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Why did dozens of religious sisters show up at this rural Michigan ice cream stand?

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For some people, a refreshing ice cream treat on a scorching summer day is like a taste of heaven. All the more so perhaps if it’s in the company of dozens of joyful Catholic nuns.

On Aug. 16, Merrill Dairy Bar —  affectionately known as the Merrill Whippy Dip — in Merrill, Michigan, had the pleasure of hosting 58 members of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan. The sisters were celebrating a postulant member’s profession of vows for religious life with Bishop Robert D. Gruss of Saginaw, near Lake Huron. To commemorate the solemn event, the sisters decided to make a stop in Merrill, a rural village ringed by verdant fields of sugar beets, corn, and soybeans, on their way home to Alma.

Carolyn Knapp, 74, who has worked the Whippy Dip counter for an impressive 31 years, told CNA  in an interview that at about 5:30 p.m. that day, a gentleman showed up with about five people. “They were not dressed like nuns, but may have been workers, I’m not sure,” she said. “He paid for them and said, ‘I’ll have you know that a group of nuns will be coming, and I want to pay for all of them, too.’”

The nuns, returning from Saginaw’s Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption where Sister Mary Agnes Graves professed her perpetual vows, arrived at Whippy Dip dressed in their distinctive veils and habits. This was not the first visit they had visited the popular ice cream stand, but it was the largest gathering of the sisters that Knapp has ever seen there.

“Suddenly nuns started coming around the corner, and they kept coming and coming,” Knapp recalled. “I’ve worked there for 31 years and never have seen that many show up.”

With help from a teenage employee, she filled orders and kept tabs on each customer. “It took almost an hour,” she said. “They ordered everything from banana splits to flurries and ice cream.”

Knapp recalled the sisters’ joy while they were there. “It’s something I’ll always remember,” she said.

The anonymous benefactor proved not only generous to the nuns but also to the Whippy Dip employees. After paying more than $300 to cover treats for the nuns and their companions, he left a generous tip for the ice cream stand workers.

Whippy Dip opened in 1956 in rural Jonesfield Township and has had several owners since then. The current co-owners, Karen Beougher and Alice Holman, are cousins and alternate each week as on-site managers.

“This is a family business, and you help each other out,” Holman told CNA. “Employees are like family, too … Carolyn [Knapp] has worked here for 31 years and her husband, Rick, stops by to help too. They’re family.”

On the day the nuns descended upon Whippy Dip, Rick Knapp happened to be passing by and noticed the sudden influx of customers. Knapp told her husband: “Don’t leave! Help us out!” So he joined in, helping to make sure the shop had enough of everything to keep the ice cream and other treats flowing.

Knapp said the religious sisters were patient and thankful as they waited. “They kept saying, ‘You’re doing such a good job.’ And when they got their ice cream, they sang a birthday song and a song of praise.”

Business is good throughout the spring and summer at Whippy Dip, according to Knapp, and people drive from miles away for the soft-serve and hand-dipped ice cream as well as the sandwiches. “It’s nothing to be lined up for four hours straight,” she said. “It’s known throughout the area.”

Knapp told CNA she attends Merrill Wesleyan Church. “I have faith in God, and we need it more these days, don’t we? We all believe in the same God and hang on to different traditions, but the main thing is to keep our eyes on God. We won’t be divided into doctrines in heaven,” she said.

She praised the ecumenical and charitable efforts of her pastor and others who work together to serve the community.

According to Holman, about 700 people live in Merrill, and a large number of them are Catholic. Holman is a parishioner of St. John XXIII Parish in nearby Hemlock, which is served by Father Michael Steltenkamp, SJ.

The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, celebrated the 50th anniversary of their founding on Sept. 1. The community is an offshoot of the Sisters of Mercy, founded by Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley (1778–1841) in 1831. In 1973 the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Religious Life recognized the new congregation. In their “apostolate of mercy,” the sisters take vows of obedience, chastity, poverty, and service to the poor, sick, and ignorant. They are engaged especially in medicine and education.

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Why did dozens of religious sisters show up at this rural Michigan ice cream stand?