Women in our midstBy: Sr. Pat Hall SSND
With this issue of The Mirror a new series begins whereby readers will be introduced to some of the women religious who have been a part of the faith life and growth of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau—and part of your own faith life.
To initiate this series we introduce someone who is no stranger to people in the eastern part of the diocese: Sr. Lucille Zerr, SSND (School Sister of Notre Dame) has ministered in the Cape Girardeau area for more than a quarter of a century. In the 1960s, Sr. Zerr taught seventh grade at St. Mary School for four years. Twenty-one years later, she returned to St. Mary’s in response to a request for a Sister to work with fallen-away Catholics. She remains there evangelizing in unique ministries in that area today. At age 84 she says, “I’ll do this until I physically can’t do it anymore.” Her ministry evolved, through the years. Currently she is part of the team of the parish Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process. This year’s 23 participants were like others before them; they are, she says, “people searching, seeking to find God,” and that brings life to Sr. Zerr.
Sr. Zerr also visits the sick and dying of the parish, whether at home or in the hospital. Recently she added the parish food pantry and St. Vincent de Paul Society activities to her ministry.
“Every time we are open, we have 90-100 people,” Sr. Zerr said. “And I get to listen to them.” She smiled when she added that people from the food pantry greet her on the street, often calling out to her from their cars.
Over more than six decades of ministry, Sr. Zerr has kept her sense of humor and play. When the parish raises money for muscular dystrophy, she dresses up like a jailbird and is taken to jail. When the Red Cross drive is in town she dons bandages!
“I do not have a boring life,” Sr. Zerr laughed.
Sr. Zerr is one of 73 Sisters currently ministering in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Like Sr. Zerr, some of these sisters minister in parishes as pastoral associates, or directors of religious education. In Aurora and Verona, one sister is Parish Life Coordinator. You will also find the Sisters in hospitals in Springfield and Joplin, Cape Girardeau, Lebanon, and Mountain View. You will find Sisters in schools, day care centers, and social service ministries.
There are Sisters ministering among Hispanic people in Ellington, Kennett, and Branson. Some Sisters offer spiritual direction and Online Scripture study. You will find a religious woman present in ministry at Missouri State University while others live a contemplative life of prayer. Most of the 73 Sisters serving in the diocese were born in the US, but some claim Ireland, Mexico, or Vietnam as their country of birth. Some who are natives of this country have ministered for years outside of this country, in Australia, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, and other places.
The early years
Among the first women religious in the diocese were the Mercy Sisters. Today, Catholics and others in Springfield and Joplin know the Mercy hospitals, but the situation was different in 1891 when the first three Mercy Sisters came from St. Louis to Springfield. They began their ministry in a two-story brick building, with four rooms and a kitchen in the cellar. A door from a chicken coop served as their hospital’s first stretcher. A wash tub served as the first sterilizer. These Sisters often walked to rural areas to treat those who were too ill to come to town. Eight years later, in 1899 when a smallpox epidemic hit Springfield, the Sisters were the only ones who entered the “pest” camps which were situated on the outskirts of town. In fact, the Sisters even moved into the camps in order to cook and care for the sick who were brought there.
Other Mercy Sisters arrived in Joplin about the same time, from Louisville, KY. These women came to provide Catholic education in the frontier mining town, but when a mine collapsed, everything changed. Because the wounded were being taken 60 miles away to the hospital, the Mercy Superior decided that the town needed its own hospital. One legend states she marched into the town’s richest casino and told the owner she needed him to give her a building for the town’s first hospital. A less dramatic account credits a wealthy mine operator with offering the building for free. In 1896, a 10-bed hospital opened and anyone in need was welcome. Miners were offered medical plans for 25 cents a week, and those who donated to help expand the hospital received a card entitling them to free medical care.
Ninety years later, in 1983, Sr. Lorraine Biebel, OSF, brought a small band of Franciscan Sisters from Springfield, IL to its namesake in Missouri. After surveying the many needs in Springfield and the surrounding area, she initiated a soup kitchen with the aid of local parishes. The first meals were served in the cafeteria in St. Agnes Cathedral Parish. Soon, the old Missouri Hotel became the center of a series of services now known to many as “The Kitchen.” This small community “The Little Portion Franciscans,” speak of their ministry in these words:
“We have a special inclination to serve the poor as did St. Francis by seeing the face of God in all brothers and sisters that are outcast.”
Today, The Kitchen provides shelter for the homeless, a food pantry, medical and dental clinic, transitional apartment living, and the Rare Breed Youth Center for youth. Parishes in the Springfield area and many other local churches and organizations partner to participate in this ministry with their volunteer hours and funding for its ongoing needs.
These stories provide only a few snapshots of the Sisters among us in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Over the next months readers will meet today’s Sisters who will share their stories. We’ll learn where they grew up, how they experienced their call to religious life, what their ministry is, and how they came to be in this diocese. Each of the 24 communities represented by these Sisters has its own spirit, or charism. This spirit, or charism comes from the Holy Spirit, and is a response to some need that the foundress or founder experienced in her or his time and place and continues to live on in the Church today.
In The Mirror articles over the coming months, Sisters of the Diocese will explain their community’s spirit. They will address the changes in their religious communities as a result of their listening to the directives of the Church Fathers gathered at the Second Vatican Council.
The listing of religious communities serving in the Diocese today, which accompanies this article, offers a Web site address for most community. These Web sites contain rich treasure: stories about the Sisters, their ministries, their lives. Many of the sites hold spiritual reflections, and on many Web sites you will also find directions for “finding” a Sister, perhaps a relative or friend, or a former teacher or nurse. Many also provide resources for those interested to explore a vocation in religious life.
Finally, enjoy this series of articles which your Sisters of Springfield-Cape Girardeau have prepared for you.
Do you have a question for a Sister? Or, maybe you would like a Sister to come to your parish and speak to a group or panel? For more information or to request contact with a Sister, Email Sr. Jeanne Goessling, SSND, at email@example.com.