October 28, 2016

2016 Vocations Supplement

Sisters share a journey toward ‘the loving heart of God’

Franciscan Sisters Shirley Gerth, left, and Donna Prickel rely on the values of St. Francis—and each other—as they serve the archdiocese as parish life coordinators in the Batesville Deanery. Sister Shirley serves in St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood and St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon. Sister Donna ministers at Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Franciscan Sisters Shirley Gerth, left, and Donna Prickel rely on the values of St. Francis—and each other—as they serve the archdiocese as parish life coordinators in the Batesville Deanery. Sister Shirley serves in St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood and St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon. Sister Donna ministers at Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

NAPOLEON—Her words offer a combination of wisdom and welcome:

“Let us no longer be strangers, but friends in our journey of faith. Then we, together, will meet the loving heart of God.”

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth shares that message on the website of St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon in southeastern Indiana, where she serves as its parish life coordinator (PLC).

Those words show the purpose that has guided Sister Shirley in her interactions with people through the years. They also capture the blooming relationship that is developing between her and Franciscan Sister Donna Prickel, the parish life coordinator of Immaculate Conception Parish in Millhousen, which is just a few turns along country roads from St. Maurice.

While Sister Shirley has been a part of the Franciscan community in Oldenburg for 55 years and Sister Donna has had that connection for 44 years, the two women are relative “strangers” because their faith journeys have led them in different directions—until now.

Since the summer, their lives have become intertwined in their roles as parish life coordinators in the archdiocese.

In her 25 years in that role, Sister Shirley has served the parishes of St. Anne in New Castle, St. Rose of Lima in Knightstown, St. John the Baptist in Osgood and St. Maurice. She also ministered in the former St. John the Evangelist Parish in Enochsburg.

As for Sister Donna, she’s in just her third month as a parish life coordinator.

The closeness of St. Maurice and Immaculate Conception parishes has led to a connection where Sister Shirley serves as a mentor to Sister Donna, but the roots of their relationship run far deeper—to their shared commitment to their Franciscan values.

“I can’t imagine doing this pastoral work without the foundation of our Franciscan values,” says Sister Shirley. “When we talk about St. Francis, we talk about a life of simplicity and the love of creation.”

Sister Donna nods and adds, “It’s the sense of us all being one. Francis was very strong about being the humble one. That whole concept works well in the country where people live from the land, and they have a gratitude and praise for that living. In the past, we had schools in many of these little parishes. We’re continuing part of that mission, that presence in the rural community.”

‘I’ve never doubted my vocation’

The Franciscan way of life attracted both sisters at an early age.

“There were nine of us in my family,” says Sister Shirley, who is 72. “I knew my parents always prayed that one of their daughters would be a sister and one of their sons would be a priest. I did have a brother who was a priest, but he died.

“I was taught by Franciscan sisters at St. Mary School in North Vernon. I never thought of any other religious order. I entered the order in my senior year of high school. And I’ve been happy ever since. I don’t know why we don’t have more vocations to religious life and the priesthood. I’ve never doubted my religious vocation.”

Neither has Sister Donna, who has previously served her Franciscan community by primarily working as a nurse for nearly 35 years, with many of those years in Michigan.

“I also was from a large family,” says Sister Donna, who is 63. “I was the oldest daughter of 11 children. I grew up in St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Morris. I had the Franciscan sisters all through grade school and high school. We lived a half mile from the parish, and my parents always encouraged helping the sisters and the parish.

“Having that connection with the sisters nourished my thoughts of a vocation, and it grew. I knew by the second or third grade that I was going into religious life—and that has never changed.”

Her life has changed since becoming a parish life coordinator.

First, she had to move to a place where she didn’t know anyone—a transition that has been eased considerably by the way she has been “warmly embraced,” she says, by Immaculate Conception parishioners.

She has also had to make a transition from being with people in a health care setting.

“When I worked with people in health care, it was for a short interim, an interim of crisis,” Sister Donna says. “Now my life is about being with them and supporting them over the continuum of their lives. This gives me an opportunity to know people before those vulnerable times.”

‘We’re that reminder that God is with them’

In 25 years as a parish life coordinator, Sister Shirley has experienced all the roles and all the emotions of that relationship with parishioners.

“A parish life coordinator does everything a priest does, except for celebrating Mass and the sacraments,” she says. “One of the joys of being a PLC is you enter people’s lives at all stages—as babies, as a young, engaged couple or with people dying.

“My greatest joy is being with people in sickness and dying. I just think you’re standing on sacred ground during that process. It’s a privilege to be invited into people’s lives and their homes during such a vulnerable time. I know I’m a better person and a better Franciscan because of this ministry.”

She shares the story of the relationship she developed with a woman, diagnosed with dementia, who had been in a nursing home for 10 years.

“Many times, she didn’t know me,” Sister Shirley recalls. “I walked in there two weeks ago, and she had died that morning. The fact she wasn’t there left an impact on me. Through all that time, I learned more deeply what presence means.”

Sister Donna has begun to experience that feeling as a parish life coordinator.

“That relationship that Shirley is describing is ‘God with us,’ ” Sister Donna says. “Our presence lets them know they’re not alone. We’re that reminder that God is with them in their joy and their suffering. That’s the message of the Gospel.”

It’s also become the message of the growing relationship between Sister Shirley and Sister Donna.

“I’ve been fortunate to have Shirley with me,” Sister Donna says. “I don’t have those 25 years of experience. That’s what I rely on.”

Sister Shirley smiles and says, “Instead of mentoring, I like to use the word, ‘companioning.’ Our lives are intertwined. There’s a natural bond there.”

It’s a bond that began as Franciscan sisters—a bond that continues as two people on a journey of faith toward “the loving heart of God.”
 

(For more information about the Oldenburg Franciscans, visit www.oldenburgfranciscans.org.)

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