My most significant time in ministry was at St. Francis School for profoundly and severely mentally challenged children. This was my happiest time because I had to be everything for them—hands, feet, body, and soul. It was also the most challenging time—several difficult diets, and many required courses for food service dietary managers. A friend, Sister Laverne Sommer, a dietician at St. Joseph Adult Care, was an invaluable mentor. This ministry gave me the opportunity to experience what it truly means to serve and love.
My worst memory at St. Francis School was the three-month experience of Shigilla, a bacterial infection that kept re-infecting the children. The children thought they were being punished because of severely restricted diets—applesauce, jello, or yogurt. I tried to be very creative and I can laugh now, but would rather forget this memory.
Our community vision is different now. Sisters were in abundance and schools, hospitals and missions like St. Francis flourished, inspired by the visions of Mothers Alexia and Alfons and Sister Clara. Now our emphasis is the Gospel message of peace and justice. Our Associates are a real gift to our community as they support and expand our mission.
My most life-giving experience as a School Sister of St. Francis has been living in community with Sister Sandra Smithson. She truly lived and expressed Jesus’ gospel of love and compassion. Sister Sandra’s life glowed with this compassion even in the midst of her painful cancer. This will always be something special in my heart.
My life has and is continuing to the future with my ministry at Project Reflect/Smithson Craighead Academy. For 25 years and counting I’ve been able to minister to at-risk children and work with a staff that is truly amazing in their love and compassion for our children.
There are so many stories of growth and success among the children, but one story stands out in my mind and heart. One day on the playground I was pushing Derrick on a swing. He let out such an excited cheer: “Fly like a bird! Fly like a bird!” All the children joined in this cheer. It was great to hear them. After that Derrick started to settle down and wanted to learn his ABCs, colors, shapes, and numbers. He started to learn.
The last day of school I was saying goodbye to all the children. Derrick came to me, gave me a big hug, and said, “Sister Mary, I cried and fought a lot and gave you a hard time. But now I can fly like a bird.” I cherish these memories, still growing in me with gratitude for love. I am ever grateful to Sister Sandra who brought me to this mission.
My deepest connection to God is in the silence and beauty of nature. This gives me renewed insight and strength to carry on the gospel message of working with the poor, particularly Jesus’ words, “Let the children come to me.”
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