From educators to parish ministers, spiritual directors to justice advocates, outreach coordinators to hospital chaplains and environmentalists, BVM Sisters are at the margins of society and at the heart of Christian life.
Where BVMs Minister From Coast to Coast:
Bernadette Marie Schvack, BVM (David Ann)
Both of her parents are from the Czech Republic; she is a gifted baker and very talented in crafts. Answer: Sister Bernadette Marie Schvach!
Bernadette entered the BVMs in the late 1940s but this was not the congregation she first thought of entering. While attending a Franciscan grammar school in Chicago when she was in eighth grade, Bernadette went on a trip to their motherhouse, getting a “taste of what their life was about.” Explaining that the Franciscans had an aspirancy at that time, Bernie wanted to enter after eighth grade but her father “was not in favor of this idea.” The next step was high school, of course, and since her sister was a junior at St. Mary HS, also in Chicago, Bernadette was enrolled there.
Having moved from Chicago to Cicero, Bernie lost contact with the Franciscans and became more acquainted with BVMs at St. Mary. Sister Mary Ignacio, BVM, was “instrumental in persuading me to become a BVM.” Bernadette helped her with bulletin boards after school and “with the personal contact, I easily changed my mind. Where I entered didn’t seem that important to me at the time. I just knew that I wanted to be a Sister.”
Other BVMs who entered from St. Mary HS at the same time were Veronica Joan Peebles (deceased), Ann Kathleen McDonnell, and Therese Waughon. Later, other classmates also entered: Therese Frelo and Janine Wolff.
Bernadette moved a long way from her original Chicago neighborhood, known as Pilsen. She spent eight years in Kauai, Hawaii, and later returned to Kalaheo, Hawaii, for two years as principal/superior. She describes this time as a “freeing atmosphere, good community life, and an opportunity to learn about other cultures while, at the same time, enjoying the beauty of a tropical island.” In addition, during the summer the sisters had the opportunity to study in Honolulu at Chaminade College.
Returning to the mainland, Bernie applied to teach at St. Odilo ES and accepted the position of fourth grade teacher. While teaching a variety of mostly primary grades, she stayed at St. Odilo for 44 years. Beyond the classroom, Bernie also enjoyed cooking which included a once-a-month invitation to the parish priests. Bernie, a very talented craft person, “liked to decorate the table so that it would have a festive look and provide a welcoming atmosphere.”
Now retired, Bernadette continues to share her baking and craft talents for joy of many. With enthusiasm she speaks of “extending our mission work in numerous ways here at Mount Carmel.” There are many varied opportunities in the city of Dubuque, Iowa, and at home with the sisters. “The opportunities,” she stresses, “are endless.”
From her own experience, Bernadette reminds the reader that it is better to come when your physical and mental abilities allow you to enjoy retirement and its delights. Just as Bernie does so well!
Karen Marie Conover, BVM
Can you remember what was happening in the world in 1947? Here are a few interesting memories for you: the CIA was established; the classic film “Miracle on 34th Street” premiered; Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh married; the Cold War started. Several now- famous people were born: Tom Clancy, Steve Forbes, Hillary Rodham Clinton—and Karen Mary Conover, BVM. You may know of most of these people, but we’ll introduce you to Karen, if you don’t already know her!
Karen was born in Schenectady, N.Y., and was a true New Yorker as both of her parents were also born there. She began thinking about religious life when she was in third grade and was taught after-school catechism by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. Mrs. Conover saved an assignment of Karen’s on the topic of “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up;” her eight-year-old daughter had written: “…a nun… and to pray all day.”
By age eleven, Karen and her parents were living in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the BVMs entered her life. Thanks to a PTA scholarship from her Catholic elementary school, she attended Bishop Garcia Diego High School. “My high school experience of BVMs revealed their skill and reputation as quality educators,” she says. Karen was also alert to the friendships among the sisters and how kind they were to a “more senior Sister who was obviously at the end of her best teaching days.” Putting this all together, Karen recalls, “BVMs seemed happy in their life-choice.”
After school Karen ‘hung around’ in BVM Ann Eileen Clancy’s classroom doing homework and asking questions. When she was ready to inquire about becoming a BVM, Ann Eileen was the one to whom she went. How did those in her circle react to this decision? Her mother, knowing her “fascination” with sisters, wasn’t surprised; her father was less than pleased but acceded; her two best friends were very supportive. Karen’s boyfriend didn’t quite understand, yet they went together to Los Angeles to buy the required “nun” shoes. At this point (2016) he has been a Methodist minister in San Diego for about as long as Karen has been a BVM.
“Being a religious woman is very freeing,” Karen says. “People know there is no hidden agenda with one’s presence and service. So I was able to be a volunteer music minister on Sundays at San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco, for 16 years. I know that being who I am and bringing my skills as well as my spirituality, was important for many of the men I met and befriended there.”
