Catholic Herald Staff
When Mary Joan Sutton, parishioner at St. Bridget’s in River Falls, was nominated as a Pax Christi Award finalist in 2018, her reaction was one of surprise. This year, she was honored as the Pax Christi winner, the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s top award.
As someone who considers herself “more on the fringes than active” with the parish’s Council of Catholic Women, Sutton never imagined being nominated a second time, much less receiving the diocesan organization’s top award.
Sutton was grateful for the honor. She was told both nominations stemmed from a desire by women in her parish to acknowledge “what she has done for the church,” and because she “shows up” serving in different ways that impact their local church and community.
Not having read the dossier submitted for her nomination, Sutton chuckled at their description of her – resilient, doesn’t get discouraged, faith in action, unflappable.
“Unflappable?” Sutton repeated; asked where this quality comes from, she answered, “One of the things I’ve been blessed with from the very beginning of my life was a positive attitude … my glass is always half full and being filled.”
She also admitted to a change she’s experienced over the last 10 years of growth in her faith.
“I’m not in this alone,” she said. “Anything I decide to get involved with, I know that I don’t have all the skills. And so I better find people who do have the skills that complement me.”
Sutton added that she knows she doesn’t have all the answers, but that her faith gives her confidence they will be found. For years, she has had the habit of telling the Holy Spirit, “You take this and handle it.”
This cordial relationship with the Holy Spirit has played an even more prominent role for Sutton since she accepted the role of coordinating the core team for the Diocesan Charismatic Renewal efforts.
“I am a much more joyful and peaceful person from the fruits of the Holy Spirit that have also helped me get through the mountains and valleys of the last 10 to 15 years,” she paused and then said, “I have a good father.”
Sutton, who has worked as a nurse and financial consultant, intentionally lives “in my present versus my future.”
Calling herself a “lifelong learner,” she said she looks at each presenting circumstance as an “opportunity knowing there is something to learn.” And when it has passed, she asks herself, “What did I learn? How did I grow?”
Sutton believes that learning disposition comes from her mother, who was a librarian.
“We always had books, and she was always a learner,” she said, and mentioned that two of her sisters are also librarians.
She also noted how unproductive it is to only focus on the negative.
Many would call the stage-four prostate cancer her husband was diagnosed with in 2016 a huge negative. Sutton sees it as “an opportunity.”
“Cancer has made my husband and I work as a team. Cancer has made me value my faith, and value my ability as a researcher to stay one step ahead of the doctors,” she said.
The couple has learned to value the time they have, especially the remission he has been in. She knows within the year the medicine achieving that will stop working, but she said this summer was the first time in five years her husband has been well enough to really enjoy himself.
“We’re just enjoying every day, because we know that the journey is going to change,” Sutton affirmed.
Adapting to change and working as a team are both things Sutton says have not come easy in her marriage. Married for almost 39 years, the couple met as adults, both with children and living very independent lives; lives they wanted to continue even after coming together.
“I’m a controller. I don’t surrender,” Sutton said. “Ask my husband.”
She said the only reason they are still together almost four decades later is the first three months were so bad, they considered separating. They decided they wanted to make it work, and each committed to “some small change.” The first was for three months, then they added another for six more. Again and again over two years, both committed to and worked on small changes – from finances to religion and many others in between.
“We’ve had to be very frank, and forgiving,” Sutton said. “You’ll have a rude awakening if you go into marriage thinking that you won’t need to forgive.”
Sutton reflected back on a turning point in her faith life 15 years ago. Sensing a need for growth, she had started a gratitude journal as part of a leadership program. One day while she was writing what she was thankful for, “It hit me that God, my father, was a loving person. It moved from my head to my heart.”
Gripped with emotion, Sutton struggled to find words, but slowly shared that, “When I went outside (after that ‘aha moment’), the greens were greener. The sun was warmer and just brilliant. The sky was bluer and it was like the scales came off my eyes, and I saw the world completely differently.”
She didn’t understand it all at that moment, “but I knew that now I had a different relationship with God my father, and I reveled in it.
“I still see nature differently, and I understand God loves me, with a passion I just never understood.”
When Sutton realized how that faith experience had changed her life, she was consumed with wanting to learn more, to grow in her relationship with the Holy Spirit and to feel empowered in him.
It was her ongoing involvement with the Charismatic movement, even without her heart being “open or ready,” that led Sutton to “connect the dots.”
Getting involved led to “being more open to the power of the Holy Spirit,” Sutton said. “He dumps more grace when you’re open to it.”