Sisters minister to rural poor and incarcerated

For the past decade Benedictine Sister Marian Wehler has poured her heart into Catholic Rural Ministry of the Oil City Deanery in the northwestern Pennsylvania Diocese of Erie.

There, along with co-director Mercy Sister Justine “Tina” Geiger, she provides spiritual, financial and social support to the men, women and children of the counties of Clarion and Venango as well as parts of Crawford and Forest counties — an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The sisters’ goal is to help meet the needs of the communities of 18 local parishes and missions, four grade schools, one regional high school, a prison and three college campuses. It’s a tall order.

“As sisters, especially, it’s not like we live a lavish lifestyle, but we don’t have the insecurities that many, many people have,” Sister Marian said regarding her ministry to families in need. “How they love their children and how they want to make it better and get on their feet again ... the struggle they have opens my eyes.

“They help to make our ministry and our lives richer and to allow us to see Christ in them and the goodness in them where others might look down on them for being jobless, or in prison or unable to make a payment. I get upset when people talk about how we give too much in this country. But what if they were in the shoes of those with a disability or without fair, living wages? I wonder if they could make it; it’s really tough.”

At the height of the recession in 2007, under the leadership of Sister Marian and Sister of St. Joseph Clare Marie Beichner, Catholic Rural Ministry (CRM), which has received funding from the Our Sunday Visitor Insitute, expanded from its original footprint of north-central Pennsylvania’s Potter and McKean counties.

“At that time I was the dean for this area, and our episcopal vicar, Msgr. John Swoger, had seen the work of the Rural Ministry out in Potter County,” said Msgr. John J. Herbein, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Franklin, Pennsylvania. “So he came to me, and we talked about it, and we thought this would be good for our area.”

“Venango County is one of the poorest counties in the state,” Msgr. Herbein said, noting that the food pantry in his own parish has seen increased use over the past 10 years. “This rural part of Pennsylvania has suffered a great deal. We lost the oil industry. Now, it’s had a spark to come back. We have these deep wells, but they aren’t drilling them anymore, because they aren’t cost efficient.”

In 2012, Sister Tina joined Sister Marian when Sister Clare Marie was called to take a leadership position within her religious community.

“The area in which we live is rural; we are at the edge of Oil City, a city of about 10,000 people,” Sister Tina said. “I think we are called a city because we have three stoplights. Most of the towns we work with might have one stoplight, or just a stop sign.”

A ministry of presence

On any given day several people stop into the Catholic Rural Ministry offices on the outskirts of Oil City.

Some are there for monetary assistance, while others visit just to have someone with whom to talk.

“What we are realizing is the need — as most parishes in this area have populations that are aging — is that the issues of grief, sickness, death, pre-death, dealing with ailing parents, caregiving ... all are striking us as a need among the parishes in our whole deanery,” Sister Tina said. “This whole idea of grief ministry is what has captured our heart and our spirit.

“One woman calls me every day, or every other day, just to tell me how she’s doing now. Her husband passed away, and she doesn’t have anyone to really anchor herself to.”

The sisters’ ministry also includes providing emergency utility assistance to keep children in their homes.

“One of the issues for the youth is that if they don’t have a safe, warm and dry environment, then the county workers are forced to take them out of their homes and put them into foster care,” Sister Tina said. “However, if we had people who could make the homes safe, warm and dry, then the kids could stay with their families.

“That’s ridiculous to put them into foster care when all they need is a sink repaired, or a roof leak repaired, or a door or a bed. ... So a group of us got together and created the Mustard Seed Ministry of Venango County. We call it Mustard Seed Ministry [MSM] — Where Faith Works.”

Since its launch, the MSM has helped more than 700 clients with repairs to make homes safe, warm and dry for children and the disabled.

“They aren’t put into the system,” Sister Tina said. “It has taken off phenomenally, a nice partnership between the county and the faith-based community.”

And all the help provided takes some weight off the parishes.

“They have been a great help for us for so many different things,” Msgr. Herbein said. “The poor have flocked to them, and they often help out in ways that can help the poor with food and with furniture. ... These are intelligent women who are putting their years of training and service to work in our area. It has made a better representation of our Church and has been able to reach the corners of our diocese that we weren’t able to reach before.”

Learning from others

The sisters also spend time each month with inmates in the maximum-security prison.

Sister Tina said she finds beauty and truth when working with the inmates.

“We don’t really know what they did, and it’s not really important to us, but once I was talking with them about the Trinity, and this one inmate said, ‘Well, I just think God is hidden in plain sight,’ and I thought that was a beautiful definition of God — hidden in plain sight. It blew me away.”

Each of the sisters said although they are there to help the prisoners, the men give back to them as well.

“I often feel that the deepest faith-sharing sessions we experience [are] with the inmates,” Sister Marian said. “They teach me a lot even about surviving. ... Because of working with families in need and with the prison, sometimes they open our hearts to the goodness that’s there and to how hard people are ... trying to turn their lives around, trying to have a relationship with God.”

Sister Marian also recounted a time when an inmate told her that he will be imprisoned for the rest of his life, but in despair he had found hope.

“But he said: ‘I’m at peace with it because I’m at peace with God,’” she said. “To me, that says everything.”

Gifts from God

“I think we figured out at one point we have between us something like 87, 89, maybe up to 90 years of ministry,” Sister Tina said. “It’s a lifelong ministry.”

Sister Tina spoke of a time when a father and mother visited the CRM office because they needed money to heat their home.

“He had been working, but in this area, jobs disappear,” Sister Tina said, adding that two grocery stores and a major corporation recently moved their operations out of the area. “These people who are normally living check to check, regular, middle-class people, all of the sudden, no check whatsoever. But they still have rent, they still have utilities.”

“And we are the resources to them,” Sister Marian added.

“All of the sudden we have an influx of people with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn,” Sister Tina said. “And they tell us, ‘You are a godsend to us,’ and I say, ‘No, you are a godsend to us, because we read about this in the paper, we know the need is there, and you are an avenue for us to be of service.”

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Sister Marian echoed Sister Tina’s sentiment of the importance of person-to-person ministry.

“The media can show us things, you can read the stories, but when you sit down and listen to a story from a real person or family, it makes a huge difference. ... I think Pope Francis is right on: There’s too much of a distance between the rich and the poor in our country and in our world. And I don’t mean rich materially but rich and poor in so many ways. If we could just get people to tell their stories and listen to the other side of situations, if we could uplift the poor like the Gospels say, we would all be better for that, more humble.

“What we have are all gifts. And the fact that we aren’t hungry and we have faith and we have so many things ... all are gifts from God.”

Brittany Wilson writes from Pennsylvania.