‘Already one of us’

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

As the Ursuline Sisters of Paola prepare for their new lives with the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph in Maple Mount, Kentucky, they take great comfort in all the communities already share — a deep faith in Jesus Christ, an abiding commitment to the philosophy of their founder, a charism of teaching and, most important, a deep and abiding love for popcorn.

The Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph look forward to the arrival of the new members to their community. But first and foremost, they look forward to the arrival of their popcorn machine.

“The Sisters in Kentucky think popcorn is one of the basic food groups,” said Sister Pat Lynch of Paola. “They are just crazy about popcorn and we happen to have a big popcorn machine. So, of course, the machine is going.”

Conveniently, the Ursuline Sisters from Belleville, Ill., who merged with Mount Saint Joseph in 2005, are great fans of popcorn, too.

“The first thing the Paola Sisters are going to ship is their popcorn popper,” said Sister Michele Morek, congregational leader at Mount Saint Joseph, “and so we’re going to put that in the dining room. Oh, we are so ready!”

Sister Pat said that as the day of departure nears, the Paola Sisters are ready, too.

“We’ve had several give-away days where we just go through our rooms and get rid of what we don’t want, and that’s been a really good thing,” she said.

Likewise, the Mount Saint Joseph group is preparing for its new arrivals.

“We have all their pictures up on our bulletin board and the Sisters go by and make sure they’ve got their names memorized,” said Sister Michele.

The Paola community came to visit the Mount Saint Joseph motherhouse in 2006 for the Fourth of July weekend, and the two groups hit it off immediately.

“We had a wonderful time,” said Sister Michele. “The Paola Sisters are very creative and lots of fun. They love to play games, so they fit in very well here.”

Seven months after the visit, the Paola congregation officially requested to merge with Mount Saint Joseph, bringing that convent’s numbers to 180 Sisters, about 80 of whom live at the Mount. The rest minister in many areas throughout Kentucky and in New Mexico, Tennessee, Minnesota, Missouri, Louisiana and, of course, Kansas.

Sister Helen Hermreck was the first Sister from Paola to make the move, arriving at the motherhouse last January.

“It was really sweet when she arrived,” said Dan Heckel, director of communications for Mount Saint Joseph. “They picked her up [from the airport] and drove her out here, and everybody was waiting for her and sang songs and took pictures. It was very welcoming.

“She seems so happy here. She doesn’t see very well, and I know I’ve seen Sisters reading letters for her.”

The rest of the group will be departing by car in three shifts on May 15, June 1, and June 15. Each car will carry a jar of Paola water and a jar of Paola soil blessed by chaplain Father Aaron Peters, OSB, at a special Mass the morning of the respective departure.

When the Sisters arrive at Mount Saint Joseph, they will be met by a Kentucky counterpart, who will formally receive the jars of soil and water. After a brief reception, each Paola Sister will go to her new room, accompanied by one of the Kentucky Sisters, who will then pray a blessing over the room.

The true welcome celebration will take place this summer during Community Days, an annual event when all the Sisters in the community return to the motherhouse. A special task force, led by Sister Pat, has been formed to plan the event.

Community Days will start July 8 with a special Mass celebrated by the bishop to acknowledge the new merger. The Paola Sisters will have a procession into the church, each accompanied by one Sister from Mount Saint Joseph. There will be a renewal of vows for the Paola Sisters as a sign of their acceptance into the new community.

“After Communion, there will be a little ritual involving the blessed water and soil from Paola,” said Sister Pat. “A tree from Paola will be brought up by the two leaders of the communities, and then we will plant the tree using the soil and water that we brought.”

After Mass, the Sisters will share a special meal of fried chicken and mashed potatoes — a favorite menu by consensus. The dining room decoration will reflect the spirit of all three merged communities, including sunflowers from Kansas. The meal will be topped off with ice cream.

“We always have ice cream on Sundays,” said Sister Pat. “And so, even though it’s not a Sunday, it will be part of the celebratory dinner.”

The evening will also include an icebreaker called “merger mixer,” to help the Sisters get to know one another.

The second evening of Community Days will be a singalong hootenanny with favorite songs from the Paola, Belleville and Kentucky Sisters, accompanied by the other community favorite — popcorn.

“And then at the last evening of Community Days, we’ll have games like Scrabble and Yatzee,” added Sister Pat.

Once the Paola Sisters get settled, there will be no shortage of things for them to do.

“We have a craft room for the ones who like crafts,” said Sister Michele. “We have a farm for the ones who like to make jelly and jam and stuff like that — they will be able to putter to their hearts’ content. And there’s always room for more card players in the dining room after prayers.”

One of the major fundraisers for Mount Saint Joseph’s retired Sisters is an annual picnic where crafts are sold and raffled, so extra hands are always needed and creative hands are most appreciated.

“Nobody ever retires as an Ursuline Sister, I’m told,” said Heckel. “I’m sure they’re already conspiring to figure out what jobs they’ll have when they get here.”

The mood in Paola right now is a combination of excitement, nerves and some sadness, said Sister Pat. After more than a century of dedication to this archdiocese, it will be difficult to part. But the Ursuline Sisters hope their presence will continue to be felt here.

“Our community will try to keep a presence in Kansas as long as possible,” said Sister Michele. “We understand how attached the people of Kansas are to the Sisters and how attached the Sisters are to the diocese — after all, their roots are there.”

Sister Michele promised that as long as there is a Sister who wants to minister in Kansas, the Ursulines will make that possible. She also wanted to assure the friends of the Paola Ursulines that they will be cared for and appreciated.

“You just let people know that we love these Sisters,” she said. “And they are already one of us.”

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