Religious sisters celebrate milestones

Sep 14, 2022

Each year the Diocese of Orlando honors its religious jubilarians. Once again, the sisters we honor demonstrate the true nature of God’s calling in its boundless diversity of gifts. From a former dentist to teachers and counselors, “Our religious sisters who serve in the Diocese of Orlando embody the invitation of Christ by their solemn vow to serve through consecrated life,” said Bishop John Noonan. They are models of living “through, with and in God’s love.” This year the diocese celebrates five jubilarians marking 75, 70 and 65 years. Below are short biographies of these dedicated consecrated religious.

70 years

Sister Maureen Cannon – Dominican Sister of Peace

When Sister Maureen Cannon joined the Dominican Sisters in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, two years after her high school graduation, she wasn’t sure if she belonged. She wasn’t even sure if she had a religious vocation. All she knew for sure was that she wanted to live a holy life, and joining these joyful sisters she met on retreats during her school years seemed like a good place to start.

“Did I feel called? No. Was it easy? No. I wanted to find the most noble thing I could do with my life during the years that I have here on earth. But, did I want this? Sort of,” Sister Cannon said.

During her early years in the convent, she was like “a bull in a China shop.” She had difficulty conforming to the structured lifestyle; she challenged those in authority and said she was generally hard to get along with. On the other hand, she was very impressed with the sisters, the ministry, the ideals of the Dominican Order, the classes, and the fun they had together. She would continue to struggle with her decision until the day she made her vows.

“The question, should I stay or should I leave, was resolved, like a volcano, when I actually publicly pronounced the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In the deepest part of my being came the enormous and wonderful realization that this and only this is what I want in life, to be a Dominican Sister, and I made it,” Sister Cannon recalled. “Nothing has ever equaled that moment and I am still filled with the same strong sense of overwhelming gratitude.”

For the next 15 years, Sister Cannon served at retreat houses in New York, Ohio and New Mexico while studying part-time for her sociology degree. She described the 1960s as a time of tremendous upheaval with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and changes brought by the Second Vatican Council.

“We had the option to work in ministry outside congregational houses and now had to apply for jobs. Sisters needed more education, the use of a car, computers, and we even began to have a small allowance,” she said. “We adjusted
to monumental changes and in a sense reinvented ourselves while preserving the basic essentials of a life of prayer and service, vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, community life, and study.”

Sister Cannon would go on to receive her master’s degree in psychology from the Catholic University of America before returning to Ohio to help run a residence for young women, including those who were recently incarcerated.
Over the next few decades, she would serve in campus ministry programs in Pennsylvania and Miami, as a parish director of religious education and an archdiocesan director of RCIA. As she neared retirement, she moved to the Dominican
Ashram in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for three years. This was a house of prayer where Dominican women and men lived in community and welcomed short- and long-term guests.

For more than nine years now, Sister Cannon has called Melbourne home and today she can be found worshipping with the
Ascension Parish community. She said the highlight of each week is preparing for and teaching a Scripture class, which brings her back to her Dominican roots.

“It was 65 years ago that I pronounced vows as a Dominican Sister. It was an enormous act to entrust my life to God but what a
blessing it is to have been ‘claimed’ by God. My heart overflows with gratitude,” Sister Cannon said. “Never did I dream it would be so challenging, so heartbreaking, so joyful, and such an adventure.

The only thing I can say is, ‘Thank you.’”

Sister Jessica Zwarra – Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity

As a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity, Sister Jessica Zwarra calms people’s fears, heals their pain and quite literally puts smiles on their faces.

Sister Zwarra is not only a religious sister, she also served for more than 50 years as a dentist. It was not the ministry she expected when she joined the Franciscans in 1952. They were her teachers, and she also had a beloved cousin who joined the order years before her. She hoped she would follow in her cousin’s footsteps as a first grade teacher, or perhaps train as a nurse. Instead, she was asked to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee to train as a dentist.

“There was only one other woman in my class and three men. There were not many women who were dentists in those days,” Sister Zwarra recalled. “Most people don’t like to go to the dentist, so it was a very special apostolate. They were very grateful to be relieved of pain and be able to smile again, which is a special gift. Also, dentistry is very expensive, so it was a need for people in poor communities. I was always grateful I could relieve people of pain and give them a functional smile and help them enjoy God’s beautiful earth.”

