Catholic Herald staff
Bearing the light of Christ in a community struggling with poverty, rural depopulation, aging demographics and priest shortages can be challenging, but Sr. Phyllis Wilhelm, a Sister of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate based in Joliet, Illinois, has dedicated herself to the task.
Sr. Phyllis has served northern Wisconsin’s diocesan and native communities since arriving in the Diocese of Superior in the 1970s.
Whether in her ministry as a pastoral associate or as a Catholic school principal and educator in the Bayfield Peninsula, she has worked to build communities and maintain Catholic presence, despite the closing of her school, the consolidation of parishes and fundamental shifts in the way religious women live out their vocations.
Sr. Phyllis’ strong sense of community was formed in her childhood home in Toledo, Ohio. One of 11 children born to a close-knit, fast-growing family – her mother delivered seven babies in fewer than five years – Sr. Phyllis thought she, like her older sister, “was going to get married and have 15 kids.”
Instead, she joined the convent in Joliet, on Sept. 15, 1959, soon after her 18th birthday.
“In my senior year (in high school), when I really decided that’s what I really wanted to do, I didn’t even tell my best friends, because I knew they would think I was nuts,” she remembers.
Sr. Phyllis describes her parents as “kind,” “generous” and “special,” and said the Wilhelms encouraged their children “to do what we thought we should do.”
Other family members also inspired her vocation. Sr. Phyllis’ grandmother always told her she would be a sister, and she was also following her older brother’s lead. He’d already joined the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati, Ohio, when she was in high school.
The hardest part of postulancy was adjusting to the separation from her family. Because of the distance, her parents could only visit once or twice a year.
“It was kind of difficult … not being able to see my parents,” she added. “At that time, the highways weren’t as good as they are now.”
As her formation continued, Sr. Phyllis trained to be a teacher at St. Francis College while learning about Franciscan life and history. She began teaching first grade in 1973, one year before she completed her bachelor’s degree, and taught for more than a decade in Illinois, where she also earned a certificate in special education.
Sr. Phyllis has always felt lucky for her five years of formation, for the long period of preparation before she took final vows. She thinks marriage, in which couples commit and begin to live out their vocation the same day, offers comparatively little training.
There were 58 children in her first classroom – unfathomable, by today’s standards.
“They were good,” she said. “We had no discipline problems.”
In 1974, her ministry in the Diocese of Superior began at Holy Family Catholic School, Bayfield. Sr. Phyllis taught first and second grades for a couple of years, then briefly returned to Illinois.
After a two-year hiatus in Joliet teaching children with behavioral disorders, she returned to Holy Family in 1979 and took on the duties of teacher and principal, an all-encompassing role that included cooking, janitorial work and whatever else needed to be done.
“You do everything, because there’s nobody there,” she added.
The school had between 50 and 60 students when Sr. Phyllis joined the four-person teaching staff; she estimates 60-65 percent were native children from the Red Cliff band of Ojibwe. Following the closing of the reservation school, St. Francis, many of the students moved to Holy Family, and the consolidated school was unofficially known by both names.
“They are very poor,” she said of students from the reservation. “There’s no doubt about it. I don’t think the kids realize you are poor. That’s just the way life is.”
Holy Family/St. Francis
“We had a good time there,” Sr. Phyllis said of her 21 years as principal of the school.
She started out teaching first and second grade; over time, the school added a kindergarten class, so she taught in a triple-grade classroom.
The seventh- and eighth-grade programs were the first to be sacrificed due to financial hardship. The cost of keeping junior high textbooks current was too high for a small parochial school in an impoverished area struggling with rural depopulation and graying demographics.
“Twenty-one years as principal there was a long time, and fighting for money, and fighting for repairs … just trying to make it,” she said of the job’s difficulty.
Then in her 50s, Sr. Phyllis was also feeling her age.
“I just know that as you get older, you don’t do as much, you don’t do it as quickly, and sometimes I think the church needs some young people in there to keep it moving,” she explained.
Sr. Phyllis stopped supervising recess because she didn’t want to play on the playground anymore.
“(The children) need somebody younger who wants to be out playing with them,” she added. “I think there comes a time when you have to say, ‘This would be better done by someone else.’”
Three years short of her 60th birthday, she gave the pastor her three years’ notice. Because the parish couldn’t support the school for another three years, and they didn’t want to close the following year – it would be the parish’s centennial celebration – it was decided Holy Family Catholic School would close in June 1999.
“When we closed the school, there were 32 students,” she said. “Three teachers, three classrooms running, and a daycare was renting a room for us. All the rooms were being used.”
“As lovely as it was – it was just like a family, the older kids took care of the younger kids, everyone played together on the playground – it was not financially feasible.
