September 16, 2005

2005 Religious Education Supplement

Benedictine sister finds vocation in
religious education after tragic accident

By Sean Gallagher

TELL CITY—Benedictine Sister Mary Emma Jochum, the director of religious education (DRE) at St. Paul Parish in Tell City, has been a nationally recognized leader in catechesis for more than 30 years.

During that time, she has planted seeds of faith in countless children, welcomed adults into the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and served as a mentor to several of her colleagues in parish catechetical ministry.

But this legacy of service might not have happened if a turning point in her life had not occurred on Oct. 8, 1970.

On the evening of that day, Sister Mary Emma, who at the time was the young principal of Holy Cross School in Haubstadt, Ind., in the Diocese of Evansville, was delivering some standardized tests to a principal of a nearby school. It was raining at the time when she approached a one-lane bridge.

Sister Mary Emma misjudged the speed of an oncoming car, braked quickly and lost control of her small car. It tumbled down a 27-foot embankment into a ditch and landed on its roof.

Three vertebrae in her neck were buckled and in the process several nerves in her spinal chord were severed. At a hospital in Evansville, doctors told Sister Mary Emma’s parents and her prioress that she would either not survive surgery or would be bound to a wheelchair for the remainder of her life.

Sister Mary Emma remained in the hospital for more than four months. During much of that time, she was immobilized on a bed so narrow that panels on the side were attached for her to rest her arms. Her head was held in place by tongs that were attached to screws that were drilled into her skull and re-tightened daily.

The bed was constructed so that it could be rotated upside down. This happened every two hours for the first two months of Sister Mary Emma’s hospital stay.

Being totally secured on this bed for so long, Sister Mary Emma sought meaning in the one part of her that could continue to move—her heart, formed by her faith-filled family and years of religious life.

“Many a time when I was lying there, I thought that this is the cross of Christ,” she said. “And then the tongs that tugged, I just related that to the crown of thorns. It didn’t take me long to experience that myself. With every resurrection, there is a cross and a death.”

Sister Mary Emma experienced something of a death on that October evening in 1970. But the beginnings of a new life emerged a month later when she felt a movement in her left foot.

"When I felt that movement, I asked the nurse, when she came in, whether or not that really was my imagination or I was really moving it,” she said. “And she was ecstatic. She was so surprised because I was supposed to be paralyzed from the neck on down.”

By Christmas, Sister Mary Emma was able to sit up. She then entered into months of strenuous physical therapy. She was released from the hospital in mid-February, but lived in a nearby convent to facilitate her out-patient therapy.

Moving with the aid of a walker, Sister Mary Emma returned to Holy Cross School and finished the academic year she had begun before her accident. A year later, she concluded that the physical demands of being a principal were too much for her. She had regained the use of her left arm and leg, but her right leg was effectively immobile and the use of her right hand was limited.

It was at that point, in the spring of 1973, that Sister Mary Emma discerned a call to catechetical ministry. She soon became the director of religious education of St. Clement Parish in Booneville, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese, and served in that position for nine years.

In the ensuing years, she earned a master’s degree in religious studies and was a diocesan catechetical leader in the Evansville Diocese. By the time she began her ministry in the rchdiocese
in 1993, Sister Mary Emma had 20 years of catechetical ministry under her belt.

According to Harry Dudley, associate executive director for faith formation in the archdiocesan
Office of Catholic Education, she has benefited DREs across the archdiocese.

“She’s seen as sort of a senior member of the cadre of DREs,” he said. “They look to her for ideas and input and suggestions. When she’s giving her input, I’m amazed at how well she understands the differing deaneries.”

The recognition that Sister Mary Emma has earned from her archdiocesan colleagues has been echoed on the national level. In 1998, she was the recipient of the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership’s Distinguished Service Award.

But soon after this, Sister Mary Emma had to call upon the wisdom gained through her years of experience and the determination she showed during the recovery from her accident when her catechetical ministry at St. Paul Parish was faced with a major challenge.

In 2000, St. Paul School was being closed. For decades, it had been operated as a public school with release time given during the school week for religious education.

According to Sister Mary Emma, many parishioners were concerned that lots of families would not take the time to have their children participate in a new parish religious education program.

But as St. Paul parishioner and catechist Sarah Chinn explained, it was through Sister Mary Emma’s hard work that none of the parish’s children who had received religious education in the school fell between the cracks.

“She had it in her mind that we were going to continue that religious education program and that our kids were not going to lose anything by not having the benefit of that release time,” Chinn said.

The parish’s RCIA has also grown under Sister Mary Emma’s leadership. Starting out with only three participants, she had as many as 22 in later years. Through this ministry to adults coming
into the Church, she has touched many lives and inspired new catechists.

One of them is St. Paul parishioner Patti Marcrum. She became Catholic at the 2003 Easter Vigil and has served as the parish’s vacation Bible school coordinator ever since.

She and her husband, who had been Lutheran, were drawn to the Church by Sister Mary Emma’s welcoming approach to them when their children were students at St. Paul School, and they enrolled them in the religious education release time. Since then, Marcrum has constantly
been inspired by Sister Mary Emma.

“I don’t know how she does what she does,” Marcrum said. “She works like three people, and never stops smiling and always has this amazing energy. She knows personal things about everyone in that parish. She knows everyone’s names from the smallest, tiniest babies to the
oldest person there.”

Sister Mary Emma’s knowledge of the parishioners and her concern for them has persuaded many of them to minister alongside her.

“I tell her all the time that she should be in sales,” Chinn said, “because she has the knack to find the skills of the parishioners that we have, and she takes the people that we have, and she molds them into what we need.”

Sister Mary Emma has been so effective in passing on the faith and in inspiring others to join her in this ministry that her disability often becomes an afterthought.

“I think, quite honestly, when most people look and see what she’s contributed, and see her work and then meet her, they’re absolutely amazed because nobody mentions that she has a disability,”
Dudley said. “There’s no need to.”

But while Sister Mary Emma hasn’t let her disability keep her from being a strong catechetical leader as she wheels about the parish in a small scooter, she acknowledged that it has shaped how she ministers.

“I have a real feeling of compassion for people’s struggles, regardless if they’re physical struggles or whatever struggles people will come to me and talk to me about,” she said. “I just really think
that it has given me a different way to listen and to feel their struggles because I’ve been through those struggles.”

Still, Sister Mary Emma knows she will not be able to keep up the rigorous physical exercise she does daily to maintain her mobility. But she is determined to stay in catechetical ministry as long as
she can because she is convinced that it is a calling.

“I think that there’s something deep within my inmost being that calls me, that drives me to minister to all of God’s people,” she said. “And I see my DRE ministry as not a job, not a career, but it has
become for me a commitment that holds onto me instead of me holding onto it.” †


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