Visionary Women: Addressing Needs and Responding
By S. Georgia Kitt
The following article is a continuation in our series featuring Sisters of Charity who have responded to the current needs of the times and passed them on when the timing was right. Featured in this article are Sisters Noreen Ellison and Jacqueline Riggio.
There is a healthy simplicity to rural living that is real. After completing six years of provincial/network ministry, S. Noreen Ellison was looking for the next ‘thing’ – a ministry which she could bring something to and, in turn, learn from those with whom she served. This was 1997 and the Glenmary Home Missioners were seeking Sisters to fill a need for ministers in seven of the rural southern states, addressing parish ministry formation and evangelization, and working side-by-side with Glenmary priests and brothers.
The NCR ad she answered offered opportunities for travel, putting her past facilitation skills to good use and a challenge to build up pastoral team services in ‘no-Sister land.’ S. Noreen shared, “I had good energy and I was ready for another ‘passage.’ They wanted a team of two who would be compatible, have complimentary gifts, and who could be itinerant together, weathering the challenges working in a variety of cultures and experiences, including overnight accommodations.” S. Noreen immediately thought of S. Jackie Riggio, who was a friend from teaching and living in community at Divine Redeemer parish in Colorado Springs. S. Jackie was just finishing a sabbatical year in the Global Spirituality program. She was very interested in joining S. Noreen. Glenmary brought them down to their Nashville, Tennessee office for three days of interviews and orientation – and the rest is history.
Sisters Noreen and Jackie became ‘joyful missionary disciples’ as Pope Francis might call them. They had 12 happy years together as mission field workers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and East Texas. They were diligent in creating experiences in those communities served by Glenmary, always trying to be companions that would help them understand and experience the Gospel, teachings of Jesus and our faith, more deeply. The services provided were intergenerational, biblical, community-centered, facilitating, enriching, prayerful and often celebratory. They incorporated Glenmary’s mission goals in the offerings and programs: 1.) nurturing Catholics, 2.) fostering ecumenism, 3.) evangelizing the unchurched, 4.) engaging in social outreach, and 5.) working for justice.
Sisters Noreen and Jackie thrived in the discipleship model, feeling sent “two by two…” (Lk 10:1) and with Glenmary’s patronage of Mary, Our Lady of the Fields. They felt their spirituality and vocation were strengthened during those years. “As we drove endless hours, we prayed, sang, reflected on what we hoped to do or spoke of the folks we had just left. We had many times when we knew for certain that God’s power and grace were active in various experiences and events,” S. Noreen commented.
The two Sisters often lived with women in the parish when they were working with the Glenmary pastor. They usually stayed a couple days at a time, enjoyed the hospitality and often returned over and over again to these same homes in all different settings. Sometimes they slept on two mattresses on the floor or were given the kids’ beds, often sharing supper together in the home. Some folks would take them to visit a neighbor so they could meet a Sister, or other times they would go to visit someone who was sick or homebound. Even their driving circuit created relationships with people where they stopped for gasoline or to eat lunch. One experience at a little gas station in rural East Texas turned out to be a contemporary Emmaus experience. Other times folks who would see them returning over and over again to a little town would greet them and would want to know more about who they were and what they did. Their meeting spaces for fostering shared faith life could be a Church, the parish hall, a family’s living room with a playpen and filmstrip machine, or around the kitchen table.
After 12 years S. Jackie felt called to leave to help provide care for her ill mother in Colorado so S. Noreen’s role evolved more fully into the area of evangelization, working in partnership with a religious brother and sometimes a Glenmary priest who was, then, the director of Pastoral Services Center. When not out traveling to Glenmary missions, they worked closely with supportive staff planning for the changes that were always developing. With less travel and more time at the Nashville home base, S. Noreen used her free weekends to become involved in outreach with Kurdish refugee families, especially the women who lived in the neighborhood. She also enjoyed more time with her neighbors from Vietnam and Nicaragua.
The Sisters’ community life was strengthened through weekend and break times with their SC small group meeting at Fairfield Glades, Tennessee. Sisters Margaret Ebbing, Glenda Reimer, Jeannine Selzer, Mary Alfreda Alexander, Pat McNally along with Victoria Marie Forde, Ruth Bockenstette and the Cooper Sisters (Armin and Imelda) gave them energy and in-touch opportunities for living the mission. Throughout the rural ministry experience the Sisters were ever grateful for the ongoing catechetical support offered by S. Jo Anne Termini who was working in a similar ministry at St. Charles parish, Kettering, Ohio. They were always kept well informed of new educational resources coming available. The sisterly concern was a special gift shared.
In her 15th year with Glenmary, S. Noreen made her annual retreat with S. Betty Finn. During that special time it became clear through her prayer, dreams and reflection that she needed a less rigorous life and some time out. The loss of her dad unexpectedly, without taking time to savor his life and love, along with feeling tired, brought S. Noreen to request some sabbatical time. It resulted in a blessed year in the School of Applied Theology in Berkeley, California.
This was the right time to move on! Glenmary was experiencing an influx of Mexicans and Central Americans in the geographic areas the Sisters were serving. These immigrants, migrants, refugees came to work in the fields, the chicken farms, the slaughterhouses and meat factories. Spanish speakers were needed to welcome and assist them and meet their needs for community and worship. Glenmary was beginning to hire resident Lay Pastoral Ministers or Deacons to develop the church in counties where they wanted to grow the Catholic population. Two women were ready to help this happen through the Department of Pastoral Services. It was customary after the small parishes experienced a lot of growth in the five areas of their mission focus for Glenmary to release the parish to the Diocese to administer and staff. S. Noreen believes that she and Jackie’s consistent work in this mission effort definitely contributed to that development.
S. Noreen’s Glenmary home mission experience definitely changed her. It stretched her heart and mind wider to embrace people and their giftedness. She appreciated different cultural awareness and learned that everyone has gifts to share when it comes to building up the community. Some needed the help of others to be uncovered. She enjoyed the strong partnerships they fostered, not only in working with S. Jackie, but also with the Glenmary priests and brothers with whom they partnered to lead a parish mission or a workshop.
“I came to appreciate our country’s diversity, travelling through parts I had not seen before: miles of cotton fields, rice fields, pecan trees dropping their nuts just anywhere, persimmon trees, the Redbuds awakening the miles of forests, and then the Dogwoods shimmering in the dark woods, the wet and earthy bayous, on and on. My sense of ‘mission’ broadened and I was able to keep learning. The department of Pastoral Services and Glenmary leaders always supported learning and continuing education, providing workshops and experiences with their coworkers in the field, promoting evangelization, justice activity and lay leadership,” S. Noreen shared.
Being ‘joyful missionary disciples’ seemed a fitting title to describe these blessed years where they enjoyed many ‘homes away from home.’ Their sense of mission became more wholistic as Sisters Jackie and Noreen lived with and among the people. “We became family and shared the parish, developing faith life together,” S. Noreen commented. A special memorable moment came while they were working with new catechists in Arkansas. A woman, recently ‘transplanted’ there by an industry from the north, was bemoaning the plight of belonging to a small parish with so many needs. Dejectedly she blurted, “What we really need here is a Catholic school!” Another parishioner quickly responded, “I know just what you mean. I felt that way once, but I’ve discovered that we are the Catholic school and I feel good and proud of that now. There is joy in sharing gifts given. With God and us it is enough!”