Sister Theresa, also known as Sister Tess, was born on her family’s dairy farm near Westphalia, a rural community in southwestern Iowa. “For me, there could not have been a better place to grow up: learning to bake bread, exhibiting 4-H projects at the county fair, helping with the gardening and farm chores, bringing in the harvest, and taking piano lessons.”
“Regarding my call to religious life, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be my first and second grade teacher, Sister Rhodana Benne,” Sister Tess remembered. “She was a warm, loving person who had many ways to make school fun, and to help us know that we were loved by Jesus. Not even my love of dancing, which I learned from my dad and brother, gave me pause about where I felt God was calling me. Because I had eight years of piano lessons, Sisters asked me if I wanted to be a music teacher. When I insisted that I wanted to teach first and second grades like Sister Rhodana, I was told I could be a teacher organist and do both.”
“My dream had come true because my mission life began with my being a first and second grade teacher-organist in Pierce, Nebraska. The dream became more focused through Vatican II, and I began to teach only religion. God used the Council to take me out of the Catholic school system and set me in the new direction of pastoral ministry to help adults in parishes without Catholic schools to incorporate the new catechism into their religious education programs.”
One of Sister Tess’s happiest places of this ministry was at St. Boniface Parish in Waukee, Iowa. The pastor trusted her implicitly to conduct her ministry however the Spirit moved her. She used her musical background to encourage youth to play their instruments for the liturgies. Confirmation was in eighth grade in Fort Dodge, Iowa, so Sister Tess developed a program to help the students learn the Ten Commandments, sacraments, beatitudes, and seven of the social teachings of the church. She called the program “Snap n’ Rap to Memorize,” and set the words to a rap music beat. It incorporated rap music with the words, and it now is available for anyone’s use online via YouTube.
Another accomplishment that she is proud of was adapting the Clifton Strengths Finder themes for the Confirmation student interviews. She showed the candidates how they could use their talents for the good of the family, Church, and wider community.
Her greatest challenge has been to live the law of love in the face of spoken negativity by a parish priest. Sister Tess believes so strongly in the love of God flowing through all of us. This is what helps her build her countless relationships as she prays with people, supports them, and hugs them.
She builds these relationships by greeting people as strangers. If they respond favorably, she asks their name and uses it each time they meet again. When appropriate, if they are open to hugs, she gives them a hug. Sister Tess did this with parishioners before and after Mass and when she distributed Communion to the homebound. In this way, she came in contact with a drug addict with whom she worked for years, and with others going through a divorce or death of a loved one. She would pray with them right then and there, and not just promise to pray for them.
“Being a School Sister of St. Francis has been very life giving to me because of the wonderful variety of ministries I have done, and the sisters with whom I lived over the years,” she said.
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I personally felt privileged to be one of those sisters when I lived with Sister Tess in Iowa. An experience that made me laugh was when she found a farmer who raised range-fed chickens. She came home one day with 52 chickens. They filled our entire small freezer. “When will we eat all those chickens?” I asked her. She replied, “That’s only one chicken a week!”
What I think is unique and special about Sister Tess is that she gives herself wholeheartedly to any task and relationship, bringing out the gifts of others. Her motivation has always been an ongoing inner drive to do the best she can, with whatever gifts and talents she has, as perfectly as possible.
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