(This life story of Sister Marie Flowers was written after several visits with her in 2016. She was bravely battling the cancer that would take her life in October 2017. At the conclusion of her story, which she herself read and approved, I have included the remarks of several Sisters who lived in community with Marie. If it were possible to write them all, I am sure there are many others who could share their remembrances. The remarks of this interviewer are in italics.)
“How God weaves our lives is truly amazing!” As we began our visits on a rainy day in May, I discovered that these words of Marie would surely be revealed in her life story. Although the day was grey and cloudy, even when it wasn’t raining, Marie was certainly anything but downcast. Her conversation and energy belied the health challenges that she faced. As she served me delicious tea and shared her memories, I could only thank God for the graces she was receiving.)Marie was born in 1966, in Detroit. Michigan. She was the youngest of three children – Michael, Patty, Marie – born to Michael and Ellen Finan Flowers. Her mother was “all Irish”; her father was Irish and French Canadian. The three Flowers children were close in age and relationship. Marie’s full baptismal name is Marie Chantal. It is a special name her mother chose because of Ellen’s close friend and mentor, Sister Marie Chantal, an Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister from Monroe, Michigan. Marie has special and happy childhood memories of visits to the convent where Sister Marie Chantal lived. When she was told of Sister Marie Chantal’s death, little Marie’s plaintive child’s cry was, “God didn’t asked me.”
Marie attended the Marygrove Nursery School connected with Marygrove College and has an assessment given to her as a three-year –old. Smilingly, she read it to me and said, “Can you believe this very early assessment captured my spirit and personality?”
The Catholic faith of Michael and Ellen Flowers was very important to them and they strove to pass that on to their children. They were not “Sunday Catholics” but ones to whom their faith was alive and real. In the Detroit, Michigan and Peoria, Illinois Dioceses Ellen and Michael were very active and involved in parish activities. They were committed members of the parish council, of the liturgical committee, involved in the TEC program (Teens Encounter Christ) for teens and in Marriage Encounter. Their children were as comfortable in the Church sanctuary as they were in their own living room.
Marie and her siblings have held to that strong faith modeled by their parents. Marie said, “Throughout our lives we, all three, have remained ‘rock solid’ in our faith. From the day I was born I learned ‘giving back’ is what you do.” She continued, “My father took me with him to sell Tootsie Roll candy as a fund raiser for the Knights of Columbus in order to build a playground for handicapped children. They let me watch as they worked on the project. I was learning love and service from him and my mother.”
Michael Flowers was an accountant and, because of his job, moved the family from Detroit to Normal, Illinois near Bloomington. There the parents made sure that all three children attended good schools. Both Michael and Ellen Flowers were Jesuit educated and continued their involvement in parish activities. They had already written papers on lay involvement in the mission of the Church. The couple continued their faithful support to the priests of the Diocese especially during the transitional times after Vatican II. Michael was head of the parish council, which proved a difficulty when the pastor took extra money. The funds had been raised through a Bingo program solely for the benefit of answering the needs of the school. (This must have been very hard on Michael who had always been such a strong and faithful parish member.)
Michael Flowers lost his accountant job and took a new one in St. Louis, Missouri. Marie’s father and her siblings were willing to live temporarily in a tiny apartment in order to begin school classes while Ellen Flowers recovered from an illness back in Normal. In St. Louis, Marie and her sister Patty attended Nerinx Hall, a school staffed by the Sisters of Loretto.
(The emphasis of the Sisters of Loretto on peace and justice issues was an inspiration to Marie but not a vocation call.)
Although she herself was not musically inclined, music was important to Ellen Flowers. She saw much merit in the discipline and joy of her children learning to play a musical instrument. She listened to Marie’s desire to learn to play the flute and gave her lessons. In high school Marie was involved in the choral group, she was editor of the yearbook, she participated in the Young Catholic Musicians program and the Christian Life Community
During her senior year in high school Marie read a letter from Father Bruce Ritter, one of founders of Covenant House, an organization dedicated to providing much needed assistance to homeless young people. Its mission kindled a fire in Marie and she wanted to volunteer, even sending a three-page letter making her request. Gently and kindly Marie’s English teacher, Noeli Lytton gave her sound advice.
Marie shared, “She showed me the impracticality of a seventeen year old, without experience or training, trying to relate to youth almost my same age. She explained that I needed time and age and life experiences. With her help I understood. I still remember her with great affection and gratitude for her wisdom. The desire to volunteer there would stay with me. It would take me five years, college study and some maturing before I was ready to serve at Covenant House.”
