Above, clockwise from top left: Sister Monique Dissen, I.H.M. Sister Edna English, D.W. Sister Catherine Okechuku, S.B.S.N. and Sister Maxine Tancraitor, C.D.P. have served the Church and its people for a total of 215 years.
Sister Maxine Tancraitor, C.D.P. reaches 70-year jubilee
In the living room of her tidy home in Clinton, Sister Maxine Tancraitor, C.D.P. says she has no plan to retire any time soon. Her energy belies the reality that she is celebrating her 70th jubilee, or anniversary, of her vocation.
She was only 15 when she entered religious life. As a girl growing up in St. Joseph Parish outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she once dreamed of joining the military and travelling the world.
“I wanted to be a WAVE; I loved the uniform,” she said of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, which was a branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve during WWII.
Her father had served in the Navy and taught her that there was a wide world beyond their small town. She attended public school through the 6th grade and then attended the parish school.
By 8th grade, the young Mary Elizabeth (Maxine is the name she took as a religious) came to be deeply influenced by the sisters who taught her.
She entertained the idea of becoming a missionary nurse and attended a retreat with a dozen classmates and the Sisters of Divine Providence. At 14, she felt a strong affinity toward the congregation and decided to enter the convent. Her mother, Elizabeth, was strongly supportive, but her father Max was lovingly skeptical.
“He said, ‘you’ll never stay longer than six months,’” she said. “I think every religious goes through this. Every priest goes through this. Everyone who leaves home [is told] ‘you won’t last.’”
That was 1948.
Since then she taught junior and senior high school in Pennsylvania and Michigan. She graduated from Duquesne University in Pennsylvania. In 1962, she fulfilled her dream of becoming a missionary. She was sent to Puerto Rico, where she spent 13 years in the missions as a teacher and 10 years as a principal. She came to love her students, their culture and the Spanish language.
She stays in contact with many of her former students, visits Puerto Rico regularly and recently attended the 50th graduation anniversary of her first class of pupils. They flew their favorite teacher to San Juan to join their celebration.
Her years in Puerto Rico have served her well in Clinton, where she moved in 2002 along with Sister Theresine Gildea, C.D.P.
“Our door is always open to anyone who needs help,” Sister Maxine said. Both sisters are actively involved in sacrament preparation, faith formation, visits to the sick, immigration issues and lending a hand wherever they are needed, including the Clinton community food bank.
“One of the priests [at Immaculate Conception] said to me, ‘you can stay until you’re 99.’ Well, I don’t think so, I don’t think I’ll stay until I’m 99,” she said, noting that the community is so supportive that when grants for the sisters’ work ended, parishioners got together and decided to help them stay.
“So every first Sunday, they collect for us … we’re very grateful,” Sister Maxine said. “Everyone has a calling. And I think everyone who has a calling to religious life has to discern a little bit and see what is really in their heart and to go forward with that call.”
Sister Maxine lives every day by her motto: “Works of love are the most convincing arguments.”
- J. Eric Braun
Sister Monique Dissen, I.H.M. arrives at six-decade mark
When the weather is rainy and a reporter is at the door of her small New Bern apartment, Sister Monique Dissen, I.H.M., is one to meet that writer and offer her not only an invitation inside but a pair of slippers.
That loving, selfless service is what drives everything the sister does. It also sets her priorities.
Guests are often invited first to her home’s chapel. It’s in a corner room where two chairs face a small altar in the center of the far wall. One corner is reserved for honoring deceased loved ones. A statue overlooks a basket stuffed with hundreds of prayer cards and funeral programs. Each represents a person she has known and is a tangible reminder of a life she has touched.
Sister Monique has worked at Carolina East Medical Center for more than a decade. Her vocation called her to serve as an adjunct chaplain, visit patients at their bedside and start a group for those who are grieving.
Central to her home is her telephone, which she promptly answers each time it rings because “it might be the hospital.”
“In that moment when someone is dying, you are standing on holy ground. It is an enormous blessing to be there in that moment,” she said.
The hospital ministry is only the most recent in Sister Monique’s 60 years of service, which included teaching school, caring for children with special needs and teaching faith formation. When asked how she feels about celebrating her 60th jubilee, she just smiled and said, “I can’t believe it.”
One thing she can always believe, however, was the strength of her call to consecrated religious life.
As the fourth of five children growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1940s and 50s, Monique went to every dance and the prom. “I was going with somebody for two years, but I always told him, ‘I just have to find out [if God is calling me,]’” she said.
She was happy, but she said that she always knew there was something more, something different for her other than parties and social events.
“I thought to myself, ‘Is that all there is?’ Is that all?’” she said of her early life.
She received her answer just after high school graduation when she packed her bags to join the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation. Though she said the feeling was hard to describe, she also said it was unmistakable.
“People ask me, ‘How did you know?’ and I say, ‘Believe me, you’ll know if God is calling you,’” Sister said.
