On being asked by Paschal Maria Fernicola to share some of my life-story, I’m happy to respond.
On May 27, 1931 in Louisville, KY, I was born to Olivia Madden and Joseph Jerome Zehnder, Sr. Coming before me were Joseph, Jr., Mary Ann, Larry and Evelyn, then following me, came Patrice. A seventh child died at birth. The six of us had a great time growing up together. In my toddler years, I sat in my father’s lap each evening after supper, hearing the homework lessons of my older brothers and sisters. When I began school at St. Elizabeth’s, I realized that I already had a good start.
I was taught by the Louisville Ursuline Sisters there from the first through the mid-fourth grades, when my family moved to Holy Name Parish. From mid-fourth grade to eighth grade I went to Holy Name School, taught by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. I was totally fascinated by my first SCN teacher, Sr. Mary Florence Burroughs (so tiny!) scurrying around the classroom. The following years, I was taught by Sisters. Sabina Pyle, Mary Electa Dyar, Ann Victoria Cruz and Mary Collette Crone, all of whom I dearly loved. My family was “sold” on the SCNs and all the girls, except the oldest – Mary Ann – who had already started at Ursuline Academy, went to Presentation Academy – that included Evelyn, Pat and me.
I also had wonderful teachers at “Pres”; Sisters Mary Josephine Bean, Clara Ann Huber, Louise de Marillac Lovejoy, Patricia Ann Carroll, Theodosia Gildea, Mary Henry Keenan, Teresa Frances Smith and several others. My two brothers, Joe Jr. and Larry, went to St. Xavier’s High School.
During the last two years at Pres and during the summer months, I worked in the main office of Lerman Brothers who had many department stores in small towns of Kentucky. My boss, Frank Fonoroff, was interested in each one of us and would talk to us individually each day asking, among other things, about our intentions after high school. When I told him I wanted to enter the Novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, he patted me on the back, saying, “Good for you!” He said that his wife was on the staff of Spalding College (now Spalding University) and loved all the Sisters there. Once when I asked to be off on a Saturday to attend a friend’s wedding, he said, “Of course you can; just don’t let it change your mind.”
When I talked to my parents about my desire to enter the Novitiate, my mother was pleased, but my father said, “Well, I don’t like it, but I won’t stand in your way.” Several years later at Nazareth he told me how happy it made him feel to see me so content.
Coming to the Novitiate was a fearful step, but after being here just a short time, I felt that I really belonged! Sister Mary Rosine Callahan was different from any person I had ever known – elderly, small, busy about many details and so pious! In contrast, Sister Helen Frances Sheeran was so big in body, mind and spirit! I truly revered and loved her. She usually stood tall with hands folded at the waist, giving us direct responses to anything we asked her about. Sister Ann Patrick McShane, so gracious and cheerful, also helped us in the Novitiate. I wasn’t too eager for the day of professing our vows, because of hating to leave these special leaders as well as leaving my novitiate classmates whom I also loved! Besides, I hated to leave beautiful Nazareth!
But Profession Day came anyway on March 25, 1952, and to my joy, the Lord knew my heart! Most of us were to be kept at Nazareth for a while yet, to study before going out to our first mission! We were under the care of the Superior of the house, Sister Francis Borgia Quigley. Other Sisters in the house called us “The Borgia Gang”. I felt so good one day when Sister Francis Borgia confided in me saying, “You’re a real comfort to me. So many of your classmates are scared to death of me, but if I yell at you, you come right back!” I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I just smiled and said, “I’m glad!” and went on my way.
When our first assignments in the form of “thin letters” were given to us, I could scarcely believe mine. I was to continue living at Nazareth and teach at St. Gregory School in Samuels, KY! I truly loved it! The chaplains at Nazareth – Fathers James P. McGee, Donald J. Fisher or Robert C. Birkel would drive us to and from school each day. My principals were Sisters Ellen Maria Ballew and later, Mary Olive Griffin. For the first several years, I taught grades four and five, followed by grade six and then grades one and two for several years. When our second graders made their First Communion, my mother made several little white dresses for the little girls who were too poor to buy one.
At the Motherhouse at that time, one of my duties was to accompany the priest taking Holy Communion to the Sisters in the Infirmary. It was my task to carry a lantern and to ring a little bell to announce our coming. As Father McGee went into each room, I knelt outside the room and fell asleep. As he came out of the room, Father McGee would tap me on the shoulder and say, “You’re blessed, Elaine”, (because he could NOT sleep, and I had a hard time staying awake!)
In August, 1958, I was assigned to St. Raphael School in Hyde Park, MA. I thought I was going “to the end of the world,” but as soon as I arrived, I knew I was going to be as happy as I could be! My superior and principal was Sister Frances Miriam Loker the first year, followed by Sister Thomas Patricia Wright (later Sister Patricia Ann), both of whom I loved. Sister Thomas Patricia was one of the kindest and most loving persons I have ever lived with. Other special Sisters there I also lived with, were Sisters Emily Pugh, Mary Marguerite O’Malley, Marion Patrick Haney (now Sister Marian) and Mary Patricia Brennan. All the parents with whom I talked were so very kind and thankful for everything. One of the parents told me that in helping her second-grade son with his homework, he kept insisting, “But Mom, Sister teaches us the KENTUCKY alphabet!”