Marie began the journey to college with the pursuit of a major in music. She had a scholarship to Northwest Missouri State University. Right away she signed up for the marching band. Her time at this college lasted only one semester. It was not her choice to leave but she did because of a roommate who had serious emotional and psychological problems, it seemed best for her to change. Marie returned to St. Louis and began searching for the right place for learning and study. She then chose University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Marie’s older sister, Patty, was a student at Maryville, a college of the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart. “I did not want to just follow whatever my sister did, but the move to study at Maryville, a small liberal arts college, was the best thing that could have happened to me. I changed my major from music to sociology and psychology. A providential happening was that in the sometimes frustrating registration line that many college students know, I was pleased to meet up with Kay Porter. Kay had been my supervisor when I was a candy striper at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. She invited me to come and do work study with her. It was a blessing for me and I flourished in the Maryville environment.”
Marie graduated from Maryville in 1989 having been noted in the Who’s Who of American Colleges, having been in the Homecoming Court and in the Social Sciences Honor Society. Marie had found her direction.
She answered her long awaited desire and signed up for volunteer service at Covenant House and began the lengthy process of application. When she was allowed to “Come and see” for a week and was told “If you are selected, what places would be your preference?” Marie named New York City; Houston, Texas; and Toronto, Canada. Her assignment was not one of these; it was Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
(Marie stopped me at this point to quote a message she heard often from her mother. “God’s will is that God wants us to be at peace and wildly happy so that the joy of the Gospel can resound in us.” This must have been consoling as Marie had to believe that Ft. Lauderdale was where God was waiting for her.)
Marie said with joyful remembrance, “My year and a half at Covenant House was the hardest and best time of my life, I lived with a dynamic group of eleven men and women committed to the faith community we shared and the mission of Covenant House. We learned so much from each other and were very intentional about building community. Sisters Eva Kowalski, SCN, and Nancy Gerth, SCN, were a supportive presence to our small group, joining us for a volleyball game or breakfast on the beach. Marie recalls, “That was my first contact with the SCN Community.”
“We had a wonderful team for our work at Covenant House. We collaborated in making goals for the young people under our care, we rejoiced in their successes, however small, and we would try again when there was a failure or disappointment.”
After this time at Covenant House, Marie returned to St. Louis and worked for a year at a home for disturbed teenage girls. The girls had so many needs because of the serious abuse they had experienced in their young lives. “This was the hardest job I ever had”, Marie said with a sigh. She realized that additional training and education would have helped her in this situation and the future, as well. She then enrolled at St. Louis University to earn a Master Degree in Social Work. Although it was hard to go fulltime with the student loans she incurred, that path seemed best.
In 1994 Marie accepted a position with Family Investment Trust. This was an unusual endeavor and proved to be a great learning experience for her. The mission of this program was to bring together skilled persons from all over the State of Missouri who could find ways for public and private organizations to partner with each other. This collaboration was initiated by the governor of Missouri to benefit those populations in the State who needed social services. The program had grants from notable foundations – Danforth, Annie E. Casey, Kaufman, McConnell. Although this grant funded position was to last only six months it turned out to be a year and a half. The group would later call on Marie to return at various times to assist them in some special project. One memorable one was the Caring Community Conference for which she was to coordinate all the details and logistics. This proved to be a great challenge and a satisfying accomplishment.
Marie knew that she wanted to work more directly with children and families so she took a job at Head Start, still in St. Louis. She was responsible for the social service aspect of the Head Start program, especially the training of case managers. Marie also participated in the supervision of graduate social service students for St. Louis University and George Washington University. “The two and a half years that I held this position brought me many diverse and enriching experiences,” Marie remembered.
Her next job was another in her list of what I consider ministries, serving others who are in great need. This was a program entitled YES, Youth Emergency Shelter. It was a twelve-bed shelter for homeless and runaway youth, Marie’s responsibility was to manage the shelter, also to hire and train childcare workers. The youth had been through many difficult life situations and were in need of guidance and support. She was to remain here two and a half years with many memorable experiences. Her job was made even more of a challenge because there had been five executive Directors at the Shelter before she came. YES was turned over to another agency and Marie lost her position.
She found a place for her gifts and skills at the Mother and Children Together, a collaborative program between several small not-for-profits to care for children whose parents were incarcerated. A Federal grant funded this program where Marie was the only employee charged with the task of bringing various partners together for the benefit of the children. “It was so enriching to learn from various other programs what was being done to help the children of the incarcerated to cope with their situation,” Marie said with gratitude.
All this while Marie was serving on the Social Work Alumni Board of Saint Louis University and also on the Child Welfare Board. She had met and become friends with Sister Eugenio Pastorik, RSM, a beautiful, simple woman, who was focused on criminal justice issues. Marie began to talk to her about religious life. “I think I have to be a Sister,” she announced to Sister Eugenio, who explained to her the process of discernment and formation. She wisely suggested a spiritual director from the Aquinas School of Theology. This was to be a great a blessing for Marie in the years to come. “Another blessing was the calling together of a Clearness Committee, ten persons who knew and cared for me who could ask questions only as they helped me search my future. It was a wonderful experience of gaining helpful insights into my life’s direction,” Marie explained.
