April 27, 2012

Living life as a prayer

Benedictine sister to celebrate 100 years of living a joy-filled life through her vocation

As she nears her 100th birthday on May 13, Benedictine Sister Mary Sylvester Will continues to take daily walks to the cemetery at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, where she says she talks with her friends who have died and prays for those who are living. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As she nears her 100th birthday on May 13, Benedictine Sister Mary Sylvester Will continues to take daily walks to the cemetery at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, where she says she talks with her friends who have died and prays for those who are living. (Photo by John Shaughnessy) Click for a larger version.

By John Shaughnessy

Her strong spirit soared early, sparked by growing up on a farm in southern Indiana and riding a long distance to the nearest Catholic school in a horse-drawn wagon.

At 15, she left home to become a Benedictine sister, certain in her choice even as her father told her, “You’ll be home in two weeks.”

For 50 years, Sister Mary Sylvester Will taught at several schools throughout the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, unwavering in her commitment to share her faith, her knowledge and her love with her students—the names of every one of them lovingly written in her exquisite penmanship in the “little black book” that she still keeps and cherishes more than 30 years after she retired from teaching.

Until her 99th birthday, she volunteered weekly at the St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry in Indianapolis, even on days when ice, snow and bitter cold temperatures led her fellow sisters to recommend that she stay safely at their home at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove.

“She’d give hot chocolate to the people who waited on cold days,” recalls her close friend, Benedictine Sister Bernardine Ludwig. “And we’d give away clothes. Some days, I’d say, ‘It’s too cold or icy for you to go.’ She’d say, ‘Are you going?’ I’d say, ‘Yes,’ and she’d say, ‘Then I’m going, too.’ ”

All those examples of her strong spirit lead another friend, Benedictine Sister Mary Ann Koetter, to smile and affectionately note, “There’s a saying we have here, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s Sister Sylvester.’ ”

Still, everyone who knows Sister Mary Sylvester understands there is one relationship in her life where she has always put her will aside.

“I’ve given myself to God ever since I made my vows,” she says. “My faith is my life.”

Her trust that God has always done—and will always do—what is best for her resonates in her thoughts about her upcoming 100th birthday on May 13.

“I go out to the cemetery and talk to my friends there,” she says. “I tell them, ‘When God’s ready, I’m ready.’ I can’t believe I’m going to be 100 years old.”

She shares those words with an almost child-like smile. For while her life has been marked by a strong spirit, it’s also been touched with immeasurable joy.

‘They are close to my heart’

That joy radiates on her face when she recalls Sister Pauline, her first-grade teacher whose love of God, children and life inspired her to become a religious sister and teacher.

Her joy shines even more when she remembers her own students and talks about how she still prays for them as she holds the small black book filled with their names.

“They are part of me,” she says. “They worked with me, and I worked with them. They are close to my heart.”

Starting in the 1930-31 school year, she taught for 50 years, including assignments at Assumption School in Indianapolis, St. Paul School in Tell City, St. Michael School in Bradford, all now closed, and St. Mary-of-the-Knobs School in Floyd County. Some of her former students remember her as fondly as she remembers them, and sometimes there are unexpected reunions.

“I approached her once at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry and said, ‘Do you remember me, Sister?’ ” recalls Otto Schwab, now 75. “She said, ‘What’s your name?’ I said, ‘Otto.’ She said, ‘Are you Otto Schwab from Assumption?’ Since then, I’ve been at the monastery a couple of times to have lunch with her. She got out the black book, and we reminisced about the people from Assumption. There couldn’t be anyone sweeter. Everyone wanted her as a teacher.”

Her joy also resounds in her laughter, especially on Sunday evenings when she and a few other sisters get together to play a dice game called, “Oh, Shoot!”

She also has her share of memorable laugh-at-herself lines, including, “I don’t make money. I make trouble.”

“She enjoys things so much, and she has such a free laugh,” says Benedictine Sister Mary Carol Messmer.

Sister Mary Sylvester keeps the joy and plays the dice game even though most of her sight has been taken away by macular degeneration. Still, she rolls her walker through the monastery, steering it often in the direction of one of her favorite places—the chapel.

She’s there each morning, praying before the Blessed Sacrament.

She wheels herself to the nearby cemetery every afternoon to talk with her friends who have died and pray for her friends who are still living.

She also continues a 25-year tradition of leading a group of sisters as they pray the rosary for vocations.

“She’s the most prayerful person I know,” says Sister Bernardine.

Living life as a prayer

For nearly 100 years, Sister Mary Sylvester has offered a countless number of prayers of thanks to God. Still, her most enduring legacy is that she has lived her life as a prayer of thanksgiving to God.

The gratitude shows in the way she fondly recalls those horse-drawn wagon trips with her siblings and other children to their Catholic school—her first journey of faith with others.

Her happiness also flows in the memories of her students, and the care she has extended toward people in need—including the way she stuffed 47 pillows last Christmas, hoping to bring a touch of comfort to military veterans at a hospital.

And perhaps most of all, her appreciation for her life has always been reflected in her joy of being part of a religious community dedicated to God. She comes to all the meals, and attends all the events, Masses and celebrations within the community.

One of the community’s next major celebrations will be on May 13—a celebration in honor of her 100th birthday and her 83 years as a religious sister.

Listen to her fellow sisters talk about the birthday party, and it seems the event is as much a celebration for them as it is for her. That’s how much she means to them.

“She’s such a delight,” Sister Mary Ann says. “She knows we’re making a big deal of her birthday. She says, ‘I’ll be happy to go to heaven tomorrow, but you all want to have a party.’ ”

Sister Mary Sylvester laughs, her spirit still strong and bright.

(Sister Mary Sylvester’s birthday celebration will be from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on May 13 at Our Lady of Grace Monastery, 1402 Southern Ave., in Beech Grove. Former students, friends of the Benedictine sisters’ community and anyone who wants to share in the celebration of her life are invited to attend.)

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