- Mandy Howard and Kate Turgeon Watson
Sister Catherine Okechuku, S.B.S.N. celebrates 25 years
As a foundress of a religious congregation, Sister Catherine is technically “Mother Catherine.” But it’s a title she refuses.
“I am a sister. Everybody is equal before God and before man. We all are just children of God,” she said. “That’s the way we see things in our congregation.”
For Sister Catherine, the road to Wilson, North Carolina, was winding and long. It was also, she said, exactly where God wanted her to be. The Saint Alphonsus Center at St. Therese Parish doubles as her residence and the congregation’s U.S. headquarters. There, she and two fellow sisters do quiet and humble work.
On Mondays, they make altar bread. Sister Catherine stands at what looks like a small, waffle-maker appliance. She methodically prepares the batter and pours one scoop at a time into a tiny opening. She also sews vestments for the parish priests and provides home health services for those who can’t take care of themselves.
The journey to that kitchen and that vocation started even before she was a teenager. “I was called by God when I was 11, and then it became a war in my family,” she said.
Fourth in a family of six siblings, Catherine grew up with three sisters and two brothers.
“My mother loved me so much. She just wanted me to get married and give her grandbabies, but I could tell God was calling me,” Sister smiled. “God prevailed.”
Without her mother’s knowledge, she took the entrance exam at the convent school and passed.
“My mother was furious,” Sister laughed, recounting the moment she had to tell her mother that she was leaving for the convent boarding school.
It wasn’t long, though, before her mother had a change of heart and wrote a letter of apology.
Sister Catherine was trained in Nigeria as a sister of the Immaculate Heart. She journeyed to Italy and the Daughters of St. Joseph congregation. Because of the change in both congregation and language, Sister Catherine had to redo much of the training she had received in Nigeria, almost starting over.
Several years after her initial call from God, she was back in Nigeria, this time to take her final vows as a Daughter of St. Joseph.
However, something did not feel right to Sister Catherine during her time with the sisters in Italy.
Prayer, she said, led her to establish a new congregation -- the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament of Nigeria. That small congregation found its way first to Atlanta and then to Raleigh in 2009.
“When I came to Raleigh, I was struggling,” Sister said about starting over.
But still, she said she felt she was where she needed to be. Through it all, Sister Catherine has relied on the love and grace of God to be her guide, and she prays that everyone finds the joy she has found.
“God calls each of us to a different place,” she said. “You are happy when you know you are loved.”
- Mandy Howard
‘Walk gently, love sincerely’
Sister Edna English, D.W. celebrates 60 years
From her room at a Farmville, N.C., nursing home, Sister Edna English, D.W., 85, recovers from knee surgery. It’s early December, and she’s counting the days till she can go home. She bids a visitor farewell saying, “Behave yourself!”
Maybe those were words her mother, Nolia, or father, Marion, spoke as she grew up in eastern North Carolina and ran outside to play. Back then she was the youngest of five siblings and remembers how competitive games could get with her brothers, sister and cousins.
“We used to go down into the woods behind us and just being there was a quiet. It was really a quiet, peaceful place,” she said.
When she arrived at nursing school after high school graduation, she was looking for that same type of solitude. She had left her home state for Portsmouth, Virginia, and began to meet new people in that city.
Edna grew up Methodist and said she knew two Catholics when she was a child. But, when she arrived in Portsmouth at Maryview, [then] a Catholic hospital, she met Catholic students and sisters of the Daughters of Wisdom. She began going to 6 a.m. Mass with her friends.
“I enjoyed the feeling. It was in Latin, and it was a quiet place, a peaceful place,” she said.
It wasn’t long before she decided to convert to Catholicism. She was baptized and, even today, laughs as she remembers the support she received from religious sisters she knew. “The nuns never went out anywhere [at night], but they came to my baptism,” she said.
For years, she worked as a nurse and considered a call to religious life. About five years after her baptism, she decided to go to Litchfield, Connecticut, and study to become a nun. But first, she said, she had to work up the courage to tell her parents.
Today she still remembers her father’s gentle words. “He said, ‘I understand what you are doing,’” she said, adding that she recalled his words at many times in her life when she needed support and comfort.
Her vocation took her to Brooklyn and Long Island, New York, in the 1960s. After she earned her master’s degree from UNC- Chapel Hill, Sister Edna continued to work as a nurse, but her congregation had a requirement that she work in an area where it was hard to find qualified nurses. In 1974, she moved to Greenville, North Carolina, where she worked for more than 20 years.
“People knew I was a Catholic nun,” she said of her patients. “It opened a lot of conversations about Catholicism.”
Today she continues to live her charism of hospitality and her congregation’s motto: God Alone.
“I try to live according to the Scriptures, which is to walk gently, to love sincerely and to believe in God,” she said.
- Kate Turgeon Watson