“If God could give you the money,” she continued, “that was a perfect school. Because it was small, people were not afraid to come in and do things with them.”
Grandmothers from the reservation taught the students native language and beading; two other grandmothers taught crocheting and doll-making to boys and girls.
“I just thought boys need to learn this stuff, too,” she said.
A local doctor brought in fetal pigs, and students dissected the pigs and learned about biology.
In addition to academic learning, the children also absorbed more practical knowledge. If they misbehaved, punishments usually included mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms and the like so they don’t get used to commercial services of strip and wax all the time.
“They learned how to wash toilets, they learned how to scrub floors, they learned how to … sweep,” she said. “They had to have ownership of their building and their classroom if it was going to exist. We as teachers could never have done what we’ve done there if the parents and kids hadn’t done what they did.”
In the end, even that unwelcome cleaning contributed to the sense of community.
“I have wonderful memories from teaching,” she added, “and especially from Bayfield.”
Throughout her teaching years, Sr. Phyllis continually attended classes and workshops.
“I don’t know about lay teachers much, but religious teachers are encouraged to constantly learn … better yourself for the sake of others,” she said.
She earned her master of education degree from the University of Wisconsin – Superior in 1994, but after the elementary school closed, the Franciscan’s ministry took another turn. Instead of teaching, she stayed on at Holy Family Parish, Bayfield, as a pastoral associate.
For nine years, she helped form parish support groups, worked with women’s groups, maintained cemetery records and more. She also co-directed the diocesan Cursillo movement and attended the Tekakwitha Conference, a national effort to support Catholic ministry in native communities, with a group of elders.
“When I look back at that now, so many people I did that with now are gone,” she said.
Although she left Holy Family in 2008 to become pastoral associate at St. Mary, Odanah, about 30 miles away, Sr. Phyllis remains rooted in the Bayfield community.
“I don’t know how you walk away from a place you’ve been at almost 30 years, and not go back and talk to them and see them,” she said. “You have to go back.”
Now in her mid-70s, the sister continues her parish ministry at St. Mary, one of four small, rural parishes clustered with Our Lady of the Lake, Ashland. Because the five parishes must share one pastor and one associate pastor, Sr. Phyllis’ role at St. Mary has become somewhat administrative.
“I think I do administer the parish,” she said. “I’m pastoral associate, so I really do assist the parish in many things.”
Among other duties, she works with the parish women’s group, serves as cantor, sacristan, lay leader of prayer and confirmation instructor; and conducts baptismal preparation. She works from home, makes her own schedule, meets others for social activities and participates in ecumenical ministry.
“There’s enough to do there, I think,” she added. “I thoroughly enjoy my ministry.”
Although she has left the education field, as Sr. Phyllis puts it, “You never stop teaching. Right now, I don’t teach a religion class … but I love listening to my teachers teach, and then going over and spending time with the little ones, being there for their baptisms and first Communions.”
In 2010, Sr. Phyllis took on another role at the invitation of former Superior Bishop Peter F. Christensen, now of the Diocese of Boise, Idaho. She was asked to serve as the diocese’s vicar for women religious, a position she still holds. She’s looking forward to meeting with Bishop James P. Powers in April.
As she looks toward her 80th birthday, Sr. Phyllis thinks about the changing landscape of her vocation. When she entered the religious community, there were lots of young women in formation.
She lived with 12 other sisters when she first started teaching.
“Now, I have lived alone since … I don’t even remember,” she said. “It’s been forever … when I entered, no one had ever thought I’d have to live alone.”
But, she added, “There’s no way a parish can afford to hire a bunch of nuns now.”
That’s because money has become a consideration. Sr. Phyllis received her first-ever paycheck when she started serving as a pastoral associate in Bayfield. Sisters are now encouraged to work as long as possible to support themselves and the older sisters in their community.
“It’s just a part of life,” she said.
The Wilhelm family is scattered around the country; she has 36 nieces and nephews and innumerable grandnieces and grandnephews. Likewise, she is far from many in her religious family, but the Franciscan still feels the richness of community life.
“You still live community,” she said. “To live community does not mean that you live under one roof.”
Sr. Phyllis trusts her Franciscan sisters will be there for her. When she was injured, the community flew her back to Joliet to care for her. She greatly values the fraternity and support of her vocational family.
“We’re never alone, even when we live alone,” she said. “That, to me, is a real grace, and it’s a real gift.”
Although she has greatly enjoyed her ministry in the Diocese of Superior, she hopes to return to the convent, her spiritual home, by her 80th birthday.
“I grew up in a large community, and we are very close to each other, all of us are,” Sr. Phyllis said. “I don’t know what you do without family.”