Kernels of Wisdom
As you sit and talk with S. Elaine Merkel, OSF, about her 10-year ministry as a member of the Spiritual Life Team at Mother Margaret Hall, you realize how important the word relationship is. S. Elaine started her ministry with the Sisters in 2011, and while it began as a professional relationship, it didn’t take long for deep personal relationships to grow and flourish.
“What brought me here was the gift to walk with the Sisters and watch how they age gracefully,” she recalls. “They have been an example to me and a challenge to say, ‘how will I grow old gracefully?’”
The Spiritual Life Team is integral to the mission of Mother Margaret Hall. The team works diligently to accompany, listen, advocate and assist the Sisters in their evolving spiritual journey, whether it be sacramental needs, prayer life, celebrations or acceptance of life’s transitions. S. Elaine credits a team approach to successfully being able to fulfill those roles. As a whole members work together to determine what needs they are seeing and hearing and how they can help. She adds that another bonus is, “When one of us is having a difficult time visiting with a particular Sister, God offers another person in the department to be able to reach out and connect with that person.”
The relationships she has built with many Sisters and staff throughout the years have been a treasured piece of her ministry. “I have loved collaboration with Sisters Mary Paul Medland, Barbara Jean Maniaci, Esther Marie Humbert, Pat Malarkey, Carol Leveque, Terry Thorman and Mary Gallagher. We worked together and we celebrated together. They have been key in keeping me anchored in the role I was in at the time.”
In addition she has great admiration for the Funeral Planning Team, past and present Leadership Team members as well as Sister volunteers. “Thank God for the many women willing to volunteer and to share their time with their Sisters through Mass, the sacraments and their presence,” S. Elaine says. “The deep love and respect that they have for their Sisters, with the gentleness and care given, is a beautiful example.”
When the campus shut down due to the pandemic in March 2020, S. Elaine became the sole member of the team, as employees, volunteers and guests were limited. Since, the Community has hired Debbie Knight as the new Spiritual Life director; this, along with the addition of S. Pat Malarkey, has allowed for S. Elaine to have much more opportunity to be present with the Sisters and staff, which has been welcome at a time when so many felt isolated from others.
S. Elaine brings her own unique set of gifts to the role. She says when she was hired by S. Pat Saul 10 years ago, it was S. Pat’s dream to have a Sister from another community on staff. Being a woman religious herself, S. Elaine could relate to the Sisters joys and struggles in a way other lay individuals may not. In addition, having no previous close connection to the Sisters of Charity and their past ministries and experiences would allow for some to feel as though they may share more openly and freely without judgment.
And sharing they have done. S. Elaine most enjoys listening to the Sisters’ stories. “I appreciate being invited into their lives in times of loss and transition. It takes time for us ‘outsiders’ to be trusted. And I really appreciate that the Sisters have placed their trust in me. I feel like I’m a good advocate for them. If something is happening I can go to the people that need to know. I’m their ears and voices, especially for some who are unable to do that.”
Amongst the laughs she says there are many serious talks and opportunities to share. “I have received beautiful kernels of wisdom from them, sometimes they share and know it has touched my life and other times they have shared and have no idea what it has meant to my life. We laugh, walk outside and play games together. Any time I can be a part of their lives that is important to me.”
During this National Nursing Home Week, employees were gifted T-shirts with Elizabeth Seton’s motto ‘Hazard Yet Forward’ on the back. S. Elaine reflects on Elizabeth’s words saying, “To me it means that no matter what the difficulty is God is always present, always ready to open the door and to give us the strength that we need as we go forth each day. Just as Mother Seton did not know what lay ahead for her, we don’t either. But each day we trust in God and ask God to give us what we need to provide for us and to show us a few gifted surprises along the way too.”
Throughout the years S. Elaine has had the opportunity to embrace the many relationships she has been gifted with as well as the surprises. Her appreciation as a staff member, and in becoming a part of the Sisters lives, leaves her honored and in deep awe of all that has been given and shown to her.