(This interviewer was not familiar with this Quaker practice of Clearness Committee but could see how helpful it was to Marie and would be to many.)
What religious community should she enter? She googled Sister Nancy Gerth, Vocation Director, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Sister Nancy invited Marie to a Discernment Weekend being held at Nazareth, Kentucky. She came and knew, “That was it.”
Thus began the long and sometimes difficult period of discernment into the SCN Community. Discernment was to last two years and candidacy three.
“My novitiate – both canonical and apostolic -was a blessed time, where I felt embraced as a Sister and where I received many benefits. I was blessed:
– to have time with Sister Elaine Prevallet ,SL,
-to have the opportunity of learning meditation from Sister Anna Jeanne Hardesty,
-to attend the outstanding Intercommunity Novitiate program,
-to have the months at Sisters Place, living with the SCN Community in Pittsburgh.
The last apostolic experience I had before vows was in Belize where I had the joy of living with SCNs and working as trainer in the Women’s Department. I joyously made first vows on June 14, 2014.”
(Because of her illness Marie was allowed to make perpetual vows on June 11, 2016. She was gratefully aware of the loving support of the SCN Community, her family and friends. Marie would live until October 14, 2017. These were months of suffering for Marie but her spirit remained strong and joyful.)
Memories of Sister Mary Ellen Doyle, SCN.
“I think Marie was at first deeply distressed by her diagnosis, but even then she spoke of taking one day at a time and leaving herself in God’s hands and trusting in the prayers of her Sisters and friends. She was doing so very deliberately when she arrived at Nazareth Home and we had some short but special visits. Another was the evening the young SCs [Sisters of Charity] from Cincinnati came here. She was deeply moved by their prayer service with its inclusion of their memories of her finest qualities as they knew her.
If she had some final message for the SCN community, I suspect it would be some form of her wish she often expressed to me: that we would find the will and the ways to share life in local community and also in mission as much as would be possible. As you know, she was truly a ‘gatherer’; this was very evident living with her as a candidate and as a member of the community on ‘the Hill’ where she often got a movie or some other a-v on a topic of interest and inspiration for all of us to attend one evening. She also invited the Sisters to our house for a feast-day evening on a time or two. She really wanted to see us get together as a matter of regular events.”
Memories of Sister Julie Driscoll, SCN, and Liz Wendeln, SCN
(What gave Marie strength and peace during the months of her illness?)
“The deep faith Marie received from her parents was the core of her strength for she never questioned that her illness was God’s will for her, as difficult as it was. She accepted and adapted to every new test and medication with amazing realism and trust.
A very significant strength for Marie was her constant reliance on community. In some ways she was instrumental in bringing our new community together and was delighted when it became a reality. Beyond us she knew from the moment of her diagnosis that she had the total support of her family and friends both in the SCN Community and beyond for as you note in her story, she had many good friends from various parts of her life when she entered. She was very aware of the prayers from SCNs around the Congregation and often mentioned how she relied on those prayers. She was a community person and a people person in many ways. She loved to bake goodies to make everyone happy or produce popcorn in the evenings. If things seemed at all commonplace, she could come up with an idea for entertainment and enjoyment. She loved to shop as much as some people hate that activity and this shopping included going meticulously through all coupons in the Sunday newspaper, or stopping at yard sales or finding special prices on the internet.
It was providential that she had already asked Liz to be her surrogate and was comforted that Liz was with her from the moment she heard the devastating diagnosis throughout important doctor’s visits and medical advice. At times Liz had to gently remind or even nag Marie about her medical instructions. Julie sometimes accompanied Marie to doctor’s appointments or chemotherapy and at other times was available to run for prescriptions, or errands or pick up some food Marie thought might taste good as her eating became difficult. Marie had wonderful care from her oncologist and the wonderful nurses who delighted in serving her as she enjoyed greeting them.
Marie was thrilled to be an SCN and never hid that experience. She loved the Sisters from India that she had been with a few weeks and was deeply moved by her experience in Belize so she was very international in her concerns and in her prayer for different Sisters in the Congregation. Those relationships were evident in the beautiful notes we received from them at the time of her death. When she had the energy to still serve, she was thrilled to be allowed to be vocation director. Although there was much more to Marie, these aspects of her life give an indication of the remarkable way she accepted her illness without complaint and walked through it to the end with an amazing acceptance.”
(What would be Marie’s message to the SCN Community?)
“Appreciate our SCN Charism and spread the word! Celebrate community and live it out with joy and fun. Where there is no fun going on, create some and believe in your ability to do just that. Since Marie found deep and exciting life with her Sisters in the Charity Federation, she would urge us to look to the Federation and engage with those of other communities as much as possible and trust a future that has yet to be created. Share the beauty of our life with others.”
Interviewed by Sister Maria Vincent Brocato