Unique program brings sisters, students together at MND
By Walt Schaefer
For The Catholic Telegraph
Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Damienne Grismer plans to learn how to knit.
“These girls are going to make me,” said Sister Damienne with a laugh. “A lot of my fellow sisters doubt I’ll knit, that it’s ever going to happen. But, of course, I’m going to try.”
Her knitting “teachers” are all seniors at Mount Notre Dame High School in Reading. The school is an athletic field away from the convent on Columbia Avenue. The proximity of the convent to the school has enabled Mount Notre Dame to offer a one-of-a-kind extracurricular activity — the Adopt-a-Sister program.
Among the students who have “adopted” Sister Damienne are Rachel Rein of Blue Ash; Caroline Warning of Montgomery and Moriah Flynn of Mason.
“Right away we clicked with Sister Damienne. It’s her sense of humor. We can laugh together,” Waring said. “The relationship has really grown since our sophomore year and I really value it and I want to continue it after I graduate. I feel like we really bonded over things even though we’re from different generations.”
Rein called the experience “unique. It was different from what I was expecting because of Sister Damienne’s (outgoing) personality and we love it.”
Flynn has not been with Sister Damienne since her sophomore year. “I had another sister and she passed away and Sister Damienne was really welcoming to me because everyone else had already been with her for a year. I remember the first meeting and she gave us Hershey Kisses.”
Sister Paula Marie Becker has coordinated the program for the past 18 years. It has existed for more than 20 years and has spawned two other programs — Strolling with the Sisters, where students help wheelchair-bound sisters enjoy outdoor walks, and Crafting with the Sisters, where students and sisters work together on craft projects.
There are more than 120 of the 700 girls in the school who participate in the Adopt-a-Sister Club and it is open to sophomores, junior and seniors. More students participate in Adopt-a-Sister than any other extracurricular activity at the school. About 25 of some 100 sisters who reside at the convent volunteer in the program. They range in age from 70 to 90. Others are unable to participate due to age or health reasons, while still others are younger and still in full-time ministry.
“I have a waiting list,” Sister Paula Marie said. “I don’t have enough sisters from the convent.”
“The purpose is to develop relationships and companionship between two generations,” said Sister Paula Marie. “I put the girls in groups of four or five and assign them to one sister. During the year, at least once a month, it is their responsibility to arrange a time for the group to go over after school to the convent to meet with their sister. Many go more than once a month but the requirement is once a month.
“What happens is companionship and a relationship is built and there is communication with another generation. The goal is really to absorb the wisdom of an older generation and to bring the newness of life and energy to the older generation. The goal is reciprocal. The hope is that both groups profit.”
Groups are diverse. “Some will just go and talk about their lives, hobbies, what they’re doing in school. They talk about families. They talk about problems they are encountering. The sister will share things about her life. When she did her ministry. How she liked her ministry. Many want to know why she became a sister. What is it like to become a sister?” Sister Paula Marie said.
“They do things with the sisters, as well, after a lot of the communication becomes natural. They may decide to do a craft and take it to a rest home or go to visit the sisters in the rest home here. They always celebrate birthdays. They have a party. They have gone to restaurants. They have invited sisters to plays at school or to the athletic field to watch soccer or field hockey games.
“A lot of times they might bring a picnic lunch to eat with sister on a day when they may have just a half a day of school. Occasionally, they may accompany the sister to the 9 a.m. Mass at the convent. If they want to take them out to breakfast on a Saturday or Sunday, some do that. It also exposes young ladies to the vocation of religious life,” Sister Paula Marie said.
Sister Damienne, in her 80s, enjoyed a long ministry in education starting at St. Joseph School in Hamilton. She taught in Dayton and Columbus and Reading. She taught at Chaminade-Julienne High School in Dayton. She developed and led a GED program in Chicago for five years.
“These are wonderful girls,” Sister Damienne said of her Adopt-a-Sister group. “They are young. They are interesting. They have their lives ahead of them and they are looking forward to living. They are accepting and they are warm and I’m looking forward to keeping in touch. I have all of their phone numbers.”
The students think Sister Damienne is wonderful as well.
“I was really looking forward to developing a unique bond and it has become that kind of experience,” said Rein, who plans to become a veterinarian. “I don’t know where else I would be able to be in a program like this.”
Waring said she wanted to be in the program since her freshman year. “I love helping my grandma, being with her, talking with her. I love being with Sister Damienne and I feel like maybe I’ll go into a profession involving older people. I’m looking at occupational therapy for stroke victims, people who are suffering. I really want to be involved in something like that.”
Flynn said: “My sister, Sarah, went to Mount Notre Dame, and was in the program. She told me about all the stuff she was doing and all of the opportunities this brought her and I knew it was something I wanted to do when I got here. I’m grateful it is continuing for future students.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2014 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.