November 2, 2018

Vocations Supplement

Sister’s outreach adds joy to her life and others

Franciscan Sister Jackie McCracken stops for a photo inside the Village of Merici, the Indianapolis residential setting where she helps adults with disabilities navigate their lives. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Franciscan Sister Jackie McCracken stops for a photo inside the Village of Merici, the Indianapolis residential setting where she helps adults with disabilities navigate their lives. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The connection with the young woman comes unexpectedly as Franciscan Sister Jackie McCracken opens a door and quickly turns into a hallway of the Village of Merici, a residential setting for adults with disabilities.

Sister Jackie stops suddenly, her smile blossoms, and a second later she and the young woman are sharing a joy-filled hug.

If one moment can help define a lifetime, perhaps that moment captures the essence of Sister Jackie’s 73 years of life and 55 years as a religious sister.

It’s a moment of joy, outreach and embrace, a moment when the instinct to transform the life of another person is linked to the desire to have your own life transformed.

Sister Jackie has lived that focus on community, relationships and faith as part of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Oldenburg.

“The love of the Franciscan order in general is totally relational,” she says. “St. Francis was in love with Christ and the Word made flesh. The incarnation is something we celebrate all the time in our relationships.”

That approach has guided her when she taught religion and English at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis. It was also there for the 14 years when she had various roles as an advocate for female victims of domestic abuse—from being there for women during court proceedings to training judges and lawyers about the issue of domestic violence

She was also the executive director of Indiana Campus Compact, part of a national organization that promotes service learning opportunities for college students, faculty members and presidents. And she worked at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, helping teachers imbed the concept of service into their classes.

Four years ago, she became program director and volunteer coordinator at the Village of Merici in the Indianapolis suburb of Lawrence—a move that led one of her siblings to wonder why she wanted to begin a new challenge in life at age 69.

“I thought it would be fun and something I would really enjoy,” she says. “I also felt I could be of service to the organization and the people we support.”

Originally founded by a group that included many Catholic families, the village is named after St. Angela Merici, the patron saint of persons with disabilities. The residence houses 22 adults who have challenges that include autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

“The individuals we support here are vulnerable,” Sister Jackie says. “They’re part of a marginalized group. They’re often taken advantage of. They’re lonely. They have lots of anxiety.

“They learn to live with people here. They’re making friends, and they really enjoy each other for the most part.”

They also have a friend in Sister Jackie, says Kristy Hayes, program and operations manager for the village.

“She definitely has a lot of impact on everyone who lives here,” Hayes says. “The number one thing I look for in someone who does this work is having a good heart. That’s what I see in her. It’s her kindness, compassion and empathy toward everyone we support. She just wants to help others live their best life.”

Striving to do that, Sister Jackie plans programs on nutrition, stress relief, sexuality, financial literacy and gardening for the residents. As she mentions the village’s garden that they help to nurture, she soon talks about the ways they have helped her grow.

“When I started this ministry, I was nervous about it,” she says. “I consider myself a teacher. I was really intent on treating them just like I would anyone else. I talk to them, challenge them, get mad at them, and treat them like I would want to be treated.”

Her eyes light up and she smiles as she continues, “There is a simplicity about them that a good Franciscan would recognize in them. They’re great examples for me in terms of how to be humble and sincere. They’ve helped me to be patient. I think there are some people who are afraid of people with disabilities. For me, they’ve been a lot of fun. There’s been a profound blessing in this for me.”

She feels the same way about her life as a religious sister.

As a student at the former Holy Trinity School and the former St. Mary’s Academy, both in Indianapolis, she was fascinated by and felt close to the Franciscan sisters who taught her. She found them to be friendly, open, “great teachers, great role models.”

Sister Jackie’s fellow religious sisters see similar qualities in her.

“I’ve known Jackie since 1963, when we entered the community on the same day,” says Franciscan Sister Jan Kroeger. “When she really believes in something, she acts on it. She’s done a lot of things to help women and children. And she has a real passion for working with people who are marginalized, as she does now.

“She’s also very strongly committed to the [Franciscan sisters’] community, and a very faithful friend. We keep in touch and share what’s going on in our lives. We’ve been able to do that for a long, long time.”

Looking back on her life as a religious sister, Sister Jackie once wrote, “I’m not sure that any other lifestyle would have allowed me the flexibility and encouragement to pursue the ministry and service opportunities I’ve been engaged in during my lifetime. I’ve grown as a person, become courageous, taken risks and become transformed as a result of the people in my life.”

It’s a life that has given her a lot of joy, a life that leads her to promote a vocation as a religious sister.

“You are part of something larger than yourself,” she says. “Whether you look at it from a social justice perspective or a spirituality perspective, we are ultimately bound together by that thread.

“Women religious congregations have a lot to give the world by the way of mercy, justice, love and peace.”

(For more information about the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Oldenburg, log on to †

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