Catholic Herald staff
The ability to adapt – to changing times, a changing church and a changing diocese – has characterized the Servants of Mary’s century serving the Diocese of Superior.
Now a community of 41 women religious with a median age of 80, the Ladysmith-based Servites are mostly retired from salaried positions, although sisters who are still able continue their ministries.
One of these is Sr. Virginia Schwartz, parish director of St. Ann, Cable. She summarizes her 60-plus vocational years this way:
“First I was a teacher, then I worked in the diocesan office of religious education for a number of years, then I was president of the community, then I went to work with Glenmary Home Missionaries for 16 years, and then I came back to the Diocese of Superior, and I’m parish director in Cable,” she said. “In between, I did all kinds of things.”
Unpack all of that, and it’s a glimpse into how religious life changed in the second half of the 20th century.
“Prior to Vatican Council II, the Ladysmith Servite Sisters staffed Catholic schools, hospitals, and nursing homes in five states: Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Wisconsin,” said Sr. Theresa Sandok, current president of the Servites.
Although many Servites continued to work in healthcare and education in the Diocese of Superior, others left the region or the state to live their vocational journey.
Steeped in education, health care
Formed in September 1912, when six sisters arrived in Ladysmith from Illinois, the Servite community reached 181 professed members at its pinnacle in 1963. Initially persecuted by the townspeople, the Servites came to staff and sustain some of the city’s most vital educational and healthcare institutions – the hospital, nursing home, high school, college, and more.
But financial difficulties – all of their ministries were running in the red – combined with cultural change and ideological shifts in the church culminated in what Sr. Theresa calls “the era of divestiture.”
As the Servites slowly disengaged from their various ministries, beginning with the high school in 1969, new vocations all but subsided. Sixty-five professed members left the community over the next 25 years, and another 25 sisters died.
Meanwhile, a shortage of priests meant women religious were needed to train the laity, work as parish directors, staff diocesan offices and serve in many other capacities.
“After the (Second Vatican) Council, our approach to ministry changed. Sisters were encouraged to view their gifts for service in relation to the ‘signs of the times,’” Sr. Theresa explained, “especially in relation to the poor and marginalized. Our sisters took up the call to fight racial discrimination and nuclear proliferation, to teach and organize in the inner city, to staff food pantries, to work to end human trafficking, to foster care of creation, and to assist migrants and refugees.”
Many Servites earned advanced degrees and set off on individual paths. Sr. Theresa was a philosophy professor in Kentucky; the only Servite in that state, she got together with two others from her community, both employed in nearby states, to celebrate holidays.
Sr. Alice Willems of Milwaukee is a member of the Servite leadership team. Now in her 55th year of religious life, she handles administrative tasks for her community.
“In any other world, I would probably be retired,” she said.
Like many women religious of her generation, Sr. Alice has lived out her vocation in a series of transitions.
“I started out in the classroom. I taught for 10 years, although not in the diocese. And then for 10 years, I did adult education,” she said.
It was the beginning of adult ministry, and Sr. Alice was responsible for teaching liturgy, teaching laity and teaching teachers.
In the 1980s, Bishop Raphael M. Fliss appointed her parish director of St. Louis, Superior, a former parish that was located about eight blocks from the Cathedral of Christ the King.
“That was the beginning of the pastoral ministry in our community, and our churches,” Sr. Alice added. “And it was that kind of experience that I brought to the parish in Superior in the 1980s.”
“In the Diocese of Superior, the bishop looked to the sisters to train the laity to take over the responsibility for religious education in the parishes,” Sr. Theresa commented in her history of the community. “Many sisters earned advanced degrees in religious education and pastoral ministry. Some became parish directors, and others became leaders in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults movement.”
As the occupations of women religious were changing, so, too, were their lifestyles. Women who’d signed up for community life, expecting to teach and live in a convent for their foreseeable future, found themselves living alone.
