Six sisters rejoice for their years of service

By Laura Dodson and Julie Conroy, Florida Catholic Correspondents – October 30, 2017

The Diocese of Orlando recognizes six religious with thanksgiving for their commitment to love and serve God and His people through teaching, social justice, and formation in the Catholic faith.

Together, our Jubilarians celebrate 305 years of service to God!

May the beauty of consecrated life continue as the Holy Spirit breathes in those who recently professed their final vows as Sisters of Incarnatio-Consecratio-Missio, Theresa Nguyen and Kim Chi-Ho, as well as Sister Grace Ford who just made her first vow as a Sister of St. Joseph.

70 Years of Service – Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, Teresa McElwee

Sister Teresa McElwee, 88, is living out a lifetime of service to others and achieving things that do not seem possible as she celebrates 70 years as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.

She was born in 1929, one week before the Great Depression. One of five girls in her family, the call to ministry ran deep in her Irish family roots. “Both of my parents came from Ireland and they instilled in us service to the church and faithfulness to the call.” She joined the convent in August 1947.

After spending her early years teaching elementary and secondary school in the Maryland area, she came to Florida in 1973 at the request of then Diocese of Orlando Bishop William D. Borders to identify and work with groups of people who needed financial assistance. There were 40 parishes in which she set up justice committees. In 1977 she accepted the challenge of establishing the Justice and Peace Office for the Diocese of Orlando. “We wanted to address the literacy and employment needs of poor women,” she said. Along with others, she developed two different non-profit organizations, Homes in Partnership and The Community Trust Federal Credit Union.

Filled with enthusiasm for God’s working poor and her social justice ministry, Sister McElwee founded the Apopka Family Learning Center in 2001—no small feat for the fiery red head with boundless energy. “We felt a need to reach out to children and families. The new center would provide opportunities for children and parents to connect with one another.” It took 18 months to raise the $1.5 million to house the center. “Yes it was hard to raise the money, but I had a lot of good, wonderful church people who really believed in what we were doing.

“I still have lots of energy. I can’t imagine what God has in store for me for the rest of my happy life,” she said.

60 Years of Service – Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, Virginia West

Sister Virginia West, 78, remains active and living out a lifetime of giving to others.

A native of Boston, MA, she was just six years old when her oldest sister left the family to join the Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur. She, too, felt a calling and joined the convent in 1957.  “It just felt like the right place for me,” she said.

Her first class was 64 fourth grade boys. “It was very scary to stand up in front of this whole group of little boys,” but she was supported by a mentor who met with her on a regular basis.

Sister West was teaching high school in the inner city when her eyes were opened to the many difficulties some of her students faced in obtaining an education. She became interested in social justice, and studied for a counseling degree. She also received a doctorate in ministry from Boston University.

In 1982 she moved to Florida. Her initial work was in the Family Life Office for the Diocese of Orlando. She worked with the separated, divorced and widowed. She went on to help individuals going through the annulment process. “It gave people a chance to really look at their marriages and how to grow as healthy individuals from their experiences.” Sister West has also worked with those going through the marriage validation process. “We focus on what the sacrament of marriage means and how to live it in your everyday life.”

Having travelled to Haiti 14 times through a parish to parish connection she said, “We work on projects that are sustainable for individuals to do, so that when we leave their lives will be improved.”

Sister West remains involved in committees within her community. “We have a wonderful family, they continue to support and encourage me.”

50 Years of Service – Sister of the Religious Teachers Filippini, Dorothy Sayers

“Fifty years later, I realize I gave nothing. God gave everything,” said Sister Dorothy Sayers, principal of Holy Family Catholic School in Orlando.

“I truly believe that when I first had an inkling of entering religious life, it was a pull of my heart,” said Sister Sayers as she recalled that moment when she was eight years old. “Listening to others sing I wondered, ‘What if I can’t sing? Can I give all this to God?’”

“As a teenager I went to daily Mass because I wanted to be with the Lord and I worshipped,” she continued. “I entered religious life at 15 and I thought, ‘I’m giving all this to God,’ but it was based on that relationship of love that came from God. I did nothing for it.”

Sister Sayers’ father was English and the family traveled. Although her siblings were born in Malta, she was born in Libya and the family returned to England soon after where she was educated. She became a teacher of history and religion, was sent to Connecticut and then Rhode Island as a principal. She came to Holy Family Catholic School in Orlando 21 years ago as its first principal.

