BEAVER DAM –– ”Come to the Table of Plenty”
Steam wafting from a stewing pot of homemade corn chowder carries a mouth-watering aroma past an old wood-framed dining room mirror, its glass decorated like a church window with the words to the popular offertory hymn.
For School Sister of Notre Dame Sr. Mariel Kreuziger, the chowder smell is sweet, but the mirror and its beckoning words are sweeter.
Sr. Mariel, 82, rescued the antique mirror from her former home at the now closed Our Lady of Mount Carmel Convent in Mt. Calvary only to give it renewed life as a centerpiece of the newly established Living Springs Convent in Beaver Dam.
Reversal of a trend
Located across from St. Katharine Drexel Parish and school, the convent, representing in a small way a reversal in a nationwide trend to close convents, is home for a unique trio of “not-quite-ready-to-retire-yet” School Sisters of Notre Dame whose combined ages total 242 years.
Sr. Mariel, along with Sr. Anton Marie Voissem, 82, and Sr. Marie Andre Miszewski, 78, bring life-long careers as teachers to meet a variety of educational and community volunteer opportunities for Catholics of Beaver Dam and surrounding areas of Dodge County.
“We’re all teachers who outgrew the classroom because of age. Teaching is so much a part of our blood. We can still teach and fulfill our mission of helping people with the knowledge and experience we have,” said Sr. Mariel, a native of Watertown who professed her vows in 1950.
They believe they were guided by God’s will and steered away from permanent retirement at the SSND retirement facility in Elm Grove.
A decade ago, the same time the last SSND left Dodge County, three Catholic churches in Beaver Dam merged into St. Katharine Drexel Parish. Two years ago, the parish acquired a former grocery/furniture store to convert into a parish center. But before a $700,000 renovation could begin, city codes required the parish buy adjacent land as a buffer.
Rundown house to become home
“That land included a rundown house the parish didn’t need,” said Sr. Mariel, who was looking for a place to carry on her educational ministry following the announced closing of Mt. Calvary in 2012.
“When I turned 80, I decided to retire to Mt. Calvary after 13 years teaching catechists to teach children in 22 parishes in the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio,” Sr. Mariel said. “But when Mt. Calvary closed I realized I wasn’t quite ready to retire. I felt a real call within me to continue out in the field serving rural areas to be a presence to the people and to volunteer my services.”
After writing a series of letters “to priests I didn’t even know,” Sr. Mariel met a friend from Horicon who urged her to relocate to Dodge County.
“She said, ‘Sister, there are lots of needs in this area. You come here and we will find you a place to live,’“ said Sr. Mariel, who years before taught at St. Peter School in Beaver Dam.
Home is waiting
Sr. Mariel soon received a telephone call from St. Katharine Drexel pastor Fr. Michael Erwin.
“Father said, ‘You come. We have a house for you,’” she said.
Sr. Mariel was joined by Sr. Anton Marie, a native of Menasha who spent 60 years teaching, including 34 years in elementary schools in Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Iowa and Indiana.
Sr. Anton Marie came to Beaver Dam from Holy Assumption Parish, West Allis, where she lived after nearly two decades in a leadership position and, most recently, as a volunteer tutor with the Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Program.
“Our motherhouse didn’t want Sr. Mariel to be alone in Beaver Dam. When I heard there was a large Mexican American population in Beaver Dam, I thought, ‘Oh. There’s something I can do there,” said Sr. Anton Marie. “Physically, I know I am not the Energizer Bunny anymore, but I am used to working long hours. I certainly don’t want to sit in a rocking chair all day.”
Srs. Mariel and Anton Marie moved into temporary quarters in the second story of their new convent, named Living Springs (“We are living there and it’s on Spring Street,” said Sr. Mariel), while dozens of church volunteers swarmed the old and somewhat dilapidated house.
Extreme home makeover begins
Droppings from pet birds allowed to fly free in the house covered much of the floors and walls.
“The downstairs was just horrible,” Sr. Anton Marie said. “They had to wash the walls three times and put on stain-blocking paint before painting them. They ripped out the carpets and tore down and replaced the curtains.”