Karen spent 43 years teaching chemistry in high school as well as engaging in various volunteer ministries. Now she is generously working at Mount Carmel, Dubuque, Iowa, in Support Services, a position she accepted in August 2015.
How does she feel about the future of religious life and, in particular, BVM life? “I am confident,” she says, “that religious life will continue in the worldwide church. The Spirit is ever at work.” As BVMs we can no longer ‘send Sisters’ to meet the needs, but we are now able to consider ‘sending resources’ so that all those who believe in our BVM charism and share the core values can extend their influence with and through us. That is a wonderful gift to have at this point in our lives.”
In conclusion, Karen witnesses to the fact that “this is a tremendously exciting time, even as it is uncertain.”
Joyce Cox, BVM (Petrine)
As a young Mormon girl growing up in Butte, Mont., Sister Joyce Cox’s journey to Catholicism and the BVMs began on a cold winter morning when she and her father saw six BVMs, dressed in black from head to toe, walking in the snow to St. Joseph Church. “One day I will be one of them,” she thought. Years later, on Sept. 8, 1949, she entered the Sisters of Charity, BVM.
Today, Sister Joyce looks back on her early years of teaching in Iowa, Illinois and California with awe at being able to manage classes numbering 50-plus students in each class. “I was told by Sister Mary Armella Shea (at Most Holy Redeemer in San Francisco) that if I could not control and teach all those children, I would be answering the phone in the office . . . you can imagine the energy that went into my response in teaching them,” Sister Joyce recalls.
That commitment and energy has been the hallmark of her ministries after her teaching years. Her year of service with other BVMs on the Elementary Education Commission seared into her mind and heart the belief that “where one BVM is, there is the whole congregation.”
As dean of students at Mundelein College in Chicago, Sister Joyce learned cherished lessons from multicultural students about civil and human rights. Ten years of ministering in leadership at Bellarmine Preparatory High School in Tacoma, Wash., instilled a new meaning of leadership in her.
Of her years as vice-chancellor of the Archdiocese of Seattle, working with Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, Sister Joyce says, “The three years with him had a profound influence on my faith, prayer and relationships in church and ministry.” For nearly 25 years she has served in various administrative roles in the Archdiocese of Seattle and is currently director for ecumenism/interreligious dialogue and director for religious.
“Grace and grit in living this treasured religious life over some 63 years remains a ‘pearl of great price,’” says Sister Joyce. “Now, I too, ‘leave the future to God.’”
Mary Gene Kinney, BVM (Antonilla)
“I love what I do,” says Mary Gene Kinney. “I teach about addiction and I spread the word that addiction is a disease and not a moral issue. I get to support sisters on the early part of their journey towards recovery.”
Mary Gene works as an addictions counselor and consultant with many different congregations. Her work has taken her to England, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Ireland.
“In 2010, I spent a month in Croatia where we did nine workshops on addiction for over 500 women religious from Croatia, Hungary and Bosnia,” she says. “We were well received and it was truly an experience of sister-to-sister connection despite the language challenges. Alcoholism is a major problem in Croatia since the war in the 1990s. We know of one sister who got treatment as a result of the education we did and she is committed to continuing to spread the message of recovery in her country.”
Mary Gene is a former elementary and high school music teacher. She is a co-founder of the Intercongregational Addictions Program (ICAP), a consultation service and network for religious sisters in recovery. She has been the coordinator of aftercare for Guest House Treatment Center for Women Religious in Lake Orion, Mich. She is also a consultant for Mercy Home in Chicago, a residential program for youth, where she does drug and alcohol assessments. She and Letitia (Letty) Close, BVM (St. Noel) received the 2008 “Sister Ignatia Gavin Award” from the National Catholic Council on Alcoholism (NCCA).
On a lighter note, Mary Gene adds, “I like cats and have learned a lot about beauty and the goodness of God through living with a cat or two over the years.”
Florence Mary Heflin, BVM (Floretta)
BVM ministry might be likened to a train trip—a sister may start out with plans for a specific journey and ministry, and end up stopping and staying at different stations along the way.
Meet Florence Mary Heflin, BVM. Her ministries have taken her to Arizona, California, Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee and beyond. Each choice of stops influenced her journey of learning and changing. This is her story.
Florence (Flo) Heflin was born and raised in the Chicago area, entering the BVM congregation in September 1955. Flo learned about community life during her 2 1/2 year novitiate in Dubuque, Iowa, moving then to the BVM Scholasticate in Chicago while earning her degree at Mundelein College (now part of Loyola University Chicago).
