Ursuline Sister Mary Ellen Backes overcame the tragic death of her parents at a young age and learned a lesson about kindness that has lasted a lifetime.
Jeanne Ellen Backes (pronounced “Bock-us”) was born in Minot, N.D., “where the sky and the earth touch. It’s beautiful,” she said. She has an older brother, Norman, a sister Patsy and a twin sister, Janet.
Her father, Joe Backes, was a farmer, and in the winter owned a motel, while her mother, Ellen, was a homemaker. The family’s life was forever changed on Aug. 26, 1959, when Joe and Ellen Backes were killed in an auto accident. Jeanne Ellen was 14.
“My brother Norman taught us to drive a stick shift after Mom and Dad died, so we wouldn’t be afraid,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
She never had time to grieve for her parents because the family was always trying to support her grandfather, who never got over the loss of his daughter and son-in-law, she said. Her grandparents raised her and her siblings.
“The death of my parents influenced my religious life,” she said.
Ursulines taught her at Bishop Ryan High School in Minot, where her algebra teacher was Sister Dorothy Helbling, who would go on to become superior of the Ursulines of Belleville, Ill., for 24 years. Though Sister Mary Ellen was taught by a different order in grade school, the Ursulines were the only sisters she considered joining.
“I just loved the Ursulines, they were like family,” she said.
Another person who was a great influence on her was Father Blaine Cook, the administrator of Bishop Ryan High School.
“He was like a dad, he really took us in,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “Father Cook always asked us to be kind to people. I took him so seriously, I always wanted to be generous.”
She joined the Ursulines of Belleville right out of high school in 1962, even though the motherhouse was 1,000 miles away in Illinois. She took the name Mary Ellen to honor her mother.
“I got this idea that if I entered the convent, I’d go straight to heaven. I had a little naïveté,” Sister Mary Ellen said. She had an uncle who was a priest and aunts who were sisters.
When she entered the Ursulines of Belleville, the community was at its peak with 73 sisters during the cutting edge of Vatican II.
“We studied our history, and got to know Saint Angela Merici,” she said. But it was also a time when many sisters left, and of her five-member novice class, she’s the only one who stayed. In 2005, the Ursulines of Belleville merged with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.
In 2022, Sister Mary Ellen celebrates 57 years as an Ursuline Sister. She has served as a teacher and director of religious education in Illinois, and was general superior of the Ursulines of Belleville from 1989-95. Since 1995 she has served as pastoral associate at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Springfield, Ill.
“I’ve always been happy” being an Ursuline Sister, she said.