The Knights of Columbus Council 1837 donated new carpeting and volunteers installed new cupboards, floors and appliances in the kitchen.
“I had wanted to be out in the country, but ended up living in the middle of the city, so I created my own country feeling of sorts,” Sr. Mariel said.
The living room of the east-facing house was painted bright yellow to represent a sunrise. The dining room of the open-concept house was painted a little deeper yellow to signify the noon-day sun while the west-facing kitchen was painted a darker yellow/tan as a nod to sunset.
“I think God was right there with us all along. Things just fell into place,” said Sr. Anton Marie.
While the renovation work was winding down, Sr. Marie Andre, at 78 the youngest of the trio and a native of Milwaukee, joined the fledgling convent after serving in the Green Bay Diocese as a religious education teacher and as pastoral associate in White Lake.
Not ready for retirement, yet
Most recently, Sr. Marie Andre served for five months as a teacher at the Lukachukai mission of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, part of the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico.
“You get tired. I felt I was not being of service any longer and it was time to move on, but I felt it wasn’t time to retire yet and move to Elm Grove. So I prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to show me where I could still be of service,” Sr. Marie Andre said. “Then Sr. Anton Marie called and invited me to come up to Beaver Dam. There was a need for help with Scripture study and I love Scripture. I also enjoy working with Hispanic people.”
Living Springs received an official blessing from the Central Pacific Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the three sisters renewed their mission and passion to teach and help those in need.
“Everything I am doing here is everything I love,” said Sr. Mariel.
Sr. Mariel volunteers with an ecumenical team of physicians and nurses at a community health service free clinic.
“We work with people who are poor, uninsured or underinsured,” Sr. Mariel said. “As a member of the clergy, I bring a component to the health care debate that is missing. What I do is listen to the people, their stories and their frustrations. Not everyone needs a doctor. They just want someone to listen. We also might spend a few minutes in prayer to help them see the compassion of Christ. To me, that is the key. I just love it.”
Sr. Mariel also volunteers at the Dodge County Food Pantry, sings in the funeral choir at church and counsels several people in the SSND’s associate program, which allows men or women 21 or older who make a covenant to live the spirit and mission of the religious order and share in prayer.
A favorite activity of Sr. Mariel is called “Breakfast at the Seashore,” a current events discussion group open to the community, but currently limited to a small, but growing number of older parish members.
The group meets two times a month after morning Mass.
“We sit around several tables and everybody brings coffee cakes and what-not. We’ve talked about Pope Francis, his first six months in office and what he plans to do. Maybe I’ll have to put together a program about the government shutdown,” she said.
Sr. Anton Marie brings experience in teaching English as a second language with the Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Service to help Hispanics in the Beaver Dam area.
“We meet around the dining room table in the Living Springs convent. We are currently looking for more volunteers to teach English as a second language and are recruiting volunteer babysitters. Many of these young Hispanic families can’t come to class because they can’t afford babysitters,” Sr. Anton Marie said.
‘Spirit is still quite lively’
In addition to helping with the English as a second language program, Sr. Marie Andre has started Bible study classes at St. Katharine Drexel and tutors people who want to learn basic Spanish “especially the older people who want to communicate it with their grandchildren.”
“My spirit is still quite lively. I need to be where I can share my gifts with people. I learn so much from the people who come to our Bible classes. It feeds my spirit. Hopefully, my spirit feeds their spirit,” Sr. Marie Andre said.
The sisters admit to slowing down.
“We have slowed down,” Sr. Mariel said. “We work Mondays. On Tuesday we are free to run errands, go to doctor appointments or do things like can the tomatoes we grew. Wednesday and Thursday are our workdays again.”
“There is always something happening,” said Sr. Anton Marie.
When they are not volunteering or otherwise helping others, the three sisters pray together daily.
“Prayer is the food of our spirit. It nurtures us,” said Sr. Marie Andre. “Prayer helps the spirit blossom. The spirit keeps growing until we choose to let it die. So we have to spend time praying and then go do whatever the Holy Spirit leads us to do.”