Holy Cross Sr. John Marie Simien (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Holy Cross Sr. John Marie Simien (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Religious life has been richly fulfilling for Sr. John Marie Simien, a Holy Cross Sister who has ministered to troubled youths, the dying and others in need for more than 50 years.

Born in Louisiana, Sr. John Marie was one of 15 children. She entered the Holy Cross Convent, Merrill, in 1959 and professed first vows three years later.

If ever a woman felt joy and pride in her Spouse, it’s Sr. John Marie.

“I used to play games with God in the mirror,” she said, laughing. “I was trying to help myself know God as you’d know another human being.”

“If someone had seen or heard me, they might have questioned my sanity,” she added.

She likes to quote St. Hildegard of Bingen, who advised Christians to be “juicy people,” unafraid to “indecently expose their hearts.”

‘A little nutty’

Sr. John Marie admits with some amusement that her fellow Holy Cross Sisters sometimes think she’s “a little nutty,” but she believes in the power of joy.

“Sometimes we don’t laugh enough, you know?” she said.

“I have been happy in my religious life,” she added. “This is the way I hoped it would be.”

A teacher, speaker, parish minister and writer, Sr. John Marie served in Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. She started out teaching, and at some point began a sort of “freelance ministry,” which led to more pastoral assignments. Then, somewhat by accident, she found her niche.

A former pastoral associate at St. Francis Xavier, Merrill, Sr. John Marie’s vocation took a turn with one phone call from Northcentral Technical College. She was asked to help with a public school program for troubled teens and, despite some trepidation, she agreed.

She still chuckles when she remembers her initial fear of the kids, mostly boys – she’d heard bad things about struggling teens – and their unexpected response.

They were afraid of her, too.

“They’re scared of nuns because of what they’d heard,” she said with a laugh. “It didn’t take long for them to sense I was there to help them.”

So, the nun became a cabdriver, support person, nurturer and teacher. She also worked with truant teens at the courthouse, came to understand most of the kids were in single-parent homes, “and it made me realize why we say we need two parents.”

She also began to see the difference between the teens, who believed themselves beyond redemption, and parishioners she’d worked with, some of whom considered themselves already saved.

We might be saved, she said, but we shouldn’t take it for granted.

“God asked that we live in gratitude for our salvation,” she added.

Sr. John Marie describes herself as “truly an extrovert,” and she always prays that when words come out of her mouth, they’ll come out right. As she goes through life, she watches for signs from God that she’s on the right track.

One such sign arrived when she was preparing adults and students for sacraments. A girl came in for penance with both of her parents. They were divorced.

Sr. John Marie talked to them about the sacrament, and about forgiveness.

“Sometimes people have an idea that there’s a sin that can’t be forgiven,” she said. In her experience, it’s often the woman who is fixated on the “unforgiveable sin.”

It’s the partner who won’t forgive – not the one who had the one-night stand – who is being unfaithful to their marriage vows, she said.

Ten days later, the woman came to her and told her, “Sister, because of what you said, we’ve decided to remarry.”

Sr. John Marie felt, in some way, God was confirming what she was doing. She saw it as a sign “that I should not be afraid to do and teach what I believe.”

She started “to be brave enough” to give her opinions on contentious issues. Case in point: “All the people who fuss about women’s ordination.”

In the image of Mary, she sees “God’s presence in the flesh,” because it was she who brought his son into the world.

“God needed a woman for that,” she added. “Why would we do in ritual what we can do in fact?”

Teaching does not require ordination, she observed. Caring for the poor, the elderly and the dying does not require ordination.

Although she cannot administer sacraments, Sr. John Marie has often been called upon to comfort the dying. Once, she gave a final “blessing” to a 98-year-old woman, because the priest could not be found. Twice, she attended the bedsides of people who were afraid of dying alone, and both passed away at mealtimes, while the sister alone was present.

Another time, it was a man who’d fallen away from his faith, and the priest wouldn’t see him. She visited him weekly and gave him the Eucharist until his death.

“Thank you for the witness you brought to my grandchildren,” the man told her during their last visit.

She worries about how many people aren’t touched at death, because of rules or because no one approached them.

“I didn’t want him to travel that last mile without nourishment,” she said.

Then, she tells the story of a divorced and civilly remarried woman who was refused communion. Her young adult son had a fast-moving blood cancer, and a matching bone marrow donor could not be found. The woman asked for prayers, and Sr. John Marie agreed to pray – if the woman would light a candle and pray with her.

The sister went to their house and brought communion – Jesus should be there, too, she figured – and she asked the son, who’d gone to Catholic school, whether he believed in God.

“He assured me he believed,” she said.

Sr. John Marie gave them communion and they prayed together. He was taken to Marshfield Clinic for a blood-washing procedure, and the sister didn’t hear from them for a while.

One day, the mother called, crying, and said, “It’s a miracle. They tested him and found no trace of cancer.”

Again, said Sr. John Marie, “It’s God’s work.”

Light in the dark

A little boy once asked Sr. John Marie why they light candles at church, an act considered “an old superstition” by some people.

“What do you do when you are in the dark?” she replied. “You light a candle.”

The sister once had a dream about an old barn. It was breaking down, and light was streaming in through the cracks. God was telling her the light comes in the broken places.

“We don’t have to be perfect,” she said. “We do have to be attuned to God’s word.”

She remembers a moment of darkness for one woman, a Lutheran who was near death. She and her family were struggling with the transition, and Sr. John Marie offered her own mother’s deathbed insight.

“She didn’t want to go, but she knew she needed to go, or she wouldn’t have a future,” the sister told her.

Sr. John Marie’s mother was illiterate, not someone who’d studied theology. It was a bit of divine wisdom that comforted her loved ones and prepared them.

“Who would deny her a future, if you love her?” she added.

Sr. John Marie was nowhere near the Lutheran woman at her passing, but she looked at her watch that day – it was 2 p.m. – and she knew as surely as if she’d been there that death had come. She later learned the woman had died at exactly 2 p.m.

Serving other denominations

Using this example, Sr. John Marie questioned why Catholics don’t do more to share their faith with their Protestant brothers and sisters.

“If we are all to work to make real the Kingdom of God on earth, maybe we need to do something different that just being a teacher … God’s work must truly be our own,” she said.

If we as Catholics have more in our religion than other religions do, “Why are we so reluctant to share our faith?” she wondered.

Years ago, Sr. John Marie was invited by local Protestant ministers to lead their services when they were gone. She approached now-emeritus Bishop Raphael Fliss for permission, and he agreed that she could participate in the services, but not lead. So, she preached the sermon and let congregants lead the service.

She still preaches at the Presbyterian church when the pastor is gone.

“I never tell them they shouldn’t be Presbyterian or Lutheran,” she said.

If she’d been born in another faith tradition, she’d love it as much as she loves her own church, the sister believes.

“For me, the Catholic Church is the greatest expression of who God is,” she added.

Sr. John Marie loves Scripture, and she tries to measure her actions according to the Gospel.

“I think sometimes we sisters have become more American than Gospel,” she observed. She feels many of her fellow religious are afraid of not being “with it” culturally.

But when she looks at the strength of Catholics – of the pope, the bishop, priests, religious and laypeople – she sees a world rich with opportunity.

“If we spent our life looking for the lost and confused … we would be an unbeatable force in the world,” she said.