June 24, 2016

‘They are family’: Emotions run deep for retiring sister who helped parishes live their faith

Franciscan Sister Christine Ernstes, right, shares a smile with Anna Johannigman and Anna’s father, Joe Johannigman, before Mass on June 12 at Immaculate Conception Church in Millhousen in the Batesville Deanery. Anna sings during Mass while Joe plays the piano. (Submitted photo by Amy Hermesch)

Franciscan Sister Christine Ernstes, right, shares a smile with Anna Johannigman and Anna’s father, Joe Johannigman, before Mass on June 12 at Immaculate Conception Church in Millhousen in the Batesville Deanery. Anna sings during Mass while Joe plays the piano. (Submitted photo by Amy Hermesch)

By John Shaughnessy

MILLHOUSEN—Tears started to pool in the eyes of Franciscan Sister Christine Ernstes.

She could feel the emotion rising within her as she sat in the sanctuary during a recent Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Millhousen, where she has served as the parish life coordinator for the past 21 years.

“I saw all these people coming up for Communion, and I thought of how all of them had touched my life, and how I had touched theirs,” she recalls. “I almost cried just because they are so much a part of my life. They are family.”

Sister Christine will say goodbye to that parish family on July 3 as she retires just a few months shy of her 75th birthday. Everyone expects it to be an emotional day.

“Sister Christine has been a huge part of the faith community in Decatur and Jennings County,” says Scott Hermesch, the chairperson of the parish council. “In a lot of ways, when we think of the Catholic Church, we think of Sister Christine and the role she plays in helping to administer the faith and live out the Gospel. She has been our very real and direct link to the teachings of the Church.”

It’s the kind of tribute that will move Sister Christine close to tears again, but her face breaks into a smile when she thinks of the parish’s plan for her sendoff. At first, a pig roast was planned, a farewell fitting of this rural, farming community in the Batesville Deanery. Then the men of the parish decided to go with their “A” game—barbecued pulled pork.

“It’s what they make for the parish auction,” she says with a smile. “They take their time in letting the sauce soak in. It’s so good.”

From tears to smiles, Sister Christine has experienced a range of emotions since she came in 1995 to Millhousen, which is just 10 miles from where she grew up on a farm in the Greensburg area.

“It’s been good because it’s let me connect with my friends, and I’ve been closer to my family. My mom died that April, and I came here in November. People at my previous parish in Aurora [St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception] said it was my mom’s doing that I came to Millhousen so I could be closer to my dad. He died three years ago. It was a blessing to be that close.”

From the beginning, Sister Christine has tried to grow and nourish the roots of faith and family that have always been part of this farming community.

“When I first came, I was responsible for both Immaculate Conception and St. Denis [in Jennings County] parishes,” she says. “I told them we could make them faith-filled places of prayer, worship and community outreach to others, but it was up to all of us to do it.

“They’ve always been willing to live their faith in all ways—reaching out, caring for each other, and coming together in worship. There are times when I am very humbled by the faith of the people around me. I try to do what I challenge them to do.”

One of the most challenging times came in 2013 when the archdiocesan “Connected in the Spirit” planning process led to St. Denis Parish being closed and merged into Immaculate Conception.

“It was hard, but I think it has gone well,” she says. “It took effort on my part and the effort of the people in both parishes. They were willing to reach out to one another. When we put out our last parish pictorial directory, one of the first pictures was of the last Mass at St. Denis. Underneath it, it said, ‘the newest members of Immaculate Conception Parish.’ ”

No one has had a better view of the difference Sister Christine has made in this community than Kathy Westrick, who was already serving as the parish’s coordinator of religious education when Sister arrived.

“She works so hard, and she’s done an awful lot—spiritually and also financially,” Westrick says. “We were hurting financially before she showed up. Her motto is, ‘If you give to the charities, God will take care of you.’ So when we do an auction every year, some of that money is donated to the charities we take care of. It’s worked out ever since she’s been with us.”

Westrick’s voice gets softer as she adds, “She’s very compassionate, very thoughtful, just a good person. She’s always been there for us—and me personally—during a lot of sad times in our lives. She fit in from the beginning. She was used to country life, and we’re a country parish. It was a good match.”

That sentiment came to life when Sister Christine stopped by Millhousen’s lone restaurant—Stones—on a recent day for lunch. She was welcomed warmly by diners who meet weekly to play euchre, a group that has called her to step in when one of the regulars isn’t available. They asked her for prayers for family members in need. They told her they will miss her. They bragged about her as much as she raved about the restaurant’s fried chicken and homemade pies.

Sitting at one of the tables, 94-year-old Martha Fry—a lifetime member of Immaculate Conception—describes Sister Christine as “an inspiration.”

“She’s been such a marvelous leader in our church in every way,” Fry says. “She was with my brother when he was dying. It was such a comfort to me to know that she was there to pray and be with his daughters when he was dying. She has a very pleasant personality, and she’s very concerned about the parish. We are really going to miss her.”

The feeling is mutual for Sister Christine, whose nearly 54 years in religious life have also included service at Holy Spirit Parish, St. Philip Neri Parish and Marian University, all in Indianapolis.

As she prepares to move to the Franciscan Sisters’ motherhouse in Oldenburg, she smiles at the memories of how the parishioners of Immaculate Conception and St. Denis parishes always looked out for her.

“When the weather is bad, the men of the parish refuse to plow my driveway because they don’t want me out on the town. Instead, they come and take me to town or wherever I need to go.

“That shows the warmth and caring of the people here. They are good, welcoming people, and I have so much gratitude for them. I will miss all of them.” †

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