Sisters draw on hobbies, life experiences to aid their ministries - Catholic Courier
A woman plays piano.

Sister Donna Cucci plays the piano, aided by Sister Marie Susanne, in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Joseph)

Sisters draw on hobbies, life experiences to aid their ministries

Sister Marie Michael Miller is celebrating 75 years as a Sister of St. Joseph, but it was her call to become a nurse that led her to 64 years of service at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira.

Father Walter Carron, her pastor at Rochester’s Holy Redeemer Parish, “saw the nurse in me,” she said, noting that her nursing education at Nazareth College was paid for by the U.S. Nurse Cadet Corps, a World War II-era program to train stateside nurses.

In her senior year of college, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph after getting to know them through her clinical work at St. Joseph’s Hospital. She then graduated with a bachelor of science degree in nursing and eventually earned her master’s in pediatric nursing at the Catholic University of America.

“Through my years of ministry at St. Joseph’s Hospital, I was blessed with many opportunities to serve Christ in the sick, from pediatric nursing supervisor and instructor, to director of the school of nursing and nursing services,” Sister Miller said. She also served as assistant administrator, nursing home administrator and volunteer in the hospital’s Pastoral Care Department.

“I have happy memories,” she recalled of her years at the Elmira hospital. Yet she noted that her tenure there also was challenging, especially during the flood in June of 1972, which ravaged the Southern Tier.

“But because of the people I worked with through all of those years, I just have to say I was extremely blessed. And as any sister would tell you, the grace of God is there. You can do all things through he who strengthens you that you can’t do yourself,” she said.

Like Sister Miller, many women religious draw on their previous experiences and interests to inform and deepen their ministries — or in some cases, to begin new ones.

Sisters of St. Joseph touch lives through healthcare, education and the arts

Sister Donna Cucci grew up in a musical home and knew, from a young age — long before she became a Sister of St. Joseph 50 years ago — that she would be a music teacher. She had come to know and like the Sisters of St. Joseph in grammar school and again in college. Community life appealed to her, and she said she thought the sisters “did such wonderful things. They were all in for the people, 100 percent.”

Her gift for and love of music and piano performance formed her teaching ministry at the former Nazareth Academy, the Eastman School of Music Community Education Department and in her private studio.

“Every place I taught, I loved,” she stated.

For those who are gifted in the arts, art and music are “a major part of someone’s life. You do it because you cannot not do it,” she said, quoting one of her former teachers at Eastman. “It’s who I am; I can’t separate it from ministry. It’s been a beautiful ministry,” she added.

Sister Cucci, who has master’s degrees in music education and piano performance and literature from the Eastman School of Music, retired from teaching in 2023. She now is the organist and pianist at the SSJ Motherhouse in Pittsford, where she also serves as a health-care proxy for the sisters.

When she moved to the motherhouse, she turned to making jewelry, which is available in the motherhouse gift shop.

“I like to bring people together. Here at the motherhouse, there are lots of opportunities for that,” she noted. “I feel the Spirit has guided me all along the way.”

Ministries in the arts draw people to God

Sister Mary Lisa Dwyer also ministers at the SSJ motherhouse, where she uses her long teaching experience to serve immigrants and refugees from around the world.

After entering the congregation 60 years ago, she taught English language arts in diocesan schools for 20 years. However, she said she took some time off from that ministry to begin teaching English as a second language at St. Augustine School in Rochester.

After a year, she realized that she needed a degree, so she pursued a master’s at Nazareth College (now Nazareth University) in teaching English to speakers of other languages. She went on to teach English as a second language in kindergarten through sixth grade in the Rochester City School District and then at Nativity Preparatory Academy.

She now helps immigrant employees of the SSJ Motherhouse learn English and prepare for citizenship.

Sister Dwyer also has turned her love of photography into a ministry by making cards featuring her photos for sale in the motherhouse’s gift shop. She said she always prays when she goes for walks to find a “moment of awe” to see God in the world around her.

Sister Dwyer said she believes the arts are important ministries because they “touch people in a different ways, their sense of God.”

“One of the greatest gifts I have been given is Ignatian spirituality where in the moments of awareness I recognize that God is in all the ‘stuff’ of our lives. When I forget, I walk outside and see God everywhere,” she said.

Sisters of Mercy serve through education, imaging arts and spiritual writing

Sister Kathy Sisson also is a trained teacher who helps immigrants learn English. She initially felt the call to Mercy as an associate while working at Wegmans in her native city of Buffalo, where she also volunteered at an inner-city food pantry.

Sister Sisson said she had entered the Franciscan Sisters out of high school but discerned that it wasn’t right for her. She then got married and was later divorced. She is the mother of two daughters and also is a grandmother.

Entering formation to become a Mercy Associate in Buffalo, she obtained an annulment through the church, and before long, she felt the call to become a Sister of Mercy. She entered the congregation in 1999 at the age of 50.

Celebrating her 25th jubilee, she now assists with the formation of Mercy Associates; coordinates reception and the switchboard at the Mercy Center; and tutors and performs intake assessments for Mercy Bridges, a Mercy-sponsored that teaches English as a second language to immigrants and refugees.

Reflecting on how being a Sister of Mercy has encompassed and affirmed all of her life experiences, she said “it makes me feel whole.”

Unlike Sister Sisson, Mercy Sister Joan Hilbert recalled that she always wanted to be a Sister of Mercy.

“I knew I wanted to teach little kids,” said Sister Hilbert, who is celebrating her 70th jubilee.

She said she spent many years teaching in Rochester Catholic schools before moving into pastoral ministry at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Having enjoyed nature and landscape photography since her youth, she took photography classes at Nazareth College and later taught photography at Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women.

These days, she is especially grateful for opportunities for quiet prayer, but she continues to make cards bearing her photographs as gifts for jubilees, birthdays and other celebrations.

Sister Hilbert shares her love of photography with fellow Mercy Sister Kathleen Mary O’Connell, who has been taking photos since she was 9 years old.

Sister O’Connell, a Sister of Mercy for 67 years, continued to pursue her love of photography while teaching at Catholic schools in Rochester and Newark; serving as campus minister at SUNY Geneseo; working as pastoral associate and then parish visitor at Holy Cross Church in Charlotte; and as pastoral administrator at St. Mary Church in Waterloo. Recently, she has volunteered with the Christian initiation program at Holy Cross and Greece’s Our Mother of Sorrows. 

Sister O’Connell has an extensive mailing list for her photos and reflections, and also has created calendars and bookmarks. She has published two books of her photographs and spiritual reflections, Footprints of God and God Moments, available through the Mercy Center gift shop in Brighton.

She described being a Sister of Mercy as living a lifestyle.

“Ministry is how we express that lifestyle in our day, although the ministry may change,” she said. “Being a sister never retires; it’s part and parcel of who we are.”

Tags: Monroe County East, Religious Orders
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