Celebrating Sister Susan… or A Tale of Two Archbishops

LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE BOLLIG Chancery employees turned out in force to honor Sister Susan Pryor, SCL, who had greeted them at the door of the archbishop’s residence for almost two decades now. Knee replacement surgery has caused her to consider other options — which might include returning to her first love, teaching.
LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE BOLLIG Chancery employees turned out in force to honor Sister Susan Pryor, SCL, who had greeted them at the door of the archbishop’s residence for almost two decades now. Knee replacement surgery has caused her to consider other options — which might include returning to her first love, teaching.

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Growing up in Oswego, Sister Susan Pryor always knew exactly what she wanted out of life.

“All my life I had a great love for children — especially babies,” she said. “I always wanted marriage to a Catholic man and 10 children.”

Instead, she became an expert at wrestling with God’s will.

“You know in life there are always problems or things that don’t work out,” she said. “But the Lord has a surprise for you.

“Especially for me because I like things predictable. And the Lord will come with a complete upheaval saying ‘Susan, I’m still in charge.’’”

The first upheaval came when she was a young girl contemplating her vocation.

“I went to Saint Mary University,” she recalled. “I had hardly set foot in the place and I felt what the Lord wanted.

“But I didn’t want to be a nun!

“But he wouldn’t give in.”

She eventually applied to be a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth and entered the order in August 1950. When she walked into the convent that day, it reminded her of a dark cave.

She remembers her conversation with the Lord that day.

“I told him, ‘Well, I’m doing this because I think this is what you want,” she recalled. “‘But if I’m not happy, I’m not staying.’”

The Lord indeed surprised her.

“I’ve always been happy,” she said.

Teaching and friendship

Sister Susan made her first vows in 1952. She had 15 different missions in her first 16 years teaching.

When the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth held their chapter, or general, meeting in 1968, they decided each Sister could have some input into her assignment.

That’s when Sister Susan finally settled down.

“I was missioned to Our Lady & St. Rose [in Kansas City, Kansas],” she said.

“And I stayed 18 years there.

“I loved the place. I was always happy teaching.”

She started out as a first-grade teacher, acquired her master’s in education and administration, and eventually became principal.

While teaching at St. Rose, Sister Susan met her future best friend, Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker, under circumstances he would never let her forget.

It was winter, and Sister Susan had children coming in from recess with very cold feet.

“We had these big old steam radiators,” she explained. “And I would say, ‘Now if you can hang up your coats and I don’t have to play policeman, we’ll have a 10-minute warm-up.’

“The kids would lie on their backs with their shoes off and their feet up on the radiator.”

On the day Archbishop Strecker visited unannounced, the first-graders were having a warm-up.

“I had my back to the door,” recalled Sister Susan. “And someone said, ‘Sister, we’ve got company.’

“I turned around and here was the new archbishop standing at the door grinning.”

She soon saw in the archbishop the same qualities she admired most in her father — someone who was kind, gentle and loved to tease.

“Whenever he told the story,” she said, “I had my shoes off and my feet up on the radiator, too.”

In her words, she and Archbishop Strecker “just clicked.”

Not only was he a teaser, he was also a talker. And if there’s one thing Sister Susan loves to do — it’s talk.

“My mother said I started talking at eight months and I never quit,” she said.

“And so that’s how we started,” she said. “For 32 years, we were really good friends. I just loved the man.”

Close a door, 
open a window

As her friendship with the archbishop deepened, God gave Sister Susan a new challenge.

Due to financial difficulties, Our Lady & Saint Rose School closed. Sister Susan was asked to work at the parish office and help families adjust.

One of her duties there was to visit the elderly and shut-ins.

“That was the first time I realized that there are little old people that never have anyone to come and visit them,” she said. “I just loved them.”

In 1980, Marian Hall, a Catholic retirement home, opened in the area. Because Sister Susan enjoyed the elderly, she applied to run the religious program there.

But once again, God had a different plan. She was asked to take over as    administrator of the entire home.

“I told them that’s not what I want to do,” she said. “But they told me, ‘You’re not being asked what you want to do —that’s where the Lord needs you.’

“So I took over administration there.”

And she loved it.

She got her adult care home administrator’s license, but found she really didn’t need it.

“I found out that the best preparation was all the years teaching school,” she said. “It was surprising how much these little old people were like the first-graders in trying to get their own way.”

During her tenure at Marian Hall, Sister Susan’s dear friend, Archbishop Strecker, lost his housekeepers — two Sisters of the Most Precious Blood who retired back to their motherhouse.

