January 11, 2013

2013 Religious Vocations Supplement

Franciscan sister leads interfaith retreat center in Montana

Franciscan Sister Mary Ann Stoffregen poses on the grounds of her community’s motherhouse in Oldenburg on Aug. 21, 2012. (Submitted photo)

Franciscan Sister Mary Ann Stoffregen poses on the grounds of her community’s motherhouse in Oldenburg on Aug. 21, 2012. (Submitted photo)

By Sr. Judith Warner, O.S.F. (Special to The Criterion)

“Our God is full of surprises,” said Franciscan Sister Mary Ann Stoffregen as she recounted her vocational journey that eventually led her to the Prayer Lodge in Busby, Mont.

A native Hoosier, Stoffregen was born and raised outside of Charlestown by her parents, Henry and Nora Stoffregen. They had five children, operated a tavern and were members of St. Michael Parish in Charlestown.

“I went to public schools until seventh grade when our parish built a school,” she said. “That is when I first met the Sisters of St. Francis.” Until then, her religious education consisted of Bible stories told by her grandmother and catechism classes on Saturdays.

“During my senior year [in high school], I felt God was calling me to try religious life,” she said. “My father was not Catholic, and he said ‘no woman could ever be happy unless she married and had children.’ So he would not give his permission for me to enter.”

She was just 17 years old at the time. Sister Mary Ann spent her freshman year at Marian College, now Marian University, in Indianapolis.

“By then, my dad relented,” she recalled. “He had probably figured out I was as stubborn as he was and wanted me to get the crazy idea out of my head. Years later, he told me that he had been wrong. Both my sisters were married, and he thought I might be at least as happy as they were.”

Sister Mary Ann entered the Congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Oldenburg in 1958 and professed final vows in 1964. She taught for 20 years in Catholic schools, mostly high school English and journalism.

“After doing vocation and formation ministry for my community, I felt I needed to expand my world and live and minister with folks of different life experiences,” she said. “I had studied some … and learned bits about culture and spirituality and was attracted to learning more.”

Sister Mary Ann visited her Oldenburg Franciscan Sisters in Montana, where she “had a feeling of coming home.”

She was hired in 1986 to do pastoral ministry at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Lame Deer, Mont. Five years later, she filled the same role at Christ the King Parish in Busby, Mont.

In the early 1990s, Sister Mary Ann began to plan what came to be known as the Prayer Lodge, a place of prayer and retreat for women of varying religious backgrounds, including those from Native American tribes and nations.

“Dreaming had begun earlier when both Northern Cheyenne and Crow women expressed a desire to have a safe, peaceful place where they could pray, learn and discern God’s call and find the support of other women,” she noted. “Native [American] women, Catholic ministers on the reservations, and leadership of the Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenburg, had already spent several years in the planning process.”

From 1992 to 2000, she served as director of the Prayer Lodge while continuing to do part-time ministry at Christ the King.

“Early on, we established a board to guide decisions about Prayer Lodge’s direction and practical matters,” she said. “We began a ‘last-Saturday-of-the-month Women’s Day,’ which happened for almost 20 years.”

The goals of the Prayer Lodge include offering opportunities for learning, growth and support for women.

Wilhelmina Schmidt, a member of the Northern Cheyenne nation, has fulfilled the dream to have a Native American woman as director of the Prayer Lodge.

Stoffregen returned to Indiana in mid-2000 to serve as part of the congregation’s leadership team for six years. She later returned to the Prayer Lodge, and currently serves as the resident sister and spiritual guide.

Sister Mary Ann has been surprised by God in her ministry at the Prayer Lodge by “finding that while we expected to serve local women we’ve attracted folks from all over the country and the world. We have shared not only Crow and Northern Cheyenne culture, but German, French, Australian, Papa New Guinean, Japanese and Sri Lankan, among others.”

(To learn more about the Congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Oldenburg, log on to www.oldenburgfranciscans.org.)

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