I then went to St. Peter’s School in Waldorf, MD. It was so very different from Hyde Park, but I learned to love everything about it. The superior and principal was Sr. Charles Louise Fedler (later Sister Mary). The other Sisters there were Sisters Jane Cecilia Hamilton (later Sister Janice) and Mary Marguerite O’Malley who were all very nice to live with. Our pastor, Father Henry W. Sank, was also very kind to each of us. While in Maryland, I went to the doctor for something else I was suffering. He said, “Sister, you may think you suffer from sloth, but I’m warning you that soon you will be suffering from impatience and irascibility!” He had discovered a thyroid problem and helped me out of it. My three years there went entirely too fast!
I returned to Kentucky and taught the first and second grades at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Owensboro for two years, 1966-69. Then I became superior, principal and choir director there from the fall of 1969-72.
From August 1972 to June 1973, I served as assistant to the pastor of St. Joseph Church, Bowling Green, KY. The time there went by entirely too quickly. I was called to come back to the Motherhouse as assistant to Sister Mary Kevin Egan, Provincial. I held this position from August 1973 to 1975, then became assistant to the next Provincial, Sister Emiliana Cryan until 1977. I truly loved being with both of them.
From August 1977 to June 1978 I was a student in a Jesuit sponsored program called “Focus on Leadership” at Ministry Training Services in Denver, Colorado under the direction of Father Tom Prag, SJ. Each of us was assigned a Spiritual Director. I was assigned to Father Tom Prag who continued to be my Spiritual Director for many years until he died. He was also a special friend to Sisters Virginia Louise Stoker and to Sarah Ferriell. I really appreciated all that I learned from Father Prag and from the program.
On my return from Denver, I was given the Directorship of the SCN Mission Office from 1978 to 1984 and lived at Russell Hall at Nazareth. In connection with this work, I wrote to pastors in many dioceses to ask to be invited to their parishes to talk about our foreign missions, to ask for prayers and to take up collections on behalf of our missionary Sisters in India, Nepal and Belize. After being invited in response to these letters, I traveled to many places in the USA.
Luckily for me, in 1980 Sister Lucille Phipps was returning from a sabbatical in the Holy Land and was looking for a community member. I am so happy that it was I! She had been asked to set up the retreat program at Nazareth, which she did. Then in 1981, Lucille went to Ohio to do pastoral work.
Sister Mary Elaine (left) and Sister Ann Bernadette Ormond with Mother Teresa in Calcutta
During this time, I was permitted to visit our Sisters in India and Nepal to become more familiar with their work and needs. Once, several of them took me to visit Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India and took my picture with her. So now I have a picture of myself with a canonized saint!! I think I have worked with several saints but they have not been canonized. Most of us know who they are. I also visited all our missions in Belize. The Sisters there also appreciated my concern and support.
After my time in the Mission Office, I held the position of Pastoral Associate at St. Pius X Church in Louisville, KY from September 1984 to August 2012. This was such a rewarding work! Parishioners were so very grateful for my visits and for every little thing I could do. Many times I was asked to give the homily at Mass and parishioners would say, “We don’t understand why you can’t be asked to offer the Mass!” Priests with whom I served during those years were; Fathers Bob Mueller, Roger Boehmicke, Bill Medley (now Bishop of Owensboro, KY), Chuck Walker, Dale Cieslik, Mike Tobin and Bill Burke.
Being a Pastoral Associate is one of the most rewarding positions a woman can have. We can be grateful for the priesthood in which the men called to that role follow Christ, bring Christ to us through the Sacraments, Christ’s teachings and their homilies and instructions. To be a regular assistant to that ministry is a cherished call indeed. To be available to women who find it easier to discuss problems with another woman is a rewarding experience. Even some of the men in the parish sometimes look for a feminine perspective to their questions. I so appreciated the opportunities this role offered me. I remembered that as a teacher in our parochial schools, I also loved to teach religion to the students, hoping that they would have more and more understanding and appreciation of our faith and of God’s place in their lives.
While still at St. Pius X, I was asked by our Provincial, Sister Betty Blandford, to help her part-time as her Associate. At this time Betty was living with my mother in the home where I grew up.
Living with Lucille and working with Betty were happy days indeed! By this time, Lucille was back in Louisville – at Spalding University’s Wellness Center, working as a Reflexologist with one of her former Reflexology teachers, Sister Emma Ann Munsterman, an Ursuline from Maple Mount, KY. One day, Lucille talked over with me her desire to move to Nazareth. I worked it out with those concerned in the parish and found myself retired! In September 2012, we became residents at the Motherhouse; for me, retirement, for her, busy continuing her art of Reflexology.
On my permanent record card, the last entry is Nazareth Motherhouse, September 2012, resident, Apostolate of Prayer! Another good piece of this is my closeness to Louisville and to the only other member of my generation of the Zehnder family – my sister, Pat Rymarowicz. She keeps me in touch with all that is going on with my family! It suits me just fine. God be praised for all God’s goodness to me!