May 19, 2006

A promise kept: Friendship binds
college senior, religious sister

By John Shaughnessy

The promises are made every May as graduation nears.

Promises to stay in touch, to stay close—to not let the miles and the separation end the remarkable friendships that have been forged during the college years.

At 22, Molly Ritter has heard those promises as she gets closer and closer to her graduation on May 20 from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind.

The Indianapolis woman has also made those promises to her friends, including her vow to stay connected with a woman who has unexpectedly shaped Ritter’s life and her faith for the past two years—94-year-old Holy Cross Sister Marie Emile.

The unusual friendship now finds the two women at different places in the journeys of their lives.

As a graduating senior, Ritter tries to deal with the bittersweet feelings of soon leaving a place and friends she loves—a place and friends that have helped her grow in ways she never imagined—to start another chapter in her life where the uncertainties of a new job, new relationships and new challenges await her.

As a woman in her 90s, Sister Marie tries to deal with growing challenges to her mental and physical health as she wonders when God will call her home.

In a time of endings and beginnings for both women, they still savor their meetings in a setting that has always brought each of them a sense of comfort and peace.

Sitting in rocking chairs at the college’s convent for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, they look out through a huge glass window toward the flowing St. Joseph River. It’s the same setting where Sister Marie once told Ritter about the tragedy that destroyed her family and eventually led her to become a sister.

“We were just visiting one afternoon and I asked about her family,” recalled Ritter, a 2002 graduate of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. “She got sad. She got quiet.

“She told me she grew up in France and when she was 9 or 10 her family moved to America, to Flint, Michigan. Her dad worked at one of the automakers up there. When she was 14, she was in a car with her whole family: her parents, a sister two years older than her, and three brothers. They were in a crash. She and one of her brothers were the only ones to survive.”

Ritter paused.

“I’m so close with my family it made me sad,” she said as she continued. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost both my parents and my brothers. I don’t know what I’d do if it happened to me.

“She had an uncle who was a priest. He took her under his wing, which led her to the convent. She was about 20 when she joined the Sisters of Holy Cross.”

Lessons in life and faith

Ritter never expected to become so involved with or so touched by the life of a religious sister.

When she was a freshman, she didn’t know about Saint Mary’s “Friends with Sisters” program, a program that tries to establish relationships between the sisters and the students.

She spent her second year studying in Ireland, a country where she witnessed people trying to make their faith a part of their daily lives—an approach she wanted in her own life when she returned to Saint Mary’s for her junior year.

“Most of the nuns at the convent are retired. They’re very old. They don’t have a lot of family left,” Ritter said. “You see the nuns walking around campus when it’s warm. Most are so cute, so friendly and they always want to stop and talk to you. I have a weakness for older people. It occurred to me, ‘Why don’t we have more contact with them?’ When I heard about the program, it seemed like an obvious thing to do.”

The more she became involved in the program, the more she became intrigued by the sisters’ stories. The sisters talked about growing up, deciding to follow their vocations and traveling as missionaries to Africa and South America.

Ritter particularly became intrigued when she was matched with Sister Marie.

“She’s always telling me stories about when she was a teacher,” said Ritter, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis. “She was a French teacher. She’d tell me about taking her kids up to Toronto. After she retired here, she volunteered at St. Joseph Hospital. She was doing it up until the middle of last summer.”

Still, Sister Marie never really stopped being a teacher, Ritter said. Ritter came to realize that she was Sister Marie’s latest student.

“I’ve always been a Catholic who goes to church on Sunday, and I pray,” she said. “But being with her has made me evaluate my faith more, which has made me value it more. It’s made me think if her life would be a life I want. I don’t think it’s the life for me, but our relationship has improved my faith.

“I meet her at Mass every Sunday at 9:45 in the morning. We always sit together, and then we usually go to brunch. If I’m not there, she always calls.”

Ritter laughed and added, “To go to Mass with your family is one level of faith. To go to Mass with a lot of nuns, it bumps it up a level.”

‘We’re all here at God’s will’

When Ritter signed up for the “Friends with Sisters” program, she just was required to spend an hour a week visiting Sister Marie. Now, she stops by the convent two to four times a week to visit her friend. She also spends time with other sisters and has become one of the student leaders for the program.

“There are about 200 sisters on the campus, and there are about 150 students involved in the program,” said Holy Cross Sister Louisita Welsh, who is the faculty adviser for the program. “I think the program builds up a relationship between the generations like no other can. It’s a wonderful connection, very rich.”

Sister Louisita has seen that kind of connection between Ritter and Sister Marie.

“Molly has been a great friend to Sister Marie,” said Sister Louisita. “Even as Sister Marie has been going downhill, Molly has been there for her.”

For most of the time, Ritter has viewed her connection with Sister Marie “like a grandmother-granddaughter relationship.” Now, as Sister Marie’s mental and physical health has declined, Ritter considers her role as more of a caretaker.

“I go to keep her company,” Ritter said. “I love spending time with her. We share stories and feelings. I have a better understanding of what’s going on with her because my grandmother and my grandfather had Alzheimer’s. That experience has given me the ability to keep visiting her. She just wants company, and she wants somebody to talk to.”

As graduation nears, Ritter knows the time for connection and conversation with Sister Marie is fading. After graduation, Ritter will return to Indianapolis to live and work, starting a job in sports marketing—starting a new chapter in her life.

“Obviously, my life is changing,” she said. “It’s a little more unstable, with friends moving away and, all of a sudden, I’ll have to be financially independent. I’m going to depend on my faith more than ever before in such a transition time. I know things will work out, but I’m hesitant to move on.”

Still, she draws strength from a friend who is 72 years older than her, a friend she never expected to have when she arrived at Saint Mary’s as an excited-yet-nervous freshman.

“I’ll definitely come back to see her,” Ritter vowed. “I got a ticket for Sister Marie to sit with my family at graduation. We’ll all go out to dinner, and she’s coming with us.

“I’ve learned a lot from her. Even with the tragedy in her life, she has faith in where God wants her to go. She tells me, ‘We’re all here at God’s will.’ I trust he’ll take me into the right places, but it is scary. I just appreciate all the time I’ve had with her. It’s been an honor.”

A promise has been made.

A promise has already been kept. †


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