May 2, 2014

‘She’s the glue that holds our parish together’

Sister Mary Emma Jochum, a Sister of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, hugs a student after a recent Wednesday night religion class at St. Paul Parish in Tell City. (Submitted photo)

Sister Mary Emma Jochum, a Sister of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, hugs a student after a recent Wednesday night religion class at St. Paul Parish in Tell City. (Submitted photo)

By Greg Eckerle (Special to The Criterion)

TELL CITY—Ask Benedictine Sister Mary Emma Jochum about her biggest challenges as director of religious education at St. Paul Parish in Tell City, and you won’t hear one word about her half-paralyzed body that she’s patiently coped with since 1970.

She’s most concerned with keeping up with everybody and making sure everyone is served well. She wonders if she’s sufficiently trained the volunteer catechists. She ponders if she finds enough to attract the faith lives of young adults. According to her fellow parishioners, she needn’t worry.

A vocation focused on helping others

Kathy Kleemann, an eighth-grade catechist for Sister Mary Emma’s religious education program that serves 273 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, says, “She knows what the people’s needs are, and what’s bothering them. She knows how life is here. Even though she has given her life to God, she still is on the level of the people.”

Kleemann is amazed by how much Sister Mary Emma, a Sister of St. Benedict of Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese, accomplishes. And by how she regularly attends students’ first Communion and graduation parties, feeling the need to show up for St. Paul Parish.

“She could always use the excuse she can’t make it because of the handicap,” Kleemann says. “But she never does. She’s wheelchair-bound, but it doesn’t stop her at all.

“Wow, the Benedictine sisters work hard, don’t they? She gives everything. Her work ethic is so strong. Her focus is definitely on helping the people.”

Kleemann’s voice wavers. “We all go to her for our needs, and we forget about her needs. We forget that she hasn’t been able to walk for years. We forget her suffering. She just doesn’t complain. Never have I heard her say ‘I can’t do that because I’m confined.’ ”

Sister Mary Emma provided invaluable support for Kleemann when her son was killed in a car accident on his prom night in 1997, and when her husband died in 2010. “She moved me on my journey, and offered ways to get help,” says Kleemann. “We’ve been best friends [ever] since. She knows what to say to a person when they have sorrow. Any time I am unsure about something, I can go to her for counseling.”

Another of Kleemann’s sons, Derek, also teaches a religion class for Sister Mary Emma. “He named his 2-year-old daughter, Emma, after her,” says Kleemann, her voice cracking. “That’s what she means to us. She has given us life.”

Pumping life into a parish

Sister Mary Emma has also pumped life into various activities since arriving at St. Paul Parish in 1993. Besides planning and overseeing the religious education program for school children and the developmentally challenged, she heads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program, the Ministry of Charity committee, sacramental preparations, Liturgy of the Word program for children, summer mission trips for high school children, adult education, lines up nearly 20 service options for confirmation candidates to choose from, supervises Saint Meinrad seminarians observing parish practices, and is a field associate for the archdiocesan tribunal for annulments.

“She’s a workhorse, she never stops moving,” says Father Dennis Duvelius, the parish’s pastor. “For anybody who comes off the street needing help, Sister Emma is the first to greet them and try to figure out what we can do for them. The Benedictine trait of hospitality certainly characterizes her. She’s always willing to listen, and has a shoulder to cry on. She’s a woman of amazing strength. How she does what she does with her condition is just amazing. I think just what she does to get going in the morning would deter most people from doing half of what she does.”

Sister Mary Emma resides at Oakwood Health Campus, an assisted living facility in Tell City. But she independently wheels tirelessly around the parish in a motorized scooter and a van specially equipped for her to drive. At age 73, she is as committed as ever to her ministry, and shrugs off routinely working extra evening and weekend hours.

“I just think Jesus didn’t have banking hours, so I shouldn’t, either,” she says, laughing. “But this is where my religious life comes in at. I want to be available wherever the needs are, be it day or night.

