By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – From childhood, she felt called to work with the elderly, and felt at home at a facility run by religious sisters.
As a young adult she was attracted by the sisters themselves, and wondered what was going on inside of her. She’d left the Church and felt guilty about her lifestyle.
Encounters with God and the sisters brought her around – full circle, in a way.
Sister Jane Oliver, a 68-year-old Little Franciscan of Mary, tells this story of her journey.
As a child, she visited her grandmother at St. Francis Home, then run by the Little Franciscans of Mary. (Now it’s St. Francis Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, operated by an affiliate of Landmark Management Solutions.)
Sister Jane grew up in that area and attended St. Stephen Elementary School. A Sister of St. Joseph who taught there used to send her to St. Francis Home to get hosts the Little Franciscans made. Entering it, “I could sense the peace,” she said.
An introvert as a youth, she stood in the background when her class visited residents of Worcester Nursing Home, now Blaire House of Worcester.
“But that day I knew I would work with the elderly,” she said. “That was my first calling – to the elderly.”
So at David Hale Fanning Trade High School, she studied to be a health assistant, hoping to work at St. Francis Home. After graduating from high school in 1975, she became a nurses’ aide at Worcester Nursing Home, then switched to St. Francis Home.
“When I walked through those doors, I was home,” she said. She found the elderly “drawing out” her gifts, showing her she could be loving and compassionate.
Hearing the sisters singing in the chapel, she would stop to listen.
“I could see how much they loved each other,” she said. “Their simplicity, their joy and their prayer – that’s what drew me. … ‘I want that.’ … I wasn’t a joyful person. It was stirring everything up inside of me. … I didn’t know what was happening to me. I was feeling a lot of guilt because of how I was living my life.”
She had stopped attending Mass when she was no longer made to go, and tried filling her emptiness with things that didn’t fill it, she said.
“I could tell God was pursuing me,” she said. “And I would say, ‘Get away from me.’”
A friend suggested she talk to Little Franciscan Sister Rena Mae Gagnon.
“I’m not talking to no stranger!” she thought. “But then it got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore.” At 11 o’clock one night she called Sister Rena Mae and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I need to talk to you.” That journey of self-discovery, begun in 1980, lasted 10 years.
One day early on, when she was waiting to meet with Sister Rena Mae, “all of a sudden everything that I lived, that was inside of me, all came out,” she said. “I never cried like this in my life.”
She told God, “I’m not perfect, but here I am.” She felt heat, and a sense of being embraced.
“And that’s when I experienced myself as God’s beloved daughter,” Sister Jane said. “I was his totally, for life. That’s when I made my personal commitment to him. Making my religious profession was a way of expressing that commitment” and returning that love.
In 1982, when she was visiting Little Franciscans in South Carolina, one urged her to think about the Sunday Scripture reading.
“What was the reading?” she asked herself on the flight home. (It was from Joshua 24:15: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve …” )
“All of a sudden these words – ‘yes or no?’ came crashing into my consciousness,” Sister Jane recalled. “I bolted upright.”
“Are you OK?” asked the woman seated next to her.
“At that point I knew it was ‘yes’ to religious life,” recalled the woman who once became defensive when invited to a reflection day for single women. “So then when I got home, right away I called Sister Rena Mae. … She goes, ‘Oh, I was waiting for that to happen.’”
Discernment took time. In 1990 she asked to enter the Little Franciscans. For a formation period, she stopped working as a certified occupational therapy assistant at Westborough State Hospital. (She’d gotten her associate’s degree in the field in 1984 from Quinsigamond Community College.)
In 1992 she made her first vows, and in 1996 her final vows – on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, in Notre Dame Church, where the Little Franciscan foundresses once worshipped.
“My whole consecrated life is flowing from that initial ‘yes,’” she said. “Even in moments of pain or struggle, I can feel that ‘yes.’ You don’t say once for all even when you make your profession; it’s every single day saying that ‘yes.’ But my strength comes from that profound moment of God’s love and also from the community. … We’re there for each other. … We’re bonded on that journey of consecrated life. And the Franciscan community life and prayer – joy flows from that, the ministry flows from that.”
For years Sister Jane’s ministry involved occupational therapy, in the Worcester area and Maine.
She came back here from Maine in 2008, after her mother was diagnosed with cancer and her father died suddenly. She said she got her congregation’s permission to move in with her mother, and became her primary caregiver as her mother received hospice services at home.
After her mother died in 2010, Sister Jane spent eight months at Berakah, in Pittsfield, N.H., which offered a holistic program for religious on sabbatical.
“Through all that I got in touch again with my initial passion of taking care of people,” she said. She thought about how her mother had suggested the possibility of her doing hospice ministry. To do that, Sister Jane got re-certified, but got discouraged when she couldn’t find a job in the field. Then, minutes after she turned down another job, realizing she needed to do something she was passionate about, she got the call.
Jewish Healthcare Center Hospice was seeking someone for the program she’d earlier expressed interest in and she was hired on the spot.
“That’s not coincidence; that was God,” she said. “I’m at home. I have found my niche. God’s the one that revealed it to me.”
Since 2011 she’s been caring for hospice patients throughout Worcester County.
“I love it!” she said. “It’s very holistic. … I always feel honored that somebody is allowing me into that space. It’s a sacred journey – the end of life journey. … I always pray … to be that presence of God.” She gets to know the whole person, works with his or her family and the hospice team and receives much, she said.
“It’s through attraction, through the example of your life,” the Little Franciscan of Mary says now, looking back on her experiences and thinking about things she’s heard from Pope Francis. “Like the sisters – I was attracted by the example of their life.”