Jubiliarians (front row left to right) - Srs. Devota Sweeney, Dorothy Powers, Mary Elaine Breen, Jane Conway, (back row standing: Sr. Joan Markey, and Sr. Mary Jane Warmuth are pictured with Fr. Tom Stabile, TOR.
Sister Mary Dorothy Powers still remembers in vivid detail her first day as a Sister of St. Mary of Namur.
The 18-year-old, who had just finished her freshman year in college, wore a white dress and suit coat for the afternoon trip to the convent with her parents on August 12, 1954.
“The sisters welcomed us in and we put on black dresses and black net veils,” recalls Sr. Dorothy who joined the religious order along with 12 other girls that day. “We came back out to greet our families as newly entered postulants, then marched into the chapel for evening prayer. Our new life had begun.”
And, according to Sr. Dorothy and fellow jubilarians, Sister Devota Sweeney (75 years), Sister Mary Elaine Breen (60 years), Sister Jane Conway (60 years), Sister Joan Markey (60 years), and Sister Mary Jean Warmuth (60 years), it’s a life full of purpose, new challenges, and service to God.
“What’s the best part of being a sister for 60 years? It’s the companionship of other women who share common values through thick and thin,” Sr. Dorothy says, explaining the rewards of her vocation. “You have the support of a community and the sense of doing something significant with your life for God.”
The six longtime members of the Belgium-based Sisters of St. Mary of Namur renewed their vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience as well as their commitment to “respond to the call of Christ” during a Jubilee Mass celebrated by Father Tom Stabile, TOR, on June 7 inside Fort Worth’s Our Lady of Victory Center. Held on the Vigil of Pentecost, the special liturgy gave the pastor of St. Andrew Church the opportunity to talk about the power of the Holy Spirit and how it fuels a vocation to religious life.
“The spirit doesn’t change, but what it does within us and our particular gifts — that’s when God is at work,” he said in his homily.
Collectively, the honorees contributed 365 years of service to their congregation and society. The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, known for educating children, especially the poor, celebrated 150 years of ministry in the United States in 2013.
“All of you — after all these years — are still sharing.” Fr. Stabile noted. “You are still giving joyfully from your hearts in whatever way you are able and whatever way is needed.”
He told the gathering we live in a world where evil takes away hope leaving nothing but darkness behind.
“But when we’re showered with the presence of the spirit, the word of God, and the strength of a faith community, that’s when hope is [at] its best and reaches out to others,” the priest said addressing the jubilarians. “You have inspired hope and given hope. You’ve held on to hope and you’ve helped us. We’re grateful for that.”
The six honorees have lived, prayed, and worked for the good of others in different countries and in different ways.
Sr. Devota grew up the oldest of six children in Wichita Falls and seemed destined to live a life dedicated to God. Born in 1921, she was so premature, the doctor pronounced her dead.
“My mother raised her head and insisted I was not dead and put me under the care of (Blessed Mother) Mary,” the 93-year-old told the North Texas Catholic. “As you can see, I survived.”
A veteran educator who began her teaching career in 1941, Sr. Devota served as a teacher and principal at SSMN schools in Beaumont, Fort Worth, Sherman, Houston, Dallas, and Hollister, California. She was named provincial superior for her order’s Western Province in 1958 and again in 1973 and served on her order’s General Council in Namur, Belgium from 1971 to 1972.
In 2011, the retired sister was selected by former Fort Worth Bishop Kevin Vann to receive the Pro-Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, “recognizing her lifetime of work as a member of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur.” Today she lives in the OLV Center and continues to share in the daily life of the sisters by praying, visiting, welcoming, observing, and consoling.
“I’ve been totally filled with joy and gratitude to God and all those who have helped me get to where I am today,” Sr. Devota said.
Sr. Jane Conway first became acquainted with the Sisters of St. Mary when she started school at St. Edward Academy in Dallas. After her family moved to Fort Worth, she continued her education at Our Lady of Victory Academy graduating in 1954.
“I entered the novitiate and spent two years in Namur, Belgium,” recalls the talented pianist who went on to earn degrees from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and Indiana University.
She later used those skills to teach music at OLV Academy and Nolan Catholic High School when it opened in 1961. At the University of St. Thomas in Houston, she chaired the music department, worked in campus ministry, and taught piano, music theory, and liturgical singing.
Today the jubilarian makes liturgies at the convent “come alive with music” according to her fellow sisters. She also enjoys the cultural offerings available in Fort Worth and invites retired sisters to join her.
