Sister Ellen Frances Lenihan: My life as a Glenmary Sister

I never know what the day will bring

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By Julie Rattey


Estella and Dencil drove up to the mission house that February day in a huge brown tank of a car. Despite its age — it must have been 20 or 30 years old — it was very well kept. Cleanest car I’ve ever seen in my life, actually. It put mine to shame. He was wearing a neatly tucked-in plaid shirt and jeans, she a blouse and floral skirt. They were about the same height and both wore glasses and had white hair. They were about 70 and looked in fairly good health. But I knew better.

Estella and Dencil were among the first people I met upon arriving at the Glenmary mission in Smithland, a small county seat in Kentucky about the size of your garage. It was only days ago that I’d thrown my few belongings into the back of my car and driven the 85 miles from the Guthrie mission, which was closing now that the people there were being helped and were on their way to becoming self-sufficient. It hadn’t been an easy goodbye for the people or the Sisters, some of whom had called the mission home for nearly two decades. But our goal is to put ourselves out of business wherever we go, and in Guthrie, the job was done. People don’t think they can do the work on their own, but they can. God’s ways are not our ways, and when we follow where He calls, we often find ourselves doing the unexpected. As a nurse who joined the Glenmary Sisters in 2005 in my late 50s, I ought to know.

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My first impression of Estella and Dencil wasn’t what they had come to take away from the mission — clothes, food, money, I no longer recall — but what they brought to it. I already knew a little of their story from Sister Rosemary Esterkamp, who had been working with them at the mission for some time.

They’d been married for more than 50 years, and lived in a small white ranch in a farming community, where they grew vegetables and hay and kept a bull and a cow for Dencil to “play at farming,” since he was no longer well enough to keep a herd. He was diabetic and suffered from very bad heart problems: He could walk out the door and into a fatal arrhythmia at any moment. Estella also suffered from heart problems, as well as osteoporosis. They had no money for Medicare, medicine, or gas. Their richness was in the closeness of their family: They’d raised four daughters, all of whom worked hard but faced similar financial difficulties. Despite their troubles, the couple remained in good spirits, and despite their poverty, they reached out to others, sometimes stopping by the mission house with fruits and vegetables from their garden for anyone who might need them.

I learned on the day I met the couple — and pretty quickly, to boot — that you can’t be uncomfortable around Estella. Dencil was pretty quiet, and preferred to keep his eyes down when he spoke, unless someone began talking about farming. Then, his face would brighten, and he’d begin eagerly describing the right diet for cattle, how often you have to feed them, which vitamins are crucial to their survival. But Estella was the more talkative of the two. She never railroaded her husband, though, and every so often she’d turn to involve him in the discussion. “What do you think, Daddy?” “Isn’t that right, Daddy?”
***

It was a short visit, and before long, the wide doors of the old tank were clanging shut, and the car was pulling slowly away from the house. It had been an introduction, a beginning, nothing more than that. Soon, though, I would get used to the sound of the car on the drive and the sight of their friendly faces at the door. Since Sister Rosemary had become the treasurer of our Order’s council, she would be spending more time away from the mission, and it would be up to me to work with this family — and others — on a regular basis.

With the new ones, it usually started the same way: We’d get a call from a social service agency indicating a need, we’d come into the home with the agency and let the individual or family know we were available if they needed us. Then, we’d begin building a relationship. But whether we’re working with a new family or a long-familiar one, there’s no typical day as a Glenmary Home Mission Sister. One day I might be teaching a family how to budget, another could require putting together baby supplies for a teenage mom, still another day I’m with a sick person in the hospital. We give away food, money, clothing, emotional support, and, if desired, spiritual guidance. We’re there to build up the families in the community.

Over time, I came to know Estella, Dencil, and their family pretty well. Like me, Estella was a cancer survivor — two times. I learned that the couple was close with their five grandchildren, including 13-year-old Cody, who was growing like a weed and required gargantuan shoes we had to buy at specialty stores, and 13-yearold Tabitha, who was equally at home competing in a beauty pageant or gripping a welding gun.

 

***

 

As I worked with the Sisters to help the family, providing food, clothing, and money to pay for their medical care, I came to see that the family was just as determined to help themselves as we were to help them. I saw it in the way Dencil insisted on turning over a portion of his meager check each month to try and repay us; how Debra — Tabitha’s mom and, until recently, a nurse — took a job serving “Double Bubba Burgers” at the local general store rather than applying for disability when she was injured in a car accident; how Tabitha took up welding partly to help her grandfather around the farm. And I quickly came to admire this family that had so few material things but were, true to the cliché, rich in the things that matter.

But to survive, both the tangible and the intangible are necessary. So as a Glenmary Sister, I try to provide both material help and emotional and spiritual support. The former usually calls for a few minutes at the door; the latter, a sit-down in the kitchen or the living room. And whenever Estella stepped beyond the mission house door and sat herself down in a kitchen chair, I knew she needed to talk.

“Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll walk into the living room and Dencil will be sitting there in his chair, dead.”

 

***

 

Estella and I always joked about Dencil being a cat who had had more than nine lives, but there would come a time when Dencil’s heart would give out, when the plaid shirt would be hung in the closet for the last time, when the yard would be eerily silent without the mooing of the cow and the proud, sturdy pat of Dencil’s hand on its familiar hide. “It’s OK,” I would say. “It’s all right to feel afraid.”

Estella and Dencil are religious, so I could talk about the second act, the fact that it wasn’t all over when your eyes closed and the great black curtain came down. And I could try and reassure them, as with others, that life was worthwhile; that even if they hadn’t achieved a lot in the eyes of the world, in God’s eyes, they certainly had.

And in the eyes of the world, what have the Glenmary Sisters accomplished? Why bother? some might ask. This is only one family — what about all the millions out there you’ll never reach?

It’s true that the mission field is vast, and that sometimes, especially with the adults, our help is a Band-Aid, a temporary solution. But what we do for the children — like Tabitha and Cody — will be for the future. And one future means a great deal to the person living it. So, here I am in Kentucky with little more than a cross around my neck, never knowing what each day will bring. I’m a finance counselor, a teacher, a nurse, a spiritual director. I’m whatever the people need me to be. And wherever they need me next, that’s where I’ll go. CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.