Sister Irene Zimmerman

Sister Irene ZimmermanSister Irene Zimmerman is filled with gratitude for her 70 years in Franciscan ministry. From early on in grade school, Sister Irene felt called to enter religious life, and there was never a question as to which order she would join. The School Sisters of St. Francis had come to her small, rural Iowa hometown of Westphalia in 1884, when both the town and the order were ten years old. The sisters had taught Irene’s father and his siblings, and they were literally “part of the family” because six of Irene’s aunts were members of the order.

Irene said it was the sisters who taught her in grade and high school, and the music teacher who taught her piano for nine years, who most attracted her to enter the community. “They were excellent teachers, and they were friendly, kind, joyful, prayerful, and genuinely interested in their students,” she said. Their influence in the small, all-Catholic town went way beyond the classroom.

When Irene entered the community in the autumn of 1953, the new Alverno College campus was just opening on 39th Street. Irene chose English as her major and was encouraged for her writing. But it was when she began teaching at Pius XI High School that Sister Kevin Robertson, a fellow English teacher and a published poet, affirmed her early efforts, saying that God had given her a gift to write poetry and she should work at developing it.

Irene taught English and later French for 20 years at Pius XI, but she then left the teaching profession, largely due to hearing difficulties. She was offered the opportunity to work as a “housemother” to sophomores at an all-girls boarding school in Sigmaringen, Germany, operated by sisters of the European Province.

“Those three years in Germany were the most challenging in my life,” Irene said. At home she had understood her parents and older brothers when they conversed in German. “The only German I actually spoke, though, was an occasional ‘Ach yah’,” Irene explained. “I did enjoy some small successes, though, like the day I substituted in an English class and taught smiling fifth graders to belt out John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’.”

The German experience prepared Irene to be the German typist on the Generalate staff, assisting with the communication between the U.S. and German Province. A few years later, Irene changed to secretarial work at Alverno College. Ministry in those two places gave her much joy and satisfaction.

Leaving classroom teaching freed Irene to work on poetry in the evenings and on weekends. Over a span of 20 years, with much encouragement from the provincials and other sisters (especially the Greenleaf Writers group, started by sisters in the late 1970s), she wrote and found publishers for Convergence, For-Giving Ground, and Woman-Un-Bent.

When she turned 70, Irene obtained permission to retire from paid ministry at Alverno College, “in order to write poetry full-time while my brain still worked,” she said. She moved from Milwaukee to volunteer at St. Joseph Retreat Center in Wisconsin’s Door County. She frequently gave reflective presentations of her scriptural poetry to the retreatants. In this ideal, prayerful place, she wrote and found a publisher for INCARNATION: Poems for Spiritual Reflection. She also relearned to play piano in order to help supply the music for Sunday liturgies.

When St. Joseph Retreat Center closed, Irene returned to Milwaukee, where she wrote and found a publisher for Where God Is at Home, a final book of poems that celebrate God’s self-revelation to us through nature and scripture. She now resides at Clement Manor Retirement Center in Greenfield and provides the music for Sunday liturgies next door at Our Lady of the Angels Convent.

“I am so grateful to belong to this congregation,” Irene said. “The sisters who taught me and with whom I’ve shared life and ministry these 70 years are who make the School Sisters of St. Francis special to me. What makes the congregation very special is our charism of teaching and fostering and producing the fine arts. It is deeply life-giving to me to write poetry, play piano, and sing with others in community, especially in the Chapel Singers. The arts feed my soul and become prayer. Through music, visual arts, and writing, we imitate our beautiful God, Creator of this beautiful universe.”