“To the servant of God every place is the right place, and every time is the right time.”
That quote from St. Catherine of Siena is one of Sr. Mary Frances Willcoxson’s favorites. It was used on a commemorative card created in honor of the Racine Dominicans’ 150th anniversary in April.
The quote has special significance for Sr. Mary Frances in light of her recent diagnosis with an autoimmune neuromuscular disease called Myasthenia Gravis. After a life of varied and active ministry, she has seen her diagnosis as a call to a deeper sense of gratitude and awareness of God’s presence in her life, even under difficult circumstances.
Sr. Mary Frances first felt called to a religious vocation in 10th grade. Her interest in the consecrated life was inspired by the Racine Dominican sisters and School Sisters of Notre Dame, her teachers throughout grade school and high school. She jokes that she chose one order over the other because it was easier to stay cool in the Racine Dominicans’ white habits as opposed to the School Sisters’ black ones.
After joining the order and completing her undergraduate education at Dominican College in Racine, Sr. Mary Frances spent the first several years of her ministry in education. She taught math and was later an administrator at Milwaukee Spectrum, an alternative high school for young women. She was honored by “Who’s Who in American Education,” and found time to complete two master’s degrees, one in math education and one in educational psychology and community counseling.
Sr. Mary Frances eventually transitioned into non-profit work, working with organizations such as Volunteer in Service to America and Midwest Center for Youth. She also served for 11 years as executive director of Daystar, a transitional shelter for abused women.
Her work has been fueled by the motto of the Racine Dominicans to be “committed to truth, compelled to justice.”
“You can’t always be wagging a finger without doing something yourself,” she said.
Sr. Mary Frances began experiencing unusual symptoms in early 2011, including double vision, a drooping eyelid, and extreme sensitivity to light. She also had several bad falls, though without any significant injury. After a series of appointments at the Eye Institute, a specialist diagnosed her with Myasthenia Gravis (MG).
Though its symptoms are controllable with the proper combination of medication and therapy, MG does not have a known cure, and its symptoms of fatigue and muscle weakness can have a significant impact on daily life.
It has been a challenge for Sr. Mary Frances to see the circumstances of her diagnosis as the “right place” and the “right time” in light of St. Catherine’s words, especially since they have entailed stepping back from some of her responsibilities within her community and ministries. She has had to focus time on her healing and to learn to accept help and support after a lifetime of giving to others.
Sr. Mary Frances has found special support in the people she has gotten to know through the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America. This organization assists people with MG by providing resources for medical practitioners, hosting support groups, and holding special fundraising events.
One event was the annual pancake breakfast, held in early October at St. Aloysius Church, West Allis.
Soon after her diagnosis, Sr. Mary Frances became involved with the Wisconsin chapter of the organization, and serves on its board of directors. She is inspired by other members who refuse to allow MG to keep them from living full and active lives.
Sr. Mary Frances sees her illness as a “whole new journey,” and is confident that God has a purpose for her in this new phase of her life. She is focusing more on creative work such as music and the writing of haikus, which she prints onto handmade prayer and greeting cards.
One reads, “The Art of Balance – Letting Go and Letting God Take Charge of My Life!”
“My creative work keeps me alive,” she said.
Sr. Mary Frances emphasized that “life doesn’t end” with a diagnosis. She sees God at work, even in the difficulties her condition has brought with it, finding that they help her be more aware of the gifts of the present moment and to connect more intentionally with the people she encounters.
“That is what life is all about – right here, right now: to be the person that you can be, to talk to people eye to eye,” she said. “God is here. We don’t need to wait around.”