September 8, 2023

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth retires after 32 years of parish leadership

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth stands on May 31 in St. Maurice Church in Napoleon. She led the Batesville Deanery faith community as parish life coordinator since 2010. In July, she retired after serving 32 years in the archdiocese as a parish life coordinator. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth stands on May 31 in St. Maurice Church in Napoleon. She led the Batesville Deanery faith community as parish life coordinator since 2010. In July, she retired after serving 32 years in the archdiocese as a parish life coordinator. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

NAPOLEON—With the archdiocese being 189 years old, it’s not often nowadays that Catholics can celebrate a real pioneer in the life of the Church in central and southern Indiana.

But that’s what the members of St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon in southeastern Indiana were able to do in July as they honored Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth as she retired from 32 years of ministry as a parish life coordinator (PLC) in the archdiocese.

The last 13 of those were spent in Napoleon. But when she was first appointed a PLC in 1991, Sister Shirley was only the second person to hold such a position in the history of the archdiocese, with the first person to do so serving in that ministry for only a year.

On May 1, 1991, Sister Shirley became the PLC for the former St. Anne Parish in Hamburg, St. John the Evangelist Parish in Enochsburg and St. Maurice Parish in Decatur County (the last two of which now comprise St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Decatur County).

Although she had served from 1987 as pastoral associate at St. John, she knew something in her ministry had changed in a significant way.

“I can remember waking up on May 1,” Sister Shirley recalled. “I had been doing the same work, but I just felt a heaviness, because I knew that I was the one that was responsible now. I knew that I was a pioneer in this position.”

A prayerful leader

Sister Shirley, 79, grew up as a member of St. Mary Parish in North Vernon. Being educated in the parish’s school by Franciscan sisters from Oldenburg, she felt drawn to their vocation.

She entered its novitiate in 1962 and expected to spend much of her life serving in Catholic schools.

“I never thought about what work I would do. I just knew I wanted to be a sister,” Sister Shirley said. “Of course, in that community in that time, most of them taught.”

And, for 12 years, that is what she did, serving, among other schools, at St. Louis School in Batesville and the former St. Rita School in Indianapolis.

Beginning in the early 1970s, when Sister Shirley was still only in her late 20s, she began to feel a call to parish ministry.

“I felt that, if God was calling me to this, God would find a place for me,” she said.

That place ended up being her home parish in North Vernon, where she served as pastoral associate for a decade from 1974-84 before moving on to St. Mary Parish in Greensburg for three years.

In Greensburg and at Enochsburg, she collaborated with Father John Geis, respectively the pastor and administrator of those faith communities.

In 1991, Father Geis was appointed archdiocesan vicar for clergy. That same year Sister Shirley became a pioneer PLC in the archdiocese.

Although she was keenly aware of the responsibility she had taken on, Sister Shirley appreciated the wide range of ministry open to her in leading parishes.

“One of the joys for me of being a parish life coordinator was that I was involved with all age groups, from babies all the way to the elderly,” Sister Shirley said.

Father Geis was certain she could lead a parish well.

“She didn’t just wield power in making decisions because she had the power to do that,” said Father Geis, now retired. “She really was truly involved with people and knew what their needs were. She made decisions from that point of view.”

He also knew that Sister Shirley was able to face crises and make difficult decisions in the life of a parish.

“She could do that,” Father Geis said. “But she took it to prayer and then did what she felt was the right thing to do. She gave herself as a sister totally to her ministry, to the Church and to people in whatever way she could.”

‘A born leader’

Sister Shirley’s decades of parish ministry were put to a test that she could never have imagined on the morning of April 7, 2007.

She had been serving as PLC of St. Anne Parish in New Castle and the former St. Rose of Lima Parish in Knightstown since 1995.

On that Holy Saturday morning, just hours before the parish’s celebration of the Easter Vigil, Sister Shirley discovered that St. Anne Church was on fire.

The fire, later found to have been started by an arsonist, gutted the church.

Sister Shirley leaned hard on her dedication to prayer and to the people of St. Anne as she led them through this tragedy.