“My primary responsibility is faith formation, practically from the womb to the tomb. I don’t see my work as a career, but as a ministry serving the needs of the people. It’s a special calling. It’s a call deep within me that has more a hold of me than I have of it.”

‘She’s the glue that holds our parish together’

She responds to the call so well that she finds children hugging her in the hallway of the parish center, and parents who simply cannot say “no” to her requests for help in serving the parish. Teenagers strive for her approval of their efforts.

“She’s the glue that holds our parish together,” says Louann Oberhausen, a member of the Ministry of Charity committee. “We really depend on her to get a lot of programs going. She’s very persuasive, you know she’s got her heart in it. She has the disability of being partially paralyzed, but she doesn’t let it get her down.

“She overcomes obstacles, and shows what a strong person she is. She’s a good role model, she just keeps going and going. We call her the ‘Energizer Bunny’ sometimes. She doesn’t have a quitting time. She’s there on her days off, she’s there at 9 o’clock at night. She’s just a super sister.”

Truth be told, she revels in her long list of duties simply because it means she’s of service to more and more people. “I’m more drawn by my ministry now than when I began. It’s the presence of God that I feel in people as I serve them. And the satisfaction they experience by what I do for them,” she says.

As she serves the parishioners, she often thinks of the seven corporal works of mercy, as based in the Bible. “I was thirsty, you gave me drink. I was sick, you visited me,” she says. Through St. Paul’s Ministry of Charity, she helps feed and clothe many children. It’s a perfect tie-in to the Benedictine sisters’ practice of using the Gospel as their guide.

“The Gospel gives me direction on how to be present among the people in the parish,” Sister Mary Emma says. With a lifetime of Gospel study, it’s become second nature for her. 

A recovery buoyed by faith

Sister Mary Emma’s life changed forever after a car accident in 1970. Age 30 at the time, she was a grade school principal in Fort Branch, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese. While delivering some student IQ tests, she and another car approached a one-lane bridge at the same time. As she applied her brakes on the rain-slicked road, her vehicle skidded and flipped over into a 20-foot ditch. The impact crushed three of her neck vertebrae, damaged some spinal cord nerves, and left her paralyzed from the neck down. In a hospital for four months, she later learned doctors thought she wouldn’t live.

Two weeks after the accident, she began to move her left foot. She gradually regained movement on her left side. Doctors termed it a “pure miracle.” She remains paralyzed on her right side.

“Faith played a major role in my recovery,” says Sister Mary Emma. “I still remember the words that came to me right away, ‘The Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?’

“I had to go through the stages of anger, depression and frustration. I thought I would be a worthless person the rest of my life. But one day I had an inspiration, during prayer, that it’s not what is lost, but what is left that counts. Instead of dwelling on what I couldn’t do, I concentrated on what I could do. I had no head injuries, I could move my left side. I just decided I was going to live each day with the fact there are many things I can do.

“My prayer is what I really gain my strength from,” she says. “That’s where I experience inspirations. Ideas come to me on how to do something that I never thought about doing before. Or I get inspired by listening to others.”

Turning a handicap into ‘God’s handiwork’

She changed ministries in 1971 from a school administrator to director of religious education (DRE). She has served parishes in Vanderburgh and Warrick counties, became DRE for the Diocese of Evansville for five years, then moved to St. Paul Parish in 1993.

Sister Mary Emma received her greatest honor in 1998, winning the national Distinguished Service Award from the 1,600-member National Conference of Catechetical Leadership. The plaque was presented to her at a national conference in Milwaukee. It read, “In grateful acknowledgement of her loving and dedicated service to catechesis and her powerful witness to proclaiming the Good news of Jesus.”

One testimonial supporting her nomination aptly summed up her impact: “She turned a handicap into God’s handiwork.”

Sixteen years later, she’s still scooting around, serving as many as possible.

(Greg Eckerle is communications manager for the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Ind.)

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