Sister Assumpta's famous cookies
Meet the woman whose kitchen creations landed her som Major League fansa -- and her own baseball card
By Marialisa Calta
Sister Mary Assumpta, a Sister of the Holy Spirit in Cleveland, has a way with words. Meeting actor Charlton Heston (more on that later), what did she say to the star of The Ten Commandments? “Holy Moses!”
She sweet-talked her way into the Cleveland Indians clubhouse, won a three-year stint on local TV doing color commentary on the team, and served two times as a features reporter for CBS broadcasts of the World Series. A clever quip got her a spot in the Hollywood film Major League. And, most recently, she helped talk her fellow Sisters into running a thriving cookie business.
It all started back in 1984, when Sister Assumpta decided to take a group of wheelchair-bound residents from the Jennings Center for Older Adults, near Cleveland, to a baseball game. One woman declined, saying that she would be “too much of a bother.” To persuade her to go along, Sister Assumpta promised the woman that she would be able to meet her favorite player, Mel Hall.
One could be excused, at this moment, for accusing the good Sister of telling a tiny fib, if not a giant whopper. She had, she now admits, no clue about how to meet any players, let alone Mel Hall. “I just know that when I receive the inspiration to do something, it usually happens,” she says.
Sure enough, while taking the seniors through a back entrance, she spied a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only” and knocked. Pretty soon, Sister Assumpta and her charges were chatting it up with Mel Hall, Joe Carter, and other players.
As a thank you, the Sisters sent the team individually handcraft ed chocolates shaped like baseball players and sporting each player’s team number on the cap, written in white chocolate. When one of her Order suggested sending the players more goodies to welcome them back at the opening of the next season, Sister Assumpta stepped in. “No more chocolate baseball players!” she said. Making 40 individual chocolate players from one mold, she says, was “labor intensive, to say the least.”
Then she had an idea. Everybody likes chocolate chip cookies! she thought. A batch was sent off , and received with such enthusiasm that they became a trademark. Years later, they would become a business.
Sister Assumpta had long been a baseball fan. Born Helen Rachel Zabaszkiewicz in Portage, Pennsylvania, she followed the Pittsburgh Pirates at her mother’s side. A stroke victim who died when Helen was only 6, the bedridden woman followed her favorite team on the radio, keeping score on a lined tablet. “That’s how I learned the game,” Sister Assumpta recalls. As a child, she moved from Pennsylvania to Chicago to Akron, Ohio, back to Portage, and eventually to Cleveland, living with various relatives. It was in Cleveland during her senior year of high school that she joined the Sisters of the Holy Spirit, a community that recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. She taught high school English and volunteered with the elderly, eventually taking that work on as her primary job. “That work is rewarding, ” she says. “The baseball and the cookies are fun.”
Her baseball saga did not stop with a few cookies. She arranged for Jennings seniors to sing the national anthem at a game. Wearing, over her habit, a Cleveland Indians jacket (a gift from friends back in Pennsylvania) she was spotted by a producer for Major League, parts of which were filmed in Cleveland. “The pope requires us to wear this,” she told the inquisitive movie hand. Next thing she knew, she was filing through the turnstile as an extra.
Her Order sent her to spring training, which led to more publicity and to Sister Assumpta organizing a series of fundraising Bowl-a- Th ons with Indians players. All the hoopla led a local TV station to ask her to do a spot on the local news. The spot, called “Tribe Habit,” became an occasional series lastingmore than three years, and was nominated for a local Emmy. This, in turn, led to a stint as a features correspondent for CBS when the Indians made it to the World Series in 1995 and again in 1997. Upper Deck Trading Cards put her image on a baseball card. To her knowledge, she says, she is the only non-sports figure in the world to have her own card. It depicts her holding a baseball bat in one hand and a chocolate chip cookie in the other, and poses such trivia questions on the back as “What LA Dodgers pitcher craves chocolate chip cookies?” (Answer: Tom Candiotti); and “What retired manager claims the pope is a fan of his team?” (Answer: Tom Lasorda).
“I told the bishop I wasn’t sure that replacing the image of a nun with a ruler with one of a nun with a baseball bat was a good idea,” Sister Assumpta says, laughing. But Chicago Bulls basketball legend Michael Jordan thought it was — he requested a card through a friend.
“To fans, the words ‘Sister Mary Assumpta’ and ‘Cleveland Indians’ are synonymous,” says Bob DiBiasio, public relations vice president for the ball club. “She has tremendous energy and passion,and we’re just lucky that one of her passions is the Cleveland Indians.”
Along the way, Sister Assumpta says, she “adopted” Major League producer Chris Chesser as a “little brother;” he calls her “Sis,” and counts her as a close friend. “She is a wonderful, kind person, and an incredible character,” he says.
It was Chesser who introduced her to such luminaries as Charlie Sheen and Charlton Heston; of her “Moses” crack she says, “I wanted to crawl under a stone,” but she was invited a second time to visit with the actor and his wife. She has rubbed elbows with a handful of other celebrities, and too many baseball players to count.
Times, predictably, have changed. The nuns no longer get free tickets to home games, and astronomically high salaries have put most of the players out of reach for local fundraisers. The 12 nuns in Sister Assumpta’s Order do make use of various promotions to get cheaper tickets when possible, and several of them, including Sister Assumpta, exchange notes and gift s with the players.
The lull in Sister Assumpta’s baseball activities has been filled with her work with the elderly at the Jennings Center. She had an active hand in fundraising for the campus expansion — “We now have an elderly day center, a child care center, and both independent and assisted living,” as well as nursing home care, she says proudly. She is also a regional rep-resentative for the Sacred Art of Living Center, of Bend, Oregon, a group that addresses the spiritual needs of the dying.
And then there are the cookies. In 2002, the nuns turned their cookie-making hobby into a cookie business. Most of their 10 varieties of Nun Better cookies are available online at MonasteryGreetings.com, which ships the cookies, frozen, in one-pound boxes. They sold 2,984 pounds last year; proceeds go toward paying the mortgage at the Jennings Center, but will also be used, hopefully, to feed an endowment. Sister Assumpta’s goal is to spin off a cookie company and sell the cookies in supermarkets and other venues, and she has enlisted Chesser’s aid, as a member of the “cookie board of directors,” to accomplish this.
“If Paul Newman could do it with salad dressings,” she says, “I don’t see why we can’t do it too.” CD