Sister Angela Fitzpatrick lives a life of service to the elderly

(This article was originally published in 2012. Since then, three of the sisters quoted in this article, Sister Celine Leeker,  Sister Martina Rockers and Sister Rita Klarer, have gone to heaven.)

Like most young Ursuline Sisters in the early 1970s, Sister Angela Fitzpatrick began as a teacher. But after just a few years, it was clear that her passion was in serving the needs of people in parishes.

“Ever since I began parish ministry, I knew I’d enjoy working with the elderly,” Sister Angela said. “I was blessed that in the beginning of my pastoral ministry, I had the support of a team, and my area of concentration was services for the elderly. I just relate well with the elderly.”

Sister Angela was an Ursuline Sister of Paola, Kan., prior to the merger of that community with the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph in 2008. Today, Sister Angela continues to serve the elderly in metropolitan Kansas City, helping them stay in their homes by providing service as a CSJ caregiver, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

“She’s wonderful,” said Sister Ann Landers, CSJ, who heads CSJ Care in Kansas City. “I have observed her at work, and she is very creative in communicating. I trust her with anybody,” Sister Ann said. “She has a sense of humor, and she looks around to find out what needs to be done. That’s what the clients tell me.”

Sister Angela usually cares for Al and Lucille Sondern on Tuesdays, although the Sonderns are now spending a few months in Texas during the winter: “I think she’s a big help,” Lucille Sondern said during a visit in November. “She gets things organized, makes me keep moving. If I ask her a question, she tells me the truth.”

Sister Angela spends much of her week with Janet and Peter Hyde. He has Parkinson’s disease and Sister Angela helps him shower and get dressed, makes breakfast for him and encourages him to exercise. “They have four dogs, so it means a lot to them to stay in their own home,” Sister Angela said.

She prepares lunch for the couple, does laundry and some light housekeeping. “She is part of the family,” Janet Hyde said.

In January she began serving a new couple who married about three years ago after their spouses died. “I bring them Communion, do exercises with her, go grocery shopping with him, do a little dusting, laundry or whatever else they want,” Sister Angela said. “Each person is different and I try to meet their different needs.”

Sister Angela listens to Bruce Prince-Joseph play the harpsichord in his Kansas City home in November. Until January, Sister Angela helped Prince-Joseph, 87, care for his 18-room home. He was a member of the New York Philharmonic from 25 years.

Perhaps one of her most unique clients was Bruce Prince-Joseph, 87, who she ministered to from December 2010 to January 2012. He was the lead organist, harpsichordist and pianist for Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic for 25 years, but returned to Kansas City and moved into an 18-room all-concrete house designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. Sister Angela helped him take care of the house, and kept him company. Prince-Joseph hired a housekeeper earlier this year so Sister Angela could serve another couple in need, Sister Ann said.

“Each of my clients is so interesting, they each have their own story,” Sister Angela said.

“She ministers to everybody,” said Ursuline Sister Celine Leeker, who has been friends with Sister Angela for many years. She noted that Sister Angela’s presence encouraged three women to enter the community, although they have since left. “She is generous about helping with whatever is needed,” Sister Celine said. “She’s a very good example to everybody.”

Growing up Kansan

Sister Angela was born Dorothy Irene Fitzpatrick in Emporia, Kan., about 90 minutes south of Paola, to Mike and Irene Fitzpatrick. She was the fifth of nine children, and had many of the classic middle child concerns. “I felt like I was not one of the ‘older’ ones or one of the ‘younger’ ones,” she said. “I remember thinking I was adopted because I just didn’t feel like I fit in. When I told my parents that, they laughed.”

“I tried to please my parents by taking care of the younger ones, cleaning, cooking, picking up, helping with the washing and ironing, and every Saturday, dusting furniture and vacuuming the floor registers,” Sister Angela said. “My sisters and I would come home from school and start preparing the evening supper by peeling the potatoes and making a salad. Mother would do the bulk of the work, but my sisters and I would clear the table and do the dishes. We asked our father why we didn’t have a dishwasher and he would say, ‘Why do we need one? We have you.’”

Sister Angela visits with a student at Bishop Ward High School in the office, 2003.

For fun, she and her siblings spent much time in the backyard swing, and in the summers she played tennis with a nearby friend after supper. “My sister and I took piano lessons for several years. I hated the recitals and feared performing in front of people,” Sister Angela said. “As it turned out, I took turns playing the organ for Benediction in the convent and went on to play the organ for Masses in most of the churches in which I was pastoral minister. I have my mother to thank for those early piano lessons, she paid for them by earning extra money babysitting and selling Christmas cards.” Four of her sisters and two of her brothers are still living, all in Kansas.

