February 16, 2024

Archdiocese honors a pioneer on a night marked by memories, joy and emotion

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson poses with Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth after she received the archdiocese’s Legacy Award at the Legacy Gala at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis on Feb. 9. (Photo by Rob Banayote)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson poses with Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth after she received the archdiocese’s Legacy Award at the Legacy Gala at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis on Feb. 9. (Photo by Rob Banayote)

By John Shaughnessy

On the night she received one of the archdiocese’s highest honors, Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth thought of her father—a man who had both legs amputated after a train accident, a man who spent the next 30 years of his life making 40,000 rosaries to help missionaries share the Catholic faith around the world.

On the night when she received a standing ovation from more than 1,000 people during the archdiocese’s Legacy Gala at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis on Feb. 9, 80-year-old Sister Shirley thought of her mother—a homemaker who gave birth to nine children and created a home where God and the Blessed Mother were at its center.

On the night that Archbishop Charles C. Thompson presented Sister Shirley with the Legacy Award, this pioneer in the archdiocese also thought of the children she taught, the parish members she counseled, the shut-ins and prisoners she visited, and her fellow Franciscan sisters who always have given her a sense of community.

“I’m very proud of being a Sister of St. Francis and having loved that life now for 62 years. I am proud of the accomplishments, but I am who I am because of all the people who blessed my life,” Sister Shirley said in a video during the Gala. “That’s why I say in accepting this honor, I accept it in the name of everyone who has been a part of my journey in life and who have helped me in my ministry.”

That sentiment echoed her earlier comments when she said that all her different families have “helped me to see glimpses of God’s beauty, love, compassion and goodness. They’ve welcomed me into their presence and into their lives. It’s a sacred thing, I think, to be invited into someone’s life.”

Her words and memories reflect the heart, the humility and the faith that have guided her life, that have made her such a natural choice for this honor.

In its fourth year, the archdiocese’s Legacy Gala is a dual celebration. It’s a fundraising celebration of the gifts that the archdiocese shares with many people across central and southern Indiana—through its 67 Catholic schools, its extensive outreach of Catholic Charities agencies, and its formation of seminarians at Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis, young men destined to become the next generation of priests. (Related: Gala supports three ministries that do the work of Christ in changing lives)

In its Legacy Award, the archdiocese’s gala also celebrates people who have made outstanding contributions to living the faith and sharing the faith in a way that has touched the lives of so many.

Beyond her 12 years as an educator in Catholic schools—“I loved teaching, I loved the children”—Sister Shirley made her impact as a pioneer in the archdiocese, becoming only the second person to hold the position of parish life coordinator in the history of the archdiocese. While the first person did it for a year, Sister Shirley served in that capacity for 32 years, before retiring in July of 2023.

Her successful tenure paved the way for the deacons, religious sisters and lay people who have served as parish life coordinators for parishes across the archdiocese.

At the same time, her tenure as a parish life coordinator included moments of heartbreak, including when an arsonist set fire to St. Anne Church in New Castle.

“It was April of 2007, Holy Saturday morning, when I discovered the burning of St. Anne Church. How can you forget a day like that? We watched the church burn all day,” she recalled about that time with parishioners. “We cried together.”

She later celebrated with them when a new church was built, a time when the depth of her faith also rose to new heights, including offering forgiveness to the arsonist.

“Once the building started, I realized I’d seen instances of God’s beauty in many good moments, but I began to realize that God’s beauty is also in pain and suffering and forgiveness,” she noted. “That’s when I used the phrase, ‘Out of the ashes, beauty will come forth.’ In God, who is the source of my strength, I have strength for everything. And I truly believe that, that our strength comes from God.”

Now, she views every day as “a precious gift,” part of “a life of gratitude.”

In presenting the Legacy Award to Sister Shirley, Archbishop Thompson drew from that perspective of gratitude.

“The term ‘Eucharist’ originates from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving, and thanksgiving is an appropriate word to use for the person we recognize this evening, Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, a wonderful pioneer in faith,” the archbishop said in saluting her. “Ask people at parishes where Sister Shirley served, and they cite her unwavering faith and leadership.

“Sister Shirley, in honor of your extraordinary service to the people of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis as a parish life coordinator and teacher during these 50-plus years, we present you this token of our heartfelt appreciation and admiration.”

In his remarks, Archbishop Thompson also focused on the way that the archdiocese’s Catholic schools, Catholic Charities agencies and Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary serve the people of central and southern Indiana.

“One thing that hasn’t changed is our commitment to carrying out the mission of Jesus Christ,” he told the audience, noting that Catholic Charities in the archdiocese served more than 400,000 people in the most recent fiscal year. “Our faith calls us to enhance the sacredness of life and recognize the dignity of every person we encounter.”

In talking about the 67 Catholic schools in the archdiocese, Archbishop Thompson stressed their mission “to educate and form our children, not just the mind but the heart, not just the body but the soul.”

And when he noted that there are 32 seminarians in the archdiocese—“the most we’ve had in many years”—and that three are scheduled to be ordained priests in June, the applause and cheers from the audience filled the ballroom.

Amid the Gala celebration, the archbishop also talked briefly about another joyous gathering that will be held in Indianapolis this summer.

“We are in the midst of a National Eucharistic Revival and continue to focus on the National Eucharistic Congress, which will take place here in Indianapolis on July 17-21,” he noted. “This, by the way, is the first National Eucharistic Congress in over 80 years.”

After inviting people to “this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, literally in our backyard,” the archbishop later led the audience in a prayer for the Eucharistic Revival in the archdiocese.

That moment of shared faith was one of many in an evening filled with joy, emotion, humor and humanity.

There was the touching tribute of Neil Ramsey to his father, Guy Neil Ramsey, the gala’s honorary chairperson and a member of St. Paul Parish in Tell City who was unable to attend the event.

There was the easy banter and comfortable camaraderie in the unscripted moments between Archbishop Thompson and the gala’s emcee, Rafael Sanchez.

And the audience listened in awe as the seminarians from Bishop Bruté beautifully sang “Salve Regina” in tribute to the Blessed Mother.

Then came the thunderous standing ovation for Sister Shirley as she received the Legacy Award.

When the gala ended, the waves of family, friends and former parishioners who wanted to congratulate her kept flowing to her table.

Amid all the hugs, smiles and the thank-yous that she received in those moments, Sister Shirley beamed and held hands with people, giving each person her time and the sense of her deep appreciation.

The scene called to mind the words she shared about receiving the Legacy Award, words that revealed the way she has lived her life in tribute to God, her Catholic faith and all the families she has created along the way in the 62 years of her ministry:

“They’ve welcomed me into their presence and into their lives. It’s a sacred thing, I think, to be invited into someone’s life.” †

Would you like to nominate someone for the 2025 Legacy Award? Do so by March 31

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