Sister Zwarra first worked at the convent dental clinic and the St. Joseph Clinic for the Poor in her home state of Wisconsin before moving to Orlando in 1990 to care for her terminally ill parents. Leaving the north meant leaving behind one of her favorite hobbies, ice-skating.

“Behind our convent we had a lake, Silver Lake, and it was one of my favorite joys to ice skate there when it was frozen over in winter,” said Sister Zwarra, who said she did some indoor skating when she moved to Florida, though at 89 years old she has now given that up, as well.

In Orlando, Sister Zwarra joined the Orange Blossom Family Health Clinic, a division of the Homeless Medical Association, and continued her ministry from the dentist’s chair. She was also involved in the bereavement ministry at Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs and volunteered at the Sharing Center and the Loaves and Fishes food pantry.

“I’m very grateful for being called to religious life as a Franciscan sister and I hope to keep
spreading Franciscan joy wherever I am serving,” said Sister Zwarra, reflecting on her 70 years of religious
life. “I’m grateful for all the opportunities God has given me. I wish many other young women could find this joy in serving God.”

65 Years

Sister Loretta Morgan – Sister for Christian Community

Sister Loretta Morgan’s desire to pursue a religious vocation grew gradually over the years. It was nurtured in her close-knit family, growing up in southern New Jersey with her parents and two brothers.

It grew as she witnessed her parents participating in the life of the parish and saw the loving way their pastor shepherded his people through wars and the challenges of everyday life. It flourished under the education and guidance of the Allegany Franciscan Sisters, who were her teachers for many years.

“My vocation was a gradual every day growth towards a life of service. Everyone around me was very loving with that sense of service – the priest, the sisters, my parents, my family. Growing up, all these people influenced me and nurtured the sense of love of God and my desire I had to be a service to others. It all started way back there,” Sister Morgan said.

Upon high school graduation, she realized this was time to explore her desire to be of service to others. She had to at least give
religious life a try. She joined her beloved Allegany Franciscans in 1957, and served as a teacher and principal in New York and Florida for the next 25 years. While she looks back with loving gratitude to the Allegany Franciscans for the beginning of a wonderful life, the new vision of Vatican II found her yearning to live out her religious vocation more in tune with its
spirit and doctrines.

“At this time, my journey brought me to the Diocese of Orlando where I was introduced to Sister Ann Kathleen Duffy, a member of the newly formed Sisters for Christian Community,” Sister Morgan said. “The community was founded in 1970 in response to the vision and challenges brought forth in the Second Vatican Council. I was instantly intrigued by their mission and structure. After meeting the sisters and experiencing their supportive spirit and inclusiveness I knew I had found my
new home, which proved to be the meaningful way to continue my religious life, that I had been seeking.”

The Sisters for Christian Community express the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as serving, loving and listening. As a collegial, self-supporting community they are free to decide how best to use their gifts. For Sister Morgan, this meant returning to education, this time in the public school system, where she served for 19 years. Today, although retired from education, Sister Morgan is active at St. Stephen Parish with Women of Wisdom, Social Seniors, and volunteering as needed.

Looking back on 65 years, Sister Morgan reflects, “The greatest blessing of my religious life has been the opportunity to pursue my growth in God’s love and life, while being of service to others and doing so within the bonds of religious community life.”

Sister Virginia West – Sister Notre Dame de Namur

When Sister Virginia West was getting ready to graduate high school, she was unsure what her next step would be. There was only one thing she knew for certain – she was not going to be a nun.

When she was in the first grade, her older sister joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and people were constantly asking the little sister if she would follow in her sister’s footsteps. Although she loved the sisters, who had been her teachers for many years, she was determined not to do what was expected of her.

“Any thought to go in the convent I would push right out of my head because I wasn’t going to do what everyone said I was going to!” Sister West said with a laugh.

Instead, she interviewed at a local college and left feeling very confident. As she strolled through the campus however, an unsettling feeling came over her.

“It was a feeling of sadness that seemed to say, ‘This is nice, but it’s not for you’,” Sister West said.

