'Nuns on the bus': Catholic sisters return for metro-east tour

News-DemocratJune 26, 2014 

About 40 Roman Catholic sisters are visiting the metro-east this weekend to reconnect with people from their pasts. But they also hope to make new acquaintances for the order's future.

The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, most of whom reside at the mother house in Donaldson, Ind., are from the metro-east or were assigned to ministry in metro-east schools, orphanages, hospitals and churches. The events are called PHJCs Coming Home, and the public is invited to attend.

The idea was inspired a couple of years ago by a bus full of sisters who traveled across northern Illinois and Indiana to make people aware of social justice issues, said Sister Margaret Anne Henss, from Trenton.

"So we thought, let's have a 'Nuns on the Bus' and go back to the places where we ministered and the roots of our sisters and reconnect with the people," she said.

She helped organize the reunion weekend, also, to help plan the order's future.

"We're aging," she said. "So we're trying to get others to help us with the ministry and continue whatever we can."

The order, founded in Germany, had a strong presence in the richly-German metro-east; their first ministry in southern Illinois was St. Mary School in Carlyle in 1874.

There have been 277 women from Southern Illinois who became Handmaids. Today, just one remains active in the Diocese of Belleville: Sister Mary Carolyn Welhoelper serves at The Kitchen Table, a soup kitchen in Cairo.

On Thursday, the women, ranging in age from their 50s to 90s, arrived via bus at the Cathedral of St. Peter for Mass and dinner. The sisters received a blessing from the Rev. Chuck Tuttle, of St. Augustine in Breese and St. Anthony in Beckemeyer.

Sister Shirley Bell, 63, of Belleville, grew up in the Cathedral and St. Teresa of the Child Jesus parishes.

One of five children, she lived across the street from St. Elizabeth's Hospital and knew from an early age that she wanted to become a nurse. "I would see everybody leaving the hospital and it looked so exciting," she said.

Her older sister, Sister Mary Lou Foran, now 71, of Swansea, went to school in Donaldson to become a Poor Handmaid. So Sister Bell followed her lead.

When Sister Henss, now 68, was in second grade at St. Mary's in Trenton, she was inspired to become an educator by her teachers -- who were Poor Handmaids.

"I was fascinated by them and I wanted to be a teacher," she said. "So I thought I will join, and I can be a teacher... By eighth grade, I knew I didn't have to be a sister to be a teacher. But I wanted to."

She went to high school in Donaldson and took her vows in 1967.

Sister Henss came back to the area to teach at Mater Dei Catholic High School in Breese from 1980 to 1994.

"I'm hoping to reconnect with former students and teachers this weekend," she said.

The sisters believe the mother house in Indiana will exist and ministry will continue.

Two ministerial groups, The Associates and Fiat Spiritus, have formed involving men and women who are interested in helping with the mission of the Poor Handmaids. Both groups have headquarters in Donaldson.

"We're not sure of our future here in America, but we definitely have a future in other countries," Henss said.

The Poor Handmaids, in addition to Germany, live and perform ministry in England, the Netherlands, India, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico and Brazil.

A vocation day is planned for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at Mater Dei. Students ages 10-14 who attend will stay at the high school, while those ages 15-20 will visit HealthVisions Midwest ministries in East St. Louis.

"Unfortunately, we're not sure if we're getting anyone to come," said Sister Henss.

Some other events during the PHJCs Coming Home were aimed to attract younger people, including a Theology on Tap Thursday night at The Abbey in Belleville.

Sister Bell said, "We certainly hope this can be an opportunity for young women to see that religious life can be a very wonderful and viable vocational call. I think some might have the call and for whatever reason, they don't act on that call."

"Today, more than ever, there are needs out there, people are hungry for a sense of spirituality," she said. "I think there's so much opportunity that really does exist today in religious communities if they could just see how we really continue to live out our vocational call."

As much as the weekend is about encouraging vocation, it's also about coming home.

Sister Bell, who has siblings living in Swansea and Fairview Heights, said she loves to visit White Cottage for ice cream when she's in town and enjoys visiting Belleville's Public Square.

"I always go visit the Square several times -- especially at night," she said. "I can't say how special that fountain is in my growing up. Just to see how nice they've renovated and kept up the downtown area and certainly transitioned into an entire new downtown... It's quaint."

Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at mhasenstab@bnd.com or 618-239-2460.

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