The mission of the School Sisters of St. Francis has been the cornerstone of Alverno College for more than 130 years. Even before the school came to exist in its current form in the 1940s, Alverno’s three parent institutions were imbued with the order’s dedication to helping women glorify God with their gifts through education and professional development.

Grace Parlier holds up a picture of Sr. Barbaralie Stiefermann; they haven’t been able to see each other during the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted photo)

But though the order is still an integral part of modern-day Alverno College, the school’s 1,700 students don’t have an overabundance of opportunities to engage with a religious sister on a personal level.

After Alverno campus minister Lisa Cathelyn started in her new position in July 2018, it was a desire of hers to make that connection between the students whose futures are being shaped on campus and the sisters whose sponsorship makes that experience possible.

“It really started from the desire for people to connect more,” said Cathelyn, who last fall introduced Alverno to Sister Friends, a mentorship program pairing six undergraduate students with six School Sisters of St. Francis.

“There’s wisdom to be shared on both sides,” said Cathelyn. “The hope is that it’s a mutual relationship.”

When Cathelyn brought the idea up to sophomore Grace Parlier, who is studying music therapy and is active in campus ministry programs, Parlier immediately wanted to be a part of the experience.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, of course I want to hang out with a sister,’” she said. “My envisionment of feminism growing up was that the School Sisters were the real career women of the time, who dedicated their lives to service. These women that didn’t feel the calling to get married but felt the calling to dedicate their life to a vocation and a job that would impact people to the best of their abilities. They were the workers where work was needed.”

Cathelyn endeavored as much as possible to match applicant students with sisters who shared similar interests and hobbies. “Most of the students said they were open to being matched with anyone — what they wanted was guidance, the ability to connect, to really share in life together,” she said.

Sister Friends launched at the end of September with a party where the mentor/mentee pairings were revealed. The students and their Sister Friends exchanged contact information and made plans to grab coffee or get to know one another over lunch.

Parlier was matched with Sr. Barbaralie Stiefermann, who this year celebrated her 70th jubilee of religious life. Sr. Barbaralie is retired, but by no means idle — a former educator who taught all ages, “from first grade through college,” she also served as a campus minister for 11 years at Northern Illinois University and has a doctorate in English. She was also a board member at Alverno for more than a decade.

“I’ve lived through a lot of history — not just in my religious community but in the world,” said Sr. Barbaralie, who is currently writing histories of the School Sisters of St. Francis community.

Describing the mentorship experience as “a sheer delight,” Sr. Barbaralie said it’s a relationship that is mutually beneficial.

“Students who have a mentor are more likely to stay in school, attend college, volunteer and to hold positions of leadership themselves and become mentors. I see all that in Grace,” she said. “I think mentoring by an older person can offer exceptional value to young people. I don’t think the benefits stop at young people — I’ve benefited from being a mentor. In doing this I feel I can help shape a better future with my knowledge and experience.”

“They have a lot to offer still, and they have offered so much already — their whole lives,” said Cathelyn of the sisters. “It’s really about how do we reclaim their stories? Being a women’s college, it really calls us to that kind of work. They offer so much wisdom and I’ve been fortunate to be supported by them in my time here; so I want students to know that they’re part of a vein of really strong women in faith.”