Her parents were hard workers, and going to PTA meetings was often their outing once a month, Sister Angela said. On some Sundays they would drive 10 miles south to Olpe so her dad could visit his sister and her mother could visit her siblings.

“My father worked as a railroad switchman and then became a (Kansas Turnpike Authority) toll collector,” Sister Angela said. “Mother was a full-time homemaker plus she earned extra money providing child care in our home, and did sewing and mending. She never learned how to drive a car.”

Sister Angela went to grade school at Sacred Heart School, which was staffed by Franciscan Sisters from Colorado Springs, Colo. “My favorite teacher was Sister Angelita, who taught me in 4th grade,” she said. “In 8th grade, I was chosen to crown Mary in the May procession. I guess the Franciscan Sisters also saw something in me.”

She attended Emporia High School her freshman year, but decided to consider Ursuline Academy in Paola as a sophomore. The visit there was the first time she met the Ursuline Sisters. “My parents and I drove to Paola to talk with the sisters. When I found out it was going to cost my parents money each month, which I knew they didn’t have, I decided I didn’t want to go to the Academy and I finished high school in Emporia.”

Before there was talk of merging the Paola and Mount Saint Joseph communities, Sister Angela, left, was already in a bonded community with Mount Saint Joseph Sister Rita Klarer, center, and Cleveland Ursuline Sister Gemma Stracka when the three ministered in the Kansas City area. The three are pictured with the Saint Angela Merici statue in the rotunda of the Paola Motherhouse in 2005.

Sister Angela began thinking about religious life during her primary grades. “I was in awe of the sisters,” she said. “As time went on and we would have vocation days at school, Mother suggested I write her cousins, Ursuline Sisters Dorothy and Lucille Sterbenz, and ask for vocation materials. This I did and Sister Dorothy sent me a nun doll and vocation material. I think they and many others thought I would follow in their footsteps.”

Answering the call

Despite her love for the Franciscan Sisters who taught her, joining them would mean going to Colorado, which was out of the question because of the distance her parents would have to travel to visit, Sister Angela said. “I guess it was my mother having cousins in this order that led me to enter the Ursulines,” she said.

She did not enter right out of high school, she attended a year of college at what is now Emporia State University. “I waited to create some distance between my friends from grade school and high school,” she said. “I didn’t broadcast that I was going to be a (sister) but it must have come through loud and clear because I never had a date in high school or college. I felt sure that God had other plans for me. When I did enter, I couldn’t believe that I had my own room, my own bed, own dresser and closet. I never had that at home.”

She entered as one of nine postulants in July 1965, and is the only one remaining. She became a novice in January 1966, making 2012 her 46th year as an Ursuline Sister. Mother Charles McGrath gave her the name Sister Angela Marie. “I felt honored to have the name of (Ursuline founder Saint Angela Merici) and strove to become more like her,” Sister Angela said. She was also glad to honor Sister Angelita, her Franciscan teacher.

“As it turned out, Angela was the baptismal name of Sister Dorothy Sterbenz (her mother’s cousin). She got my baptismal name and I got her’s,” Sister Angela said. “When we had the choice to return to our baptismal names, I did not want to cause any confusion by being another Sister Dorothy.”

Pioneer in parishes

Sister Angela’s first ministry was teaching first and second graders at St. James School in Bartlesville, Okla., (1969-70), and then an advanced fourth-grade class at Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park, Kan., (1970-71). She soon found herself wishing for a different ministry.

The late Sister Celine Leeker, left, and Sister Angela were friends for many years. Here they are working on embroidery in 2006.

“I felt like I was taking a job away from somebody who needed a job to teach,” she said. “There were so many needs in the parish I wanted to do.” Working in pastoral ministry then was something new for the Church and the Ursulines in Paola. “I felt like I was one of the first to pioneer that.”

The archbishop didn’t have any openings in the parish for a pastoral minister, so Sister Angela was told about an opening in the neighboring Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. During her interview, two priests asked what they needed to do to hire her, she said. They assured her superiors that she could live in the convent with the sisters who taught in the consolidated school.

She was hired as a pastoral associate at Holy Trinity Parish in Kansas City, Mo., in 1971-72, which was one of three parishes that combined to form Northeast Cooperative Services, a team ministry of sisters, priests and lay people.

