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She raised the question on “Family Night” at the parish, hoping to get the parents and the children to share their answers about “What are you grateful for?”
Franciscan Sister Patty Campbell smiled as she listened to one child say “love,” another mention “our health,” and a third child proclaim “each other.”
Considering the question herself, Sister Patty mentioned the special relationship she has with the members of St. Mary-of-the-Rock Parish in Franklin County, where she serves as the parish life coordinator.
“They’re like a second family to me,” says Sister Patty, who is 81. “They’re very accepting. They accept me like I am.”
While the role of a parish life coordinator is basically to help parishes stay open, become more active and grow in the faith—during a time of a limited number of priests—the bond that forms between coordinators and their parishes often becomes a deep one.
Just ask Sister Patty and three other Franciscan sisters in the archdiocese who serve as parish life coordinators.
All of them are members of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, which is based in Oldenburg.
“Part of what I enjoy about it is you touch every aspect of people’s lives—baptism, first Communion, confirmation, graduation, the new life of a married couple,” says Sister Christine Ernstes, the parish life coordinator of Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen and St. Denis Parish in Jennings County.
“You’re also with them in sickness and death. One Sunday morning, I got a call at a quarter to seven. Someone was dying in Community Hospital East in Indianapolis. I never got dressed so fast. I was there when they made the decision to take her off the life support. Just to be there with them was important to them.”
While the presence of a parish life coordinator makes a difference to the faithful, parish life coordinators also rely heavily on the lay members of the parish.
“In today’s Church, the laity takes a lot more responsibility to get things done,” says Sister Margie Niemer, the parish life coordinator at St. Peter Parish in Franklin County. “It’s not all up to me to coordinate or lead. The lay people step right up and volunteer for committees. The challenge of this particular job is learning to be organized enough so you divide your time wisely. In the smaller parishes, you have to be careful you don’t call on the same people all the time.”
Sister Margie pauses and adds, “This is the ministry I waited for all my life. I was a teacher for 25 years and that was nice. This is where I want to be. I’m glad the archdiocese has a position like this. Not every diocese does.”
Sister Shirley Gerth has fulfilled that key role at parishes in the archdiocese since 1991.
Sister Shirley served as the parish life coordinator for St. Anne Parish in Hamburg, St. John the Evangelist Parish in Enochsburg and St. Maurice Parish in St. Maurice from 1991-95.
“The Church is blessed with the gifts that both men and women can bring,” says Sister Shirley, who is now the parish life coordinator of St. Anne Parish in New Castle and St. Rose Parish in Knightstown. “This lets me be involved in the lives of parishioners in a more personal way than I ever had before. People reflect many different qualities of God to me. I see the love of God, the compassion of God, the gentleness of God.”
She’s also seen the pain a parish sometimes has to face together. In April, an arson fire destroyed St. Anne Church.
“As a parish, we’re learning we’re more than a building,” Sister Shirley says. “We are the body of Christ.”
Sister Margie shares that belief. She believes people should also have that approach toward becoming parish life coordinators.
“This is not a ministry just for women or just for men or just for those in religious life,” she says. “This is a ministry of leadership and service that is open to all Catholics who have the desire to do what is necessary to develop the qualifications that are desired.”
There’s one qualification that these four sisters consider essential.
“I feel the purpose of my entire ministry is to call others to Christ,” says Sister Margie. “As I organize spiritual, educational and social events, I constantly ask myself: To what segment of the parish will this appeal? Will people appreciate themselves, their neighbors and their God more after participating in this?”
For Sister Patty, all the questions from her 81 years of life lead her to one answer: “Calling others to Christ is the mission of every Christian.” †