementary for her 65th Jubilee. In 2010 she received the Diocese’s retired religious award.
Sister Jeanne says she’s been in Millbury 43 years – “so don’t you think it’s my home?”
Charisms of loving service
to the people of God
By Paula A. Kelleher, SSJ
Charism is another name for the pulse of God’s action within the soul of a community. Each religious community living or serving within the Diocese of Worcester has a particular charism or grace of definition. Together, the charisms of the congregations of men and women have generated a corporate charism of loving service to the people of God.
A community charism is a feeling that ordinary people have about a particular community. It is this essence that tells the world who the community is and why it exists. Simply put, each community member is a spark of the charism. Hopefully, these snippets of our diocesan communities will give the people of God an insight into the great gift consecrated life is to the Church of Worcester.
I often visit Sister Mary Clare Vincent, OSB, at Saint Scholastica’s monastery in Petersham. I have experienced the deep, profound peace of this contemplative Benedictine monastery of women. I know that Sister Mary Clare is connected to God. The question presents itself.
Does this charism radiate through Sister Saint Anthony Mary Clare or does Sister radiate the charism?
The Trappist Community in Spencer, the Benedictine Community in Still River, the Benedictine Priory in Petersham, and the Maronite Monks of Adoration also located in Petersham are wonderful examples of oases of prayer in the Diocese.
What is contemplative prayer and who is called to it?
Charism is a developing grace. It is never stiff or lifeless. The charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (the care of women and children) is centered in the soul of Sister Mary Lou Walsh when she is explaining the mysteries of simple fractions to a student at the Bridge program at Notre Dame du Lac or when she serves as a chaplain at the same facility.
What does this chaplain do?
What is a charism?
What community members have the responsibility of being an icon of the community charism?
Saint Francis Home in Worcester was well known because the Little Franciscans of Mary were responsible for the physical and pastoral care of the residents. These gentle women backed away from the physical care of the residents and when they shook out their charism found other ways to provide pastoral care to the people of Worcester. Sister Irma Gendreau, pfm, works with the diaconate program helping deacons in training understand their own spiritual needs so that they are able to understand the needs of the people they serve. Another Little Franciscan of Mary does physical therapy and yet another works in a parish.
Why is the suffix of this community in lower case letters?
The Sisters of Providence built Saint Vincent Hospital and homes for women living alone. The old hospital on Vernon Hill was a landmark in the city of Worcester and the new hospital is a constant reminder of the Sisters of Providence. Worcester will always remember the last Sister of Providence living and working in the city of Worcester. Sister Mary Francis O’Leary SP, taught by word and example that God in his providence will always provide.
Where does Sister Mary O’Leary live now?
The Religious Sisters of Mercy established the first hospital in Worcester. Over the years they built residential schools for orphans, a school for exceptional children, a residence for women and a music school where many learned to play piano and to love music. The Galvin sisters, Mary Barbara, Mary Virginia and Mary Cecelia taught many the joy of the piano. These sisters continue being social workers, and teachers. Sister Mary Cathleen Toomey is an administrative assistant to the Augustinians of the Assumption, as well as the Episcopal Liaison to Religious, while Sister Ellen Guerin is doing religious education in Christ the King Parish.
Do you know the history of the shrine of Saint Anthony on High Street?
There is a unique spirit in the Diocese of Worcester that I like to call the corporate charism. Everyone is engaged in some type of education. Everyone is engaged in pastoral care because all of us visit the sick, those in prison, the homebound, and serve in feeding the hungry. All of us do some type of spiritual direction and evangelization because we believe what we were taught and we are passing on all that we believe about the unity and trinity of God, the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (And yes, you will bow your head at the name of Jesus)
I love the stories of the Daughters of the Holy Spirit whose young American women were missioned in France at the beginning of World War II and were imprisoned in concentration camps. These sisters decided to teach the children and the young people in that camp to prepare them for jobs when the war was over. These sisters never wasted anything. They salvaged the paper from the cans of vegetables they were given to eat and they used this paper to teach the children how to write. Remember this when you do not care to recycle anything. Never waste anything.
I am overcome with emotion when I recall the stories about the American soldiers on liberation day and what this meant to our American women.
And the stories keep rising from the depth of my soul and tears stream from my eyes as I try to capture snippets of charism or works for each of the communities that serve or have served within the Diocese of Worcester.
How can charism be vibrant and at the same time defy description?
Who can harness the energy of grace?
The Congregation of the Sacred Stigmata staffs Sacred Heart Parish in Milford. Men in this community are Apostolic Missionaries in the service of the Bishop and work with youth and in schools.
We have a Franciscan working in the Tribunal. This order is noted for genuine love for the poor and downtrodden.
We have the Religious of the Assumption expanding the breath of their charism at Saint Peter’s Parish, Saint Andrews Parish, as well as teaching at Assumption College. Sister Catherine Sole, RA, recently professed final vows and is a wonderful example of responding to the call to consecrated life by showing us that with God there is no statute of limitation on a vocational call.