“It is much more individual,” Sr. Alice said of the sisters’ lifestyles. “I think it’s much more demanding. At one time, we all would be at the school. We’d be together.”
Teachers have each other to rely on for support and training, she said, but many Servites forged their own paths.
“As the church changed, after the 1960s, after Vatican II, the talents that religious had were wider,” Sr. Alice added. “Scripture studies became much more important … even studying the documents of Vatican II was far more important.”
Sr. Theresa, who grew up in the Weyerhaeuser area, entered the congregation during the years of the Second Vatican Council, and her education was shaped by the philosophical changes of the time. She taught grade school for one year before attending the University of St. Thomas. She earned a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame and became a professor of philosophy at Bellarmine University, a Catholic college in Kentucky.
The nicest thing about the changing church, Sr. Virgina observed, is how women were able to move beyond traditional roles. They were given a lot of educational opportunity, both spiritually and academically.
“Women religious were really able to nurture the gifts God gave them, so they can really serve the church to their fullest capacity,” Sr. Virginia said.
Even when they were geographically apart, the sisters met in small groups to offer one another encouragement and support.
“We enjoy this time together because we are a very close-knit community, despite not living in the same house,” Sr. Theresa added.
Service takes variety of forms
Even in retirement, many Servites maintain their ministries. Sr. Cecilia Fandel, who returned to Ladysmith after 25 years in Chicago, is spearheading the Hispanic outreach effort in Barron and Rusk counties. Sr. Virginia continues parish work, but she is also deeply involved in the Lions Club, and has been to Mexico and Nicaragua “about 15 times” volunteering with their eyeglass missions.
Sr. Dominica Effertz is familiar to members of St. Francis de Sales, Spooner, where she and her fellow sisters welcomed 10 Secular Servites into the community in 2014. Even in her mid-90s, Sr. Mary John VanderLoop was recording Gospel wisdom for the Ladysmith radio station.
“Nowadays, I think it’s more related to the talents people have,” Sr. Alice said. “Sr. Cecilia is working with the Hispanics, doing things that I could never do.”
When Sr. Alice reflects on her life with the Servites, she said she never expected to be where she is.
“I couldn’t see that far into the future,” she added. In more than 50 years, “there are bound to be a few changes.”
Sr. Virginia feels the same way.
“So many things have happened over the course of my life,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Focusing on a legacy of future service
For the Servite community, the most significant change has been a long time coming. The sisters have grown older and fewer in number.
“Our numbers are going down,” Sr. Alice said. “We have not had new vocations in 20-plus years.”
As they move into the future, they are focused on the community’s legacy, and are taking a multifaceted approach to ensure their work continues in Ladysmith and beyond.
While Secular Servites continue to carry out their ministry and mission, the Ladysmith Servites are awarding grant money to projects that match their values.
In other parts of the world, other branches of the Servants of Mary also continue to live their charism of prayer and compassionate service.
Locally, they’ve sold their former motherhouse to Indianhead Community Action Agency, which has taken over many of the sisters’ former ministries. To commemorate their time there, the community is opening an exhibit at the building Sunday, June 19. Bishop James P. Powers will be in Ladysmith that day to celebrate Mass and to install new officers.
Long ago the Servites transferred ownership of most of their ministries and, to be good financial stewards, they have not had a leadership team in Ladysmith or kept an office there since the mid-1980s. Management of their fleet of vehicles is also outsourced.
Sr. Theresa said the Ladysmith Servites are in the process of collaborating on a new project with about 10 other small congregations. They are looking at sharing personnel resources, and she expects an announcement of their plans will be made within a year.
She’s also focused on the diocese’s needs.
“I think we’ve done a good job of educating the laity… it’s not as if we’re leaving the church in the lurch,” she said. “It really is a mission diocese. It needs a lot of assistance from the outside to keep going.
“We will continue to go forward and meet the needs we are able to, given our own abilities,” she added.