“They needed someone to work with the poor, the elderly and in religious education. I chose the elderly,” Sister Angela said. “I felt drawn to work with the elderly.” She wrote a grant funded by Jackson County, Mo., that established Dial-A-Ride, door-to-door transportation for the elderly, and became its first director. “We had two cars and one van. It was kind of how I left my mark on Kansas City,” she said. Other services she provided for the elderly were Meals on Wheels, telephone reassurance, anointing of the sick Masses and first Friday Communion to shut-ins. She recruited and trained volunteers to carry on these ministries.

She served there from 1972-75, then moved on to become pastoral associate at Blessed Sacrament Parish, Kansas City, Kan., from 1975-78. “I did religious education, sacramental prep and marriage annulments. That’s what was needed,” she said. “I was just excited about anything I could do in the parish. I still find it exciting.”

She earned a master’s degree in parish ministry from the University of Loyola in Chicago in 1979, and later that year, she moved to Conception Junction, Mo., about an hour north of St. Joseph, to become pastoral associate at St. Columba Parish. The parish is next door to a Benedictine abbey.

“Once I got my master’s, Father Denis (Dougherty) asked if I could come there. It was the holy land for me – monks, sisters, these were people of faith in a farming community,” Sister Angela said. “I was so impressed with their deep faith and family values. They were such good people. “I was director of religious education, sacramental preparation to marriage preparation.”

Father Dougherty is now the pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Springfield, Mo., and said there are three words that describe Sister Angela: “Dedication, dedication and dedication.”

“She’s a wonderful person,” Father Dougherty said. “She’s well trained in theology, is hard working and a good liturgist too.”

The two met in Kansas City when Sister Angela started attending Mass at the same church as Father Dougherty. “After my first year at St. Columba, I asked Sister to come help out, but she said she would only come if there were another sister,” he said. “I found a Precious Blood Sister in Wichita who agreed to come.”

The two began the RCIA program at the parish soon after her arrival in 1979, which was earlier than many parishes, Father Dougherty said. “She did a great job.”

While she was serving in Conception Junction, five days before Christmas in 1983, Sister Angela’s father died at age 74. “My father’s legacy was to keep the faith and to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” Sister Angela said.

Sister Angela accepts a plaque and figurine from the Most Rev. Joseph Naumann, archbishop of the Diocese of Kansas City, during Mass on Nov. 22, 2009 at Sacred Heart Church in Mound City, Kan. The former Ursuline Sisters of Paola were honored with the Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne Award, for their contributions in the field of education in the Archdiocese for over 100 years, and their efforts in promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life.

After six years in Conception Junction, she moved to Leavenworth, Kan., in 1985, to be pastoral associate at Sacred Heart and St. Casimir parishes. After a year, she decided it was best to move on. “I did hospital visiting everywhere I served. I had a desire to earn my clinical pastoral education degree, to become a hospital chaplain.”

In 1986, she began her longest ministry, 10 years as pastoral associate at St. Gabriel Parish in Kansas City, Mo., where she was reunited with Father Dougherty. “I did a lot of parish ministry, religious education, liturgy, social work. I was involved in everything, it was my whole life,” she said. “I got involved in a ministerial alliance that built a Habitat for Humanity house.”

It was during her years at St. Gabriel that she met Sister Rita Klarer, an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph who served at neighboring St. Patrick Parish. “She was friends with Sister Gemma Stracka, an Ursuline Sister of Cleveland (who ministered at St. Robert Bellarmine in Blue Springs, Mo.). The three of us decided to meet every month,” Sister Angela said. “Rita has been such an inspiration. We went to Maple Mount in 2005 and I just fell in love with it. I thought they were the neatest sisters in the world.”

“When discussion of merging with Paola started, we decided we had already done it,” Sister Rita said, who now lives at the Motherhouse in Maple Mount.

“Sister Angela loves people. She loves the sick and the elderly, we share that in common,” Sister Rita said. “You have to love old people and be willing to listen to the same story 10 times to be good at that sort of ministry. She is a very caring person.” The two still talk every few weeks and email.

After a brief stay in motherhouse ministry, in January 1997 Sister Angela began her last ministry as a pastoral associate, at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Gladstone, Mo. “I did RCIA, marriage annulments, social ministries,” she said. “I knew we could build a Habitat house too. We raised $16,000 to start.” She left in 2000 about the time the project was beginning

Sister Angela signs the Book of the Company for the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, as Sister Elaine Burke, left, and Sister Michele Morek look on.

