(Sister Marcella Schrant completed her ministry at St. John the Evangelist in November 2014, and moved to Maple Mount. She is now active in the Powerhouse of Prayer.)
Ursuline Sister Marcella Schrant got more than she bargained for in 2004 when, after 59 years as a sister, she accepted her first parish ministry at the tiny Holy Family Parish in Eudora, Kan. “I went there to visit the homebound and pray for the religious education, and ended up running it all,” she said.
There was no priest at the parish, which consisted of mostly small families. It was a blessing when she received a letter from the archbishop in 2007 saying, “I’m sending a priest,” but it also meant it was time for her to move on.
Sister Marcella turned 81 in June 2007, so no one could have blamed her if she’d decided to retire. Instead, she was quickly employed by Father John Schmeidler, who has served as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence, Kan., since 2004.
“Sister and I were at the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center together,” Father Schmeidler said. “I tried to hire her when I first came here. She is the best greeter. You will not find a more charitable person, whether it’s to someone on the phone, or people dropping in, she will make them feel special,” he said. “That spirit flows out into the rest of the staff.”
Sister Marcella is the first Ursuline Sister to minister at St. John the Evangelist, and clearly loves the ministry and her co-workers. The downtown parish is just a few blocks from the campus of the University of Kansas, and Sister Marcella lives next door to the church. “Years ago the sisters lived where I do now, and walked to campus to go to school,” she said. In 64 years of ministry, she has always been able to walk to work.
Sister Marcella Schrant is the office assistant, and is the first person visitors meet. She is responsible for recording all the baptisms and marriages, sending out certificates, sorting and delivering the mail, and taking care of Mass intentions. She proofreads the bulletins, and acts on Father Schmeidler’s behalf if he cannot pray the rosary with a family before a funeral, or if something official needs to be signed.
Sister Marcella was an Ursuline Sister of Paola, Kan., prior to the community’s merger with the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph in October 2008. She decided to stay in Kansas because she already had a ministry she enjoyed, and as she turns 85 this month, is unlikely to begin a new one.
“Father John is always so easy to talk to. I just feel like I have enough to still give in ministry,” Sister Marcella said. “It’s an energy that builds me up.”
Retirement is a taboo word with the staff that obviously enjoys Sister Marcella. “We are not letting her retire,” Father Schmeidler said with a grin. “If she retires, we’re coming with her,” said Lisa Roush, organist and music coordinator. In fact, Roush and Father Schmeidler made the nine-hour drive to Kentucky with Sister Marcella to the Mount Saint Joseph Picnic in September 2010.
“I’m happy for her to go to Maple Mount to visit, she loves it,” Father Schmeidler said. “Her sisterhood is part of her.” Having a sister on staff is a blessing to the congregation, he said.
“She’s lived the life so faithfully, it’s in her nature now,” he said. “People get to see her wonderful vocation. People are touched by her.”
Sister Marcella is often joined in her office by Roush’s dogs, Maddie, a white rat terrier, and Annie, a black mixed breed. “She spoils them, and makes them her own watchdogs,” Father Schmeidler said.
Sister Marcella has earned the nickname “the shredder” for her skill at recycling the office paper, and her efficiency in running the office has earned her another name. “We call her ‘the general,’” Roush said with a smile.
In her free time, Sister Marcella loves to do crossword puzzles and play cards. “The ladies at the Knights of Columbus Hall like to come out to play cards,” she said.
St. John, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009, has an extremely diverse congregation, with 1,200 families in the parish. “If you try to meet all the diversity, the needs are huge,” said Father Schmeidler, who is a Capuchin Franciscan. Most parishioners respond to Sister Marcella with great joy, he said.
“She has the ability to lighten up people. She has a deep faith that sparks it in other people.”
A daughter of the prairie
Sister Marcella grew up in Walker, Kan., a small Russian and German farming community in western Kansas best known for its airbase used during World War II. She was the fifth of seven children born to Henry and Katie Schrant, who were farmers. “We moved to Richmond in 1939, when I was in the 8th grade