An Inheritance of Gratefulness

Lay mission leader serves others at home and abroad

Belief in reincarnation isn’t part of Felicia Rowe’s Catholic faith. Still, her grandmother’s spirit lives on in her.

Felicia, 31, of Louisville, is assistant director of the lay mission volunteer program at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Her job involves recruiting volunteers for short-term missions, disaster relief, and community service projects, documenting the work on video and following up with participants about what they got from their experiences.

She recently returned from Botswana in southern Africa, where she worked in an HIV/AIDS clinic and a preschool. In January, she helped build houses in the Central American nation of Belize, and this month, she will assist a team of volunteers for Feeding America, distributing food to the needy in Nelson County.

“I get paid to do what I would do unpaid,” she said.

It’s a vocation Rowe’s grandmother, Marie, would understand.

Marie was a student at Nazareth Academy and considered becoming a sister before she married and became a mother instead. When she was being courted by J.C. Greenwell, he would call on her once a week, until one day when Marie told him she was going to join the Sisters of Charity and he shouldn’t come back. The next week, he came twice, and “the rest is history,” Felicia said. The two married and had 11 children, including Felicia’s mom, Julie, who married Brad Rowe, her father.

Though she never became a nun, Marie Greenwell lived a life of service. A college graduate and medical technician, she served for a time on the board of health and did volunteer work for the Red Cross. She attended the 6:30 Mass every morning at the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, was a Eucharistic minister and was always helping people.

“She was a faithful and prayerful person,” said Julie.

In some ways, Felicia is like her.

“She’s aware of the needs of other people and what she can do for them,” Julie said of her daughter. “She’s a kind person.”

When she was a young girl, Felicia participated in blood drives and school service projects, and often went with their mother, brother and sisters to visit the elderly in nursing homes.

“She’s always had a love of older people,” Julie said.

That’s one of the reasons Felicia likes her job at SCN, where many of the sisters are older women.

“It’s kind of a natural fit because the sisters remind me of my grandmother,” she said. “I love being here because I have such respect for their wisdom and everything you can learn from them.”

Another reason she likes her work is the opportunity it provides for travel.

Her wanderlust began in the sixth grade when Felicia joined her mother, brother and sisters on a backpacking trip of across Europe. In college, she studied in Ireland, the Netherlands and the Bahamas.

Since then, she has visited every continent except Antarctica, and she’s thought about how she can get there.

The time she was in India, studying yoga and doing some work at an ashram, was especially an eye-opening experience, because it was the first time she was a minority and a woman in a culture where women don’t have the same rights and privileges they do here.

“There’s so much you can learn by being immersed in other cultures,” she said. “I really feel like it isn’t until you’re out of your comfort zone that you really start to learn about yourself and other people as well. I have ample opportunities to do that, so it’s one reason I’m so grateful to be able to do the work I do.”

Felicia is a 2001 graduate of Bethlehem and a 2005 Bellarmine grad. In 2009, she earned a master’s in public health from Benedictine University in Chicago, then studied for a year at the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico. She was going to be an optometrist, but to her “parents’ dismay,” she said, she changed her emphasis to public health.

She worked for a children’s hospital in Philadelphia and a charity in New York City before she was hired by the Sisters of Charity as an assistant to Sister Luke Boiarski, director of the lay mission program of the Office of Congregational Advancement.

Sister Luke’s leadership resulted in an expansion of the volunteer program to the point where she needed someone to be her right hand.

“Now Felicia’s taking it to the next step,” said Diane Curtis, a spokeswoman for SCN.

Sister Luke described Felicia as compassionate and generous, and said “her openness to other cultures is extraordinary.”

Patsy O’Toole, an SCN associate and Sister Luke’s director, said Felicia’s work is to her “a ministry.”

“She approaches the job with her whole heart,” she said.

Her organizational skills, matched with “her ability to draw people together make her a perfect person for this role.”

Soon after she began her job with SCN, Felicia visited New Orleans, which is still recovering from the 2005 hurricanes. A little later she did poverty relief work in the Appalachian town of Beattyville, Ky., and helped build houses and relationships with homeowners in Belize City.

She believes in treating the people she assists “with the same respect everybody deserves, regardless of who they are or where they are — it doesn’t matter if it’s Beattyville or Botswana.”

In Botswana, Felicia cared for orphans, many of whom are living with AIDS, and she found the Sisters of Charity who live humbly among those they serve, an inspiration.

Botswana is a young country and a hopeful one.

“I loved it because the people were so welcoming, happy and uplifting, even though they often had difficult challenges,” she said.

“As Americans, we are given so much and are so fortunate, but we seem to lack the gratitude to live fulfilled lives,” Felicia said.

Her grandmother, said Julie, would be proud of her.

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