Back to school

In 2001, she began her five-year tenure as an administrative assistant at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan., a school with many low-income students that is a major rival of Bishop Miege High School, which the Ursulines founded. She was a receptionist, handled the monthly newsletter and was assistant finance director, learning how to do the books and payroll.

“I just feel comfortable in any setting where God puts me,” she said. “God gives me the grace.”

In 2006, Sister Angela met Sister Ann Landers when she worked with her for a year as a CSJ caregiver. Sister Angela was allowed to apply for her clinical pastoral education, and received her CPE the following year at St. Joseph Hospital so she could become a hospital chaplain.

“I was lucky enough to be hired by Hospice Care of Kansas (in 2008),” Sister Angela said. “I was a chaplain for a while, but when the census went down and they didn’t need three chaplains, they asked me to be bereavement coordinator. I feel comfortable being around the grieving and dying, and to help somebody else be at peace when someone is dying.”

Ursuline Sister Martina Rockers, who lives with Sister Angela, said her way of dealing with the grieving is one of Sister Angela’s greatest skills. “Her compassion for those who mourn the loss of a loved one is very special. She always has the right words to say.”

In February 2008, Sister Angela’s mother died just a month shy of her 95th birthday.

“My mother was such a big help when we changed the habit in 1967. She came to the convent in Paola and helped us sew modified habits from our old habits,” Sister Angela said. “She made suits, blazers and vests.”

Her mother taught her how to cook, clean, embroider and sew, Sister Angela said. “She instilled in us our Catholic faith, making sure we all went to church every Sunday.” Her mother also instilled in her to care for the elderly.

“An old man lived across the street and she let us clean his house,” Sister Angela said. “An old lady lived next door and we would help her sometimes. We would take them food when mother fixed a big batch of something.”

In 2010, in the midst of the economic downturn, Sister Angela’s position at Hospice was terminated, and because she was the most recent person hired, she lost her job. That’s when she reconnected with the Sisters of St. Joseph and became a CSJ caregiver again, with the understanding she would do so until she could find a job as a chaplain, Sister Ann said. “I hope she stays,” Sister Ann said. “She told me she thinks this is where God is telling her to be.”

Sister Angela and the late Sister Martina Rockers, right, were among the walkers in the “Blisters for Sisters” vocation awareness event May 1, 2010, in Kansas City, Kan.

Love for the arts

“I will go anywhere I can usher and get in free for cultural events,” Sister Angela said. “I usher at the Folly Theater and the Starlight Theatre,” both in Kansas City, Mo., the latter with Sister Martina. “I get to hear musical artists and to see Broadway plays performed which I would never have been able to had I not been an usher. I have been doing this for the last five years, maybe more. Time goes fast when you’re having fun.”

The highlight of 2011 for Sister Angela was getting to go on a Saint Angela Merici pilgrimage to Brescia, Italy, Oct. 17-24 with three sisters from Maple Mount and about 20 others affiliated with the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland. “When I was in Brescia, I felt so close to Saint Angela,” she said. “I lost my camera, but Angela was blinded on her trip to the Holy Land. She had to depend on seeing what you see with your heart and soul.”

Sister Ann Patrice Cecil was one of the sisters from Maple Mount who also made the trip, and got to spend her first extended amount of time with Sister Angela. “She has a deep love for Saint Angela,” Sister Ann Patrice said. “She looked forward to seeing the places Angela lived and grew up.”

Sister Martina and Sister Angela form the Ruah bonded community with Sister Mildred Katzer as a prayer companion in Richmond, Kan. Ruah means “breath of the spirit.” The two sisters worship daily at nearby St. Agnes parish, say morning and evening prayers together and each take an hour for perpetual adoration. They take turns cooking supper, or do it together, based on what Sister Angela buys at the grocery. She and Sister Martina watch the Kansas City Chiefs football games on TV, and try to attend a Kansas City Royals baseball game every season.

Sister Angela also volunteers at Literacy K.C. to tutor students in reading. She enjoys doing the daily crossword puzzle and the word jumble in the Kansas City Star newspaper with Janet Hyde, her client. “She’s made me a believer that I can do crosswords,” Hyde said. “It has greatly increased my brainpower, as well as my vocabulary.”

At times, Sister Angela volunteers on Sunday at KU Medical Center taking Communion to the patients. “I just want to serve wherever I am needed and can make a difference in people’s lives.”

By Dan Heckel