“As I reflect on my 60 years in the community of the sisters, I simply have heartfelt gratitude for the many circumstances and opportunities which have enabled me to serve the people of God,” she added thoughtfully.
Sr. Joan Markey said living a religious life for 60 years is wonderful because, “the Sisters of St. Mary are so fabulous, loving, and supportive. It’s been a real joy in both the good times and any bad times.”
A 1954 graduate of the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Wichita Falls, a young Joan Markey was drawn to the charism of the sisters who operated her school. After entering the religious order, she earned undergraduate and advanced degrees in English from the University of Dallas and Rice University and a master’s degree in library science from the University of North Texas. Over the years, her apostolate included working as a teacher and administrator at SSMN elementary schools in Texas.
“This is really where I gained a liberal education — teaching almost every subject across the curriculum,” explained the seasoned educator who taught English at Nolan Catholic High School, the University of St. Thomas, and the University of Tulsa.
From 1996 to 2002, Sr. Joan served as provincial for her order and is currently the treasurer for the SSMN Western Province.
When Sr. Mary Jean Warmuth joined the teaching profession, her first class was a group of 54 first-graders at St. Alice (now Holy Family) School in Fort Worth. The University of Dallas graduate, armed with a degree in elementary education, had no trouble controlling the group of six- and seven-year-olds.
Sr. Mary Jean taught at various SSMN schools in Texas and California including Holy Name, Our Lady of Victory, and St. Mary in Fort Worth. At one point, the Wichita Falls native took time off from teaching to become a licensed vocational nurse and worked at St. Joseph Hospital for six years. She returned to the classroom to teach computer technology at Notre Dame School in Wichita Falls and stayed there until retirement.
“I miss teaching a lot,” she admitted. “I would still be doing it if I thought I had the stamina.”
Many of the young women who entered the SSMN community in 1954 became teachers, but that’s not the career path Sr. Mary Elaine Breen chose to follow.
“I’ve always loved to nurse and care for people. As a young, 18-year-old sister, I was being trained as a teacher, but I wanted to be a nurse,” she explained. “I asked to go into nursing and it happened.”
The OLV graduate began taking classes at St. Joseph Hospital in 1957 and became a registered nurse in 1960. Her medical knowledge was a useful resource in the Congo missions where she worked as a midwife in the early 1960s delivering babies and tending to the needs of orphans. Sr. Elaine later took a course in tropical medicine and was assigned to the order’s dispensary and hospital in Rwanda, Africa.
After returning to Fort Worth in 1968, she managed the unwed mother program at Catholic Charities. Now retired, her love for newborns is still evident.
“I volunteer at Cook Children’s Hospital as a Baby Buddy — something I enjoy very much,” Sr. Elaine enthused.
Sr. Dorothy Powers’ vocation also has an international component. After earning a degree in Spanish language and literature in Mexico, she taught Spanish at Nolan Catholic High School and later served as principal at Holy Name of Jesus School in Fort Worth and Our lady of Guadalupe School in Wichita Falls. The OLV graduate returned to Mexico to co-found a mission of the Sisters of St. Mary in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, along with Sr. Gabriela Martinez.
“We conducted literacy classes, held formation classes for catechists, prepared prayer services and did sacramental preparation,” Sr. Dorothy recalling her efforts to facilitate scripture study groups.
The Diocese of Fort Worth has benefited from her skills in pastoral ministry since 1979. Over the years, she has directed faith formation programs in both English and Spanish at several parishes including, St. Philip the Apostle in Lewisville, St. Maria Goretti in Arlington, St. Joseph in Arlington, and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Fort Worth.
Sr. Dorothy is currently the co-director of her order’s House of Formation.
David Addis and his wife, Janet, joined the Sisters of St. Mary for the Jubilee Mass and a reception dinner.
“I have tremendous respect for them and for the work they have done over the years,” said the Holy Name parishioner. “They are just marvelous friends.”
Sister Mary Dorothy Powers still remembers in vivid detail her first day as a Sister of St. Mary of Namur. And, according to Sr. Dorothy and fellow jubilarians, Sister Devota Sweeney (75 years), Sister Mary Elaine Breen (60 years), Sister Jane Conway (60 years), Sister Joan Markey (60 years), and Sister Mary Jean Warmuth (60 years), it’s a life full of purpose, new challenges, and service to God.