Why do these religious wear purple?
The Sisters of Saint Joseph both CSJ and SSJ strive to unite neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God. Sister Patricia Murphy runs an after-school program at the former Ascension parish hall and a clothing boutique. She has many volunteers helping her.
Does the suffix SSJ mean sowing seeds of justice?
Another sister works in the financial office of the Diocese and others are working in a local rest home or volunteering in an after-school program. Our CSJ cousin, Sister Marie Therese Martin, does hospice work and another SSJ volunteers as a chaplain.
The Carmelite Sisters of the Eucharist visit and care for our priests. Sister Mary Ann Bartell visits our sick and infirm priest and helps to provide care for them. Sister Mary Joseph visits Bishop Rueger almost daily.
The charism of The Sisters of Saint Felix of Cantalice is tied to the spirit of Blessed Angela their foundress who wanted her sisters to have compassion for the people they tried to serve, this community blesses the Webster area with religious twin sisters, Sister Jeanne Marie and Sister Mary Valenti Akalski.
The Little Sisters of the Assumption established Pernet Family Services with the loving charism of caring for families and children and this care still permeates the Green Island area of Worcester. We loved our Little Sisters and wish more of them were still with us.
The Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary taught in our schools. These women have always been the joyful echo of God’s word. They are revealing the Father’s love by the gentle example of caring for each other. Sister Judith Guertin makes certain that the sisters have the medical attention that is needed after surgery or a medical emergency.
The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary located in Harvard, in a section called Still River, have always been dedicated to the loves of and to the preservation of the Catholic faith. They serve the church joyfully and give excellent witness to Catholic dogma. They teach religious education and continue selling books.
What does MICM mean?
The Religious Venerini Sisters are a group of consecrated women who strive to become a community of prayer by living the Gospel through service to the people of God. These women have always been involved in education, have established a day program for mentally challenged adults, and will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Venerini Academy this year. May Saint Rosa Venerini continue to bless our wonderful Venerini Sisters.
The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary have always served the people with compassionate care for women and children. They taught lovingly in our schools. The daily parish Mass is celebrated in the convent on Church Street in Leominster where everyone in the chapel prays for an increase of vocations to priesthood and consecrated life and plead with Nano Nagle to share the light of her lantern in our Diocese.
Who was Nano Nagle and why did she carry a lantern?
At this time several members of the Congregation of Our Lady of LaSalette are residing in Saint Joseph Parish in Fitchburg. This congregation has always had a deep devotion to Our Lady of LaSalette and continues to bring this devotion to the people of Fitchburg.
We are called to act with justice, to love with tenderness and to walk humbly with our God. Sisters worked with ethnic groups to help maintain the faith and the language. The Presentation Sisters were established to teach religious education. Sister Suzanne Picard PM is a religious educator in Gardner. She has wonderful stories about the community history in Gardner.
Who was Souer Xaverin and what do you remember about her?
The Xaverian Missionary Sisters have never worn a habit. Their founder said that their lifestyle would be their habit. They strive to bring the word of God to those who have not heard it or seen it in practice. They are true evangelizers of the word of God. A few weeks ago Sister Susana Miranda knelt before her mother in Our Lady of Providence Church of Saint Bernard Parish and received a public blessing from her mother before she pronounced her final vows.
Vocations are alive and well in the Diocese of Worcester.
Sisters of Saint Anne have always been wonderful educators. They have taught from kindergarten to college. Anna Maria College has educated many of us not only in the Diocese of Worcester but also throughout the United States. These sisters have missions in Hatii and Sister Marie Judith Dupre goes as a missionary to Hatii several times a year. Sister Michele Jacques has organized an after-school program and evening ESL program.
I wonder what language Sister uses for her personal prayer?
The Sister Oblates of Divine Love live in Casa San Jose in Worcester. These sisters work in the parish in the Diocese of Worcester. They have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and include all people in their prayers.
There are strong pastoral care and educational charisms exhibited by the Jesuits at Holy Cross College. This congregation teaches at Holy Cross College and has established the inner-city Nativity School for boys in grades five, six, seven and eight. They also do spiritual direction and hospital chaplaincy. Pope Francis would be as justly proud of his brother Jesuits as they are of him.
The Augustinians of the Assumption staff Assumption College and St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish in Sturbridge. This community is known for diversity in mission. Their founder, Emmanuel d’ Alzon, insisted that the community needed men of prayer as well as men of great zeal.
The Xaverian Brothers had a humble beginning on Temple Street in Worcester. The present Saint John’s High School in Shrewsbury is well-known for insisting on educational excellence and community service.
There are not enough words to describe the impact that the charisms of religious life have showered on the Diocese of Worcester. May all the communities living and serving in the Diocese shake out their charisms and create new ministries of service for the Diocese of Worcester and thus, for the entire Church.