Bishop Powers and Fr. Jerome D’Souza, parochial administrator for the Ashland cluster, pose with, from left, Joliet Franciscan provincial representative Sr. Roberta Naegele, OSF, Sr. Grace Ann Rabideau, OSF, Sr. Phyllis Wilhelm, OSF, and her brother Br. Philip Wilhelm, OFM. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

During his homily of the Aug. 7 Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Odanah – east of Ashland on the Bad River Reservation – Bishop James P. Powers connected the Sunday readings with the celebration honoring two Joliet Franciscan sisters, Sr. Grace Ann Rabideau and Sr. Phyllis Wilhelm.

Sr. Grace Ann was celebrating the 75th anniversary of her religious profession; Sr. Phyllis’s 80th birthday was also being commemorated.

“From everything I know,” the bishop said, “These two sisters truly do embody that gift of the Eucharist. They live that transformation that the gift of the Eucharist offers – becoming that very bread of life, that very presence of Christ in the vineyard in this area.”

The readings from the Gospel of John came from the Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6. In reference to the shocking truths Jesus revealed, Bishop Powers stated that the crowds were following him because of their physical hunger. While that hunger was filled – as their ancestors recalled the manna come down after the Exodus – at the same time they murmured amongst themselves in disbelief.

Jesus had used the word God used for himself with Moses from the burning bush: “I AM.”

Asking, ‘Who does he think he is?’ to call himself by God’s name, Bishop Powers called attention to the fact that Jesus doesn’t change his message, water it down or let himself be discouraged by their doubts, and that he actually iterates his identity as the bread of life.

“It’s been said that for those with faith, no proof is necessary. For those without faith, no proof is enough,” the bishop continued. “Today we get that truth of who he is, that promise of what he is about and as we gather here at this table that promise and identity are renewed as we receive the gift of his body and blood.”

He added, “The fact that it is God who feeds people shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” and recalled Old Testament moments where physical nourishment was provided.

The difference Bishop Powers noted with Jesus’ declaration was that “God not only nourishes and sustains our body, but he offers that bread of his body, that gift that changes and transforms us … That it might transform us as the sacraments do change us, especially the Eucharist. So much more than physical nourishment.”

Acknowledging the honorees, Bishop Powers recalled the local ties that both Sr. Grace Ann and Sr. Phyllis had, being born and raised in the Bayfield and Ashland areas and their ministry both near and far.

The bishop tied in St. Paul’s admonition to “be imitators of God” from the second reading to the lives of service both Franciscans have lived.

“It’s not just Sr. Grace Ann and Sr. Phyllis that the Lord calls and sends,” he affirmed. “The Lord calls each and every one of us to himself. And he sends each and every one of us out to build up that kingdom of God here on earth, but before he sends us out he calls us to come to him to be fed and nourished in word and sacrament – that we might have the strength and the courage we need to go forth as his beloved children, living in love as Christ loves us.”

Following the profession of faith, the two Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate came forward to renew their religious profession of vows with fellow Joliet Franciscan Sr. Roberta Naegele, who was representing the order, and Sr. Phyllis’ brother, Br. Philip, also a Franciscan.

Various Native American influences were present in the decoration of the altar, pews and clothing. The Ojibwe language was given a prominent place in a welcome given by Carole Kraft; native drumming and singing were performed by Michelle Gordon; and the Lord’s Prayer was prayed in both Ojibwe and English by Jim Pete and Ella Teague.

Parochial administrator Fr. Jerome D’Souza brought attention to signage on the road leading to the church property. Turning onto Old Odanah Road from U.S. Hwy. 2 from both directions, a small sign notes that travelers are entering sacred land.

“We are on Native land,” Fr. Jerome said. “This land is sacred.”

Then referring to the church and the Eucharistic celebration taking place on a blessed altar, the priest added, “We have sacred, and more sacred.”

He introduced the sisters’ family members present and narrated the presentation of gifts by parish members.

After an eagle feather was presented to Sr. Grace Ann, a beaded medallion necklace was given to Sr. Phyllis; as she is not Native, she may not be presented with the eagle feather.

The sisters gave their own words of appreciation and thanks.

“St. Mary’s is a very special place,” Sr. Phyllis said, adding that attention has always been given in any parish she has worked at to create a welcoming atmosphere.

Bishop Powers blessed both women. He invoked the heavenly Father, giver of all life, and thanked God for the gift of their lives and the lives touched by their many years of ministry.

After Mass, everyone was invited to share fresh fruit and cake.

In personal conversation, Sr. Grace Ann said the seed of her vocation had been planted having the Joliet Franciscans as her teachers at Holy Family School in Bayfield.

“Since second grade, I always had that feeling that I was going to be a sister,” she said. “I went through all the stages that every girl goes through, but in the back of my mind I knew I was going to be a sister.”

Entering right after high school, Sr. Grace Ann remembered the particular influence of her seventh- to eighth-grade teacher.

“Beautiful memories,” she added. “A lot of good memories.”

Some of the highlights of her years of ministry were the decades spent in California as an advisor and counselor for American Indian students at both the University of California, Los Angeles and California State University in Northridge, time serving the St. Labre Indian school in Montana and ministering to American Indian youths in Colorado through a drug and alcohol prevention program.