Local Ministries Religious life

‘Like the stars in the night’

Patients find Sisters light the waythrough their darkest hour, leadingthem on aclear path to God

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

Antonia Sestrich describes herself as “just an ordinary person, a housewife and a mother.” And she wonders why people always want to ask her questions.

“Because you’re 103 years old,” explains her grandson, Mike Sestrich, who is also her caregiver. “They think you have a lot of wisdom.”

She scoffs at that idea, but was willing to grant The Leaven what she refused The Kansas City Star: the opportunity to talk with her.

But she’s only doing it as a favor, she insists, to the Sisters, Servants of Mary.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

Mrs. Sestrich was born in Croatia. She came to America with her family at the age of three and joined St. John the Baptist Parish in Kansas City, Kan. She’s been a loyal parishioner there for 100 years.

Next to her Catholic faith and her family, one of the most gratifying constants in Mrs. Sestrich’s long life has been her relationship with the Sisters, Servants of Mary.

“I love them so much,” she said. “They’re good and they work hard. A lot of times I’m kind of sad, and they come to my door and say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Sestrich,’ then everything changes to good. You can’t find anything better than they are.”

“She loves us a lot,” admitted Mother Carmela Sanz. “When a Sister arrives, Antonia usually greets her with, ‘Hi, my tootsie-wootsie’ or ‘Hello, honey bunny.’ She is so dear to us.”

When asked how she came to know the Sisters, Mrs. Sestrich doesn’t elaborate.

“They helped me when I needed help,” she said simply.

In 1953, her grandson explained, his grandfather developed Parkinson’s disease. Within 10 years, he was bedridden.

“He had a lot of problems,” he said. “I guess one day the doctor wanted my grandmother to give him an enema. She had never done anything like that before and didn’t know where to turn. Somebody suggested calling the Sisters, Servants of Mary.”

“I called on the telephone to them and Sister Cristela [MacKinnon] is the one that answered,” recalled Mrs. Sestrich. “She said, ‘I’ll come right down and we’ll both take care of him.’”

From that day forward, the Sisters, Servants of Mary helped her care for her husband until his death in 1965. During that time, a deep friendship developed between Mrs. Sestrich and Sister Cristela — a friendship that withstood an 18-year separation when Sister Cristela lived in Rome.

“When she came back,” recalled Mrs. Sestrich, “we just hugged each other for about an hour.”

A friend in need

Ten years ago, Mrs. Sestrich began to experience her own serious health issues. When she was discharged from the hospital after breaking a hip, she wanted to return to her own home. Her son and grandson felt they could care for her, if they could have a little female assistance.

“We called the Sisters and they were kind enough to come and help us,” said her son. “Once each week, a Sister bathes her and helps her with personal grooming — things a guy just can’t handle.”

But they bring the caregivers more than help; they bring them hope.

“The house glows when they come in,” said her grandson.

“They’re like the stars in the night. It’s just that remarkable. They inspire us. They show us the way the good Lord wants us to be.”

“And they’re very much for Mary,” interjected Mrs. Sestrich.

“They’re greatly devoted to the Blessed Virgin,” her son agreed and went on to say that the Sisters remind him of how his own devotion to Mary developed when he was in the service during World War II.

“On two occasions, I saw a Catholic church destroyed — walls down to the ground; rocks, timber, stone lying all over,” he recalled. “And right in the middle of each church was a statue of the Blessed Mother on a pedestal.

“I remember thinking, ‘How could this happen? This whole building is gone and here Blessed Mother is standing, not a scratch on her. It was significant, symbolic. I think the Sisters are like that.”

“Yes,” his son said, “we’re all in this turmoil all the time and I think we lose track of where the center is. The Sisters have found that center and when they’re around you, you just sense it. There’s an inner calmness.

“They come from varied backgrounds; some from very volatile political environments in Central America. But they come here and they’re able to shed the complexities of life, live simply, and see a clear path to God.”

Real people

However calm the Sisters are, however, continued Sestrich, they’re far from dull.

He recalls the time when one of the Sisters was eager to try out his motorcycle, and when another showed an interest in tae kwon do.

“My dad and I are both black belts,” he explained. “One time a [martial arts] book was on the chair when Sister came in. She started looking at it with a certain degree of interest, which kind of surprised us.

“Come to find out, she had taken tae kwon do before she became a nun and she was one step from a black belt.

“When something like that happens, you realize that these are real people with real lives.”

A favor returned

The Sestrichs also have found the nuns, who have helped so many, occasionally in need of help themselves — like when they’re faced with a driving test.

“At one time, several of the Sisters were getting their driver’s license and were having a difficult time mastering the parallel parking,” recalled the younger Sestrich. “I told them to come on over and we’ll practice for 20 minutes.

“That’s all it took.”

“Then one day, one of the Sisters came over and parallel parked in front of the house,” added his father. “And Mike stood out on the front porch and applauded her.”

So the Sestrichs are always delighted to see the Sisters — not only as nurses, but “because they are such interesting people to be around.”

It was Mrs. Sestrich, however, summoning all the authority of her 103 years, who offered the family’s final word on the Sisters, Servants of Mary. “You just write,” she instructed the reporter, “what great people they are, how wonderful they are, how they work, how lovely they smile.

“You can just put down all the best of everything and you aren’t going to be wrong.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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