Sisters of St. Joseph of CarondeletOctober 17, 2017

Ministry Stories

Sister Lois Ann Barton, CSJ

Some years ago I heard that, in the culture and times in which we live, it’s likely that we will have seven different work situations in our lifetime. I guess I’m well on my way! When I entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1966, I thought I would be a French teacher for my entire “career” life, but after 13 years it became apparent to me that few of my students still had the passion for the language that I did and that maybe it was time for a change. Our province was in need of a new Candidate Director at that time – someone to guide new members through their first two years in community. It seemed a good fit for me and I was delighted that the province leadership agreed. Thus began a wonderful six-year period in my life of coming to know not only new members (and the Temporary Professed during the last three years of my tenure) but the Sisters of the province as well, since those in formation were living by then in local communities rather than a central house.

I enjoyed my community service so much that at the end of my six-year term I wished to find someone who would hire me just to listen to people tell their stories and to support them on their spiritual journeys–just what I had been doing! Clearly, employment opportunities of this kind for a former French teacher who had been in religious life for 24 years were not plentiful. Still, I was greatly blessed to be offered a position at St. Anthony of Padua parish in Endicott, NY as director of faith formation. Although I had no formal background in religious education, I was confident because there were coordinators for all of the youth programs so my position was described as supervisory for the youth and developmental for adult programs. During the eight happy years that I spent there, the ministry grew but so did I because of a wonderful Master’s Certificate program called LIMEX (the Loyola Institute for Ministry Extension Program) from Loyola University in New Orleans. As a local learning group experience, very well-supervised by Loyola, I was able to be certified as a Director of Religious Education while still doing my ministry in the parish.
Since the summer of 1984 I have lived at The Spiritual Center, a small retreat center in Windsor, NY where at present five CSJs reside (more of that later). One of the great blessings of my life was the willingness of my local community to welcome my mother, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, to reside in one of the buildings on the Spiritual Center property with me after my father died. It was wonderful to be able to stay with my local community – just across the yard – for the four years that my mother was with us. My (and my local community’s) relationships with my sister and brother also deepened during that time as they often visited to relieve me of her care. When it became imperative to move my mother to a nursing facility, I was grateful to be granted a year of doing the “odd jobs” of a little religious education, a little retreat work and a little too much substitute teaching at the local Catholic high school. Because of that, I was able to oversee my mother’s transition and assure during that first year that her care was excellent.
My next eleven years were spent in the Southern Region Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Syracuse. The diversity of tasks both on the diocesan staff and in the region made every day an adventure. Writing guidelines for sacramental programs, preparing monthly meetings with parish faith formation personnel, and teaching catechist certification classes was mixed with keeping the finances up to date, meeting one-on-one with struggling parish personnel and making sure we had enough seats on the buses going to Syracuse for the Rite of Election. Always, though, the sustaining force in all we did was the caliber of the prayer that enveloped the twice-monthly meetings of the diocesan staff.
As the years progressed and the priest population declined, we found ourselves in the midst of parish mergers and linkages. During that time, I saw a shift in the amount of my time spent with individuals seeking help to negotiate the losses that their parishes were feeling due to the changes. I had earlier completed a 2-year certification in mentoring for spiritual direction and was grateful for the skills it gave me for the work that seemed more and more pressing. At the same time I was being asked to do more adult faith formation presentations and parish retreats which I enjoyed a great deal. Thus, in June of 2010 I left my position in the diocesan office and began full-time ministry in spiritual direction and retreat work. I have been very surprised at the diversity of clients who have found me for spiritual direction. Among the denominations of the people I serve are Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, United Church of Christ members and Unitarian Universalists. It has been a wonderful learning for me of the richness of faith that exists in Christianity and how in the seeking of God, there is little that divides us. While doctrine differs more or less, the hunger for God that I have experienced both in retreat settings and one-on-one with directees is universal and strengthens my own faith as we share. Recently, I realized that it had only taken God twenty years to answer my request for another ministry of listening to and supporting people on the spiritual journey!
My local community at the Spiritual Center is a great example of what happened when the Second Vatican Council asked religious communities to go back to the spirit of our founders. What the Sisters of St. Joseph learned from their research was that we were founded “to do all the works of which women are capable and which will benefit the dear neighbor.” Thus five teachers, all Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet) diversified: one became a retreat center administrator (Sister Elizabeth Michele Newell), one a wood sculptor (Sister Paula Matthew), one a massage therapist (Sister Susan Reschke), one a pastoral care worker/photographer (Sister Clare Pelkey) and me.
Life at the Spiritual Center feeds me in many ways. In addition to the sharing of community, we welcome during the months of May through October wonderful people who present and/or participate in diverse workshops on the weekends and those who come for private or directed retreats during the week. The setting is beautiful and we hear frequently of the gratitude of visitors for the peace and healing they find during their stay. Although we leave the administrative duties to Sister Elizabeth, we all volunteer at the Center with land work (mowing and gardening), kitchen work (cooking and clean-up), body work (massage and reiki) and housekeeping (laundry and facilities up-keep) and we’re grateful for many others who help us, especially Sister Paula’s sister Joan, who is a “Jill of all trades” and an invaluable asset to us all.
My life has certainly provided more rich experiences than I could have imagined and I can’t wait to see what God has planned for “the rest of the story”!