“He didn’t want a layperson,” she said. “He said to me, “Show me how to use the washing machine, and I’ll do my own laundry.’

“And I said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that!’ So I volunteered helping him for a number of years.”

In 1993, Archbishop Strecker reached the bishops’ official retirement age of 75 and stepped down. Rather than make him move out of his residence, his successor, Archbishop James Patrick Keleher, found a different place to live, and Archbishop Strecker continued to live in the archbishop residence.

A friend in need

Shortly after Archbishop Strecker retired, Sister Susan resigned as administrator of Marian Hall.

She told the archbishop she hoped she could find another position close by so she could continue to help him out.

He had a better idea: He would hire her as his housekeeper.

“I thought [the Sisters of Charity] would never let me do it,” said Sister Susan. “We weren’t priest housekeepers.”

But they agreed.

“So the last seven years of his life,” she said, “I moved in and took care of him.”

She did a little bit of everything —cooking, cleaning, laundry, and taxiing the archbishop to doctors’ appointments and to Spearville to visit family.

But what she loved most was cooking, and she was good at it.

“My mother couldn’t cook when she got married,” she said, “and she wasn’t going to let that happen to one of her daughters. So I learned to cook.”

For seven years, Sister Susan took pleasure in caring for her friend as his health slowly declined.

“He was just like family,” she said. “He was comfortable with me and I could take care of him.”

The archbishop began to have frequent weak spells.  One night, he fell between his bathroom and bedroom and broke his hip.

“He didn’t call out or anything,” said Sister Susan. “Something just woke me up, and I went to check on him. And he was on the floor.

“He said, ‘I can’t move.’”

He was taken to Providence Hospital where he died with his good friend at his side on Oct. 16, 2003.

“I thought he was going to be able to come back [from it],” said Sister Susan.

“But the Lord just took him.

“I still miss him,” she added. “He was such a good friend and such a big part of my life — especially those last seven years.”

A new assignment

Though Sister Susan no longer lived at the archbishop’s residence, she was back there the following January sorting items for the archives when Archbishop Keleher brought his successor, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, to see the house.

Archbishop Naumann decided he wanted to live there, but needed someone to manage the house.

Sister Susan was asked if she would look after the new archbishop until another house manager could be found.

“And I said, ‘Well, the house makes me lonesome for Archbishop Strecker,’” she recalled. “But I said, ‘Yes, I can do that.’”

She agreed to come daily to prepare lunch and dinner and do some housekeeping until a replacement could be found.

“It took me six weeks to realize nobody was looking,” she said.

But it’s hard to find a replacement for perfection.

“Sister Susan is a very capable administrator,” said Archbishop Naumann. “She attempts to address issues quickly and without delay.”

More importantly, perhaps, she’s also a good cook.

“Sister Susan never prepared a bad meal,” claimed the archbishop. “She became acquainted with what I enjoyed and catered to my unusual tastes.”

“She was especially good at making chocolate chip cookies, pineapple upside down cake and lemon bars,” he clarified.

It’s no surprise the archbishop asked Sister Susan to stay on when he                 discovered her one final qualification.

“She prays as hard as she works,” he said.

But why did she agree to stay?

“By that time, I’d gotten to know him a little bit and I liked him,” she said. “He’s easy to work for.”

Though not as talkative as Archbishop Strecker, Sister Susan said Archbishop Naumann has the other qualities she likes — he’s kind, gentle and likes to tease.

“But I never get the last word,” she complained. “He always has a comeback.”

No rocker for this retiree

This last March, at the age of 84, Sister Susan finally decided she no longer had the stamina to continue as a housekeeper.

“I had both knees replaced,” she said. “I can’t be on my feet that much and I’ve never been able to cook sitting down.”

But don’t expect to find her sitting back enjoying her retirement.

“I am not ready to go to the motherhouse and find a rocking chair to sit in,” she said.

Archbishop Naumann, in fact, suspects she’ll soon return to her first love.

“She loves children and teaching,” he said.  “I hope she has the opportunity to tutor.”

Tutoring is, in fact, one of the things Sister Susan is looking into, among other things. But she’ll seek input from her usual source before making any final decisions.

The Lord has done pretty well by her so far, she believes.

“It’s been a wonderful life,” she said, reflecting on her varied career — and her life with two archbishops. “I feel like I’ve done some good for the world and the Lord.”

“I wasn’t too sure starting out if this is what I was supposed to be doing,” she said.
“But the Lord was right.”

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