Three weeks later, at a school meeting that took place at the order’s novitiate house, she had another overwhelming feeling, this time of peace and belonging.

“I was able to say, ‘OK God, I guess this is really what you want for me. Not what I was thinking, but what you are calling me to,’” Sister West explained. “When I left the meeting and came home, I told my parents I wanted to enter the order.”

Sister West was drawn to the joyful spirit and sense of reverence she witnessed among the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, but she was also very inspired by the order’s foundress, St. Julie Billiart. A French middle-class woman during the French Revolution, St. Julie had a vision of founding an international community of religious women, and despite obstacles, she
never gave up on that calling.

“The courage of a woman in the early 1800s who could stand on her own and do what God called her to was very impactful to me,” Sister West said. “One of my biggest joys was the chance to go on a pilgrimage to all the important places in our foundress’ history. She grew up in a very small town in France and we went into the church where she was baptized. Exiting the church, I looked back to see sisters from all five continents where we serve, gathered together in front of this small church in a small town, where one woman followed this spark from God.”

Sister West began her ministry as a teacher, working in elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms in Boston, not far from where she grew up. Seeing the challenges faced by some of her students, Sister West went on to study pastoral care and counseling and received her doctorate in ministry.

In 1982, she arrived in the Diocese of Orlando to work in the Family Life Office, primarily serving those who were separated, divorced or widowed. After 10 years at the chancery, she would spend the next 25 years at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Winter Park, helping with annulments and marriage convalidation. Although technically retired, Sister West remains active in parish life, primarily the mission in Haiti, which she says has been one of the highlights of her vocation.

“That has been a really life-giving piece for me. I know we do work to help them, but their faith has strengthened my faith. The people there are so wonderful,” Sister West said.

Looking back over the last 65 years, she said the greatest blessings have come from the people she served.

“The opportunity to walk with people through painful experiences to moments of acceptance and God grace and healing, that’s been a real gift,” she said. “They’ve been 65 wonderful years.”

60 Years

Sister Margaret Franzese – Religious Teachers Filippini Community

When Sister Margaret Franzese’s grandparents moved from Italy to Watkins Glen, a small village in central New York, they could not have known the gift they would be giving to future generations.

Sister Franzese would be born and raised in that same small town along with her six brothers and two sisters. The family would find a spiritual home at St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, and there, Sister Franzese would be introduced to the Sisters of the Religious Teachers Filippini community.

“The Sisters of the Religious Teachers Filippini Community were exemplary religious. They taught in the parish religious education program during my childhood years and nurtured my desire to become a religious teaching sister,” Sister Franzese said. “I am very grateful to them for their dedication and Christ-like example and for encouraging me to respond to God’s call.”

The Religious Teachers Filippini are committed to embodying the presence of Jesus through education and empowering those they serve to make the world a better place. Sister Franzese would join that mission in 1962, at Villa Walsh in Morristown, New Jersey. Her ministry began by teaching elementary school classes and faith formation programs in New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island. In 1987, Sister Franzese would visit the Diocese of Orlando to serve the Holy Family Parish community. Over the next 10 years she assumed the roles of director of parish religious education, coordinator of the sacramental classes for youth and director of the music ministry for children.

She would return to the northeast in 1996, continuing to teach religious education, music, and faith formation at parishes and schools in Connecticut and Maryland before returning to the Diocese of Orlando, where she serves today.

“In 2005, I returned to the Orlando Diocese to minister as the director of faith formation in the newly formed Corpus Christi Parish in Celebration,” she recalled. “Presently, I reside at Holy Family Convent in Orlando and I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to serve and share in the mission of Christ and His Church.”

“It has been very fulfilling and a precious gift to minister in the faith formation and Christian education of children and their families and for the people of a number of parish faith communities,” she said. “It is with a joyful and grateful heart that I reflect and give thanks to God for all who have been a special part of my religious life in service to the Church.

“I pray as a spiritual daughter of St. Lucy Filippini that I am able to continue bringing the message of God’s love to others and that many will come and respond generously to the invitation of Christ to ‘Go forth and proclaim the Good News.’”

By Elizabeth Wilson, Special to the Florida Catholic, September 14, 2022