“God puts the right people in your life,” Sister Sayers said. “When you step aside, He works wonders. The many people I’ve met working in schools and in the parish have been very supportive, very kind. At the celebration (of her jubilee) the room was filled with love.”

Sister Sayers laughed when asked to pinpoint her greatest joy – “there have been so many,” she said. But she was able to describe what gives her joy: “It is a simple prayer of the heart – you can meet God in people, in reading good spiritual books and definitely before the Blessed Sacrament. I make that a priority.”

50 Years of Service – Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, Pat Sipan

“God speaks to me in silence, in worship, in His people and the next step that’s right in front of me,” said Sister Pat Sipan. “I’ve been blessed with moments of contemplative prayer and also with dry spells that come from the woes. In challenges, the Lord is with me in the decision of how to respond—if I spend enough time giving the Lord time to speak. If I pull away from all my duties and spend that time, I can get perspective.”

Sister Sipan has been a teacher in the classroom and in religious education for more than 35 years and a director of faith formation for 24 years. There were several years of overlap of both! She is currently the director of faith formation at Resurrection Parish in Winter Garden.

“I felt I could be more effective in a parish setting,” said Sister Sipan as she explained her transition out of the classroom into parish ministry. “The parish provides a variety of settings. For example, high points are those moments of conversion that occur in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation). I also coordinate the Associates of the Sisters of Notre Dame – 76 active and 24 intentional.”

When asked what gives her the greatest joy, Sister Sipan responded, “Being on the journey with God’s people doing whatever God puts in my path.”

50 Years of Service – Dominican Sister of Adrian, Marie Skebe

It was a field trip in sixth grade to the Sisters of St. Joseph, at that time located in Jensen Beach, FL that introduced Sister Marie Skebe to the “joy of community.” Her vocation had been nurtured by a strong Catholic family, but ironically they were shocked and not happy with her decision.

“Every time I returned home for a visit, they insisted that I didn’t have to go back,” Sister Skebe explained, “but God kept calling me back. I just knew that’s where I belonged. I am very grateful for God’s patience and fidelity to me – because it is God’s side that is most important. Jesus speaks in a lot of varied ways and my life path seems to have changed through happenings.”

She entered in 1966 – during the Second Vatican Council, at a time when the Church and her community were in flux.

“We studied the documents as they were happening and experienced their changes,” Sister Skebe said and gave an example. “At the beginning of my novitiate year, we weren’t allowed to speak to others not in community – by the end of the year that was reversed. Life just kept changing.”

Her community determined that the sisters had to go back and finish their college degrees, but she was working at a parish as a second grade teacher and her pastor didn’t want her to leave. He paid her a full salary so that she could commute to university to finish her degree while teaching.

Sister Skebe applied for a position in Fort Pierce to be near her aging parents, but they moved to Orlando. At Blessed Sacrament Parish in Cocoa, she worked for a pastor with a deep love for the sick and homebound. “I learned ministry to the sick from him and it prepared me so that I was blessed to be able to care for my mother at home until she was almost 96.”

Sister Skebe is the director of faith formation for St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Orlando – still fulfilling her call to teach the faith – fifty years later.

25 Years of Service – Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Reparatrix, Juliet Nakalema

Sister Juliet Nakalema celebrates 25 years of religious life and love that she considers foundational to who she is.

“We prayed constantly and talked about God everywhere,” said Sister Nakalema of her upbringing. “I never saw anyone in my family ashamed of prayer. I was four years old when I started leading prayer and the only time I was ever bored was when I was outside the church environment. It was in my novitiate when I felt the real call, that true love for God required sacrifice.”

Sister Nakalema is from Uganda and has been in the United States for 17 years. She serves at Blessed Trinity Parish in Ocala which in 2003 partnered with her native parish as a mission church and has subsequently helped build a church, school, as well as several little satellite parishes “out in the bush.” As a result, she is able to return to her home on a mission trip every year.

“Since being in the U.S., I have encountered so many people who are hearing God speak to them for the first time and so many others who find it hard to accept the faith,” Sister Nakalema explained. “I do pastoral care and I have seen so many return to the faith in the hospital. Some find it hard to say they’ve been away for a very long time, but when they come back, they don’t want to go away. We need to invite people to come back in a very simple way.”

Bringing communion to the sick is a very big part of Sister Nakalema’s joy.

“Every single day, I touch the Eucharist,” she explained. “Every single day I bring Jesus. It’s a very great honor and a privilege. I treasure that God chose me. All my life I’ve wanted to be in the house of the Lord serving him. I love it. I love living in community. I have everything. Religious life gives me so much joy!