Like 95 percent of BVMs, Flo was a classroom teacher and administrator for many years. When asked what motivated her, in 1979, to minister in the South (being a “Northern” girl), she replied “. . . I began to sense a call to minister among those less privileged than I had previously taught. That summer the community offered “Third World Experience” grants so I went to Cuernavaca with two other BVMs. This experience reinforced my need to change the direction of my ministry. I was invited to stay in Mexico to teach English but not knowing Spanish and not wanting to be the lone BVM in the area, I moved on to Memphis, Tenn. There, I learned about out sisters’ involvement with the poor, standing with the people in the Civil Rights struggles in the ’60s. They helped me understand and eventually become absorbed into the African American culture of the South.”
In 1988, Flo moved into adult ministry, another station on her journey. What influenced her to make that move? After being on a sabbatical following administration in Clarksdale, Miss., Flo was invited by another BVM to join her to “research possible ministries in two of the poorest counties in the Springfield, Mo., diocese.” With two more BVMs joining them, the little group moved to the city of Steele in the “Bootheel” of Missouri. Literacy was the main concern. The sisters were funded by the government through the Visiting Nurse Association, with Flo taking over all the GED classes. Unfortunately, when funding folded, so did the program.
Having ministered in Missouri for 10 years, Flo moved on to Hayneville, Ala., to team with an Edmundite brother serving in his congregation’s missions. The two of them managed a center in Mosses, Ala., creating programs for senior women and for children in after school activities, as well as visiting nursing homes and the homebound throughout the county. Flo notes that “it was gratifying to watch the women enjoy quilting and see live theatre in Montgomery, and to enable the children to experience hands-on museums and camping trips to the Gulf—things they had never done before.”
Flo is grateful as she looks back at her ministry journey. “After seeing the extreme poverty during my summer experience in Mexico, I wondered how I would manage living and working in poverty areas in the South,” she shares. “However, I found the people so loving and accepting, living among them was a blessing for me. I learned that these faith-filled people may be materially poor and suffer real hardships in their lifetime, but they live from the soul out.”
Now in retirement at Mount Carmel, Flo's journey continues as she remains involved with peace and justice issues and serves as volunteer.
LaDonna Manternach, BVM
Growing up as one of eight farm children six miles south of Cascade, Iowa, LaDonna Manternach never dreamed she would see such places as Poland, the old Soviet Union, Germany, Hungary, France, Japan and Ecuador. Music gave her these opportunities.
Always drawn to music, LaDonna says, “In fourth grade, after about a year of asking to take piano lessons, I was allowed to start. An old upright piano was purchased for $18.” Clearly talented from the beginning, LaDonna began playing whenever the parish got together for social events, and later added the organ to her repertoire.
“As the oldest daughter, I learned the responsibilities of the farm household: to cook, clean, garden, tend to the yard work, and care for the six who were younger than I,” she says. Her respite was practicing the piano after dinner for what probably seemed like a short time. Those dishes were always waiting!
What was also waiting was the call to religious life. There had been Dubuque Franciscans in LaDonna’s grade school and she had two Franciscan aunts. However, while receiving her degree in music education from Clarke University, Dubuque, Iowa, she met the BVMs. “I began to consider this new group of women religious as part of my future. At this point of seriously thinking of religious life, Jane Rogers, BVM, another Cascadian in the Bellevue area, became my contact with the congregation.”
LaDonna entered the BVMs in 1984 and professed final vows in 1993. Currently an assistant professor of music at Clarke University, she shares: “My life has moved from one great scene to another—from growing up on a farm in rural Iowa, to studying music as an undergraduate at Clarke University, to teaching music in San Francisco, to completing master’s and doctoral degrees in music and returning to Clarke to teach—all because of the encouragement and support of my BVM sisters.”
LaDonna became an active member of the BVM Senate, continuing to this day. In addition, she engages her musical talent in congregational events such as jubilees. Each year she brings some of her Clarke seniors to Mount Carmel to entertain the retired sisters with their beautiful, trained voices.
Not long ago LaDonna was asked to sing as soprano soloist with the Finger Lakes Choral Festival for the Dvorak Requiem and Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. This year she sang as soprano II soloist for Mozart’s Minor Mass in Rochester, Minn. and on Maui, Hawaii. “This is great music, a true challenge, and a wonderful opportunity to travel to a place I had never imagined I would be, so I accepted.” At this same time, LaDonna had what she recalled as “an opportunity of a lifetime.” She sang with soprano Audrey Luna, a native of Maui and Grammy Award winning artist.
BVM Constitutions remind sisters that “Gospel poverty calls us to share generously with others our time and talents as well as material possessions and the results of our labor.” LaDonna clearly lives this daily with other BVMs; Clarke faculty, staff and students; and the people of Dubuque.
What are her dreams for the future? “At this time I am open to possibilities of sharing music beyond the classroom. I have always loved liturgical music and see that as a way to involve all generations of the faithful.”