“I learned to take it a day at a time,” she said as she recalled those difficult days. “I felt such a part of the people. I cried with them. Together, we tried to speak words of hope, trust and encouragement.”

As the parishioners learned that the destruction of their beloved church was not an accident but an act of arson by New Castle resident William Abbot, Sister Shirley faced the challenge of leading her parishioners to forgive him.

She only became fully aware of the enormity of this test as she sat in a Henry County courtroom with Abbot during a court hearing related to the arson fire.

“I remember both of us looking at each other,” Sister Shirley said. “I said to myself, ‘My God, I’m asking the parish to do something that I haven’t begun myself.’ And that was the journey of forgiving him.”

In addition to the spiritual challenges Sister Shirley faced from the fire at St. Anne, she also had a physical one—leading the building of a new parish church.

She called on the assistance of parishioner Jack Basler, at the time a longtime chief executive officer of Henry Community Health, a hospital in New Castle, to lead the parish’s building committee.

Calling Sister Shirley “a born leader,” Basler was impressed by her leadership of the parish during this difficult time.

“She knew what had to be done, got to it and did it immediately,” he recalled. “Without her, we would have never accomplished the project.”

Basler noted that Sister Shirley’s ability to handle the many complexities of building a new $4.4 million church wouldn’t have been effective had she also not been able to bring the parish community to support the project.

“She was able to get the people all on the same page, all heading in the same direction at the same time,” Basler said.

“A small parish like we are, and considering the age of the parishioners, she raised more money than I thought was possible. After we built the church, we had enough money to go ahead and re-do the school building as a parish center—with no debt on top of it.”

A leader ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’

Just months after Sister Shirley joyfully witnessed the dedication of the new St. Anne Church, she left

New Castle when then-Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein appointed her as PLC of St. Maurice Parish in Napoleon.

Sister Shirley reflected on how during times of transition, she always asked God to prepare the place where she was going to take up a new ministry.

Those prayers seem to have been answered when she arrived in Napoleon.

“They were and are a welcoming community,” Sister Shirley said. “I felt very comfortable the very first time I was here.”

She hoped, after dealing with the crisis of a church burning and the complexities of building a new church, that ministry in Napoleon might be a little more relaxed.

However, Sister Shirley soon learned that the St. Maurice parishioners had been working for a decade to raise enough funds to build a new parish life center.

When she saw the people’s faith, she knew she couldn’t ignore their desires.

“We still had to have a capital campaign to raise about half [the funds needed],” Sister Shirley said. “But we had it paid off in six months.”

That wasn’t the only project Sister Shirley oversaw in her 13 years in Napoleon. During that time, she raised some $1.6 million in the small parish to put a new roof on the church and do tuckpointing work on it.

In her final days in the parish, she made sure a new sidewalk was poured in front of the parish rectory, stained-glass windows in the church were repaired and new fencing installed in the parish cemetery.

“She was a strong leader and got things done,” said Mary Bultman, chairperson of St. Maurice’s finance committee. “Financially, she knew how to make everyone want to give. As a parish family, we give of our talent, time and treasure very well.”

Bultman said that, while Sister Shirley was adept in guiding practical building projects, she also was a valued pastoral leader.

“She’s just filled with the Holy Spirit,” Bultman said. “She gave you a shoulder to cry on or a nudge you need to push ahead. She was always there in times of need. She brought all of us together more closely.”

Although people like Basler, Bultman and Father Geis praised Sister Shirley for her pastoral leadership, the retiring PLC pointed to all of the people she served for making her into the Franciscan sister that she is.

“I am who I am—whoever that is in God’s eyes—because of all the people who have touched my life,” Sister Shirley said. “I love the saying, ‘Beauty in all its forms feeds my soul.’ I tried to find beauty in the people I served. I really feel that they have helped me form my life.”

In July, Sister Shirley retired after nearly 50 years of parish ministry in the archdiocese, 32 of those leading parishes as a PLC, and moved to her community’s motherhouse in Oldenburg.

“Now, I’m asking God to prepare the way to the motherhouse for me,” Sister Shirley said. “And I also realize that I should be asking God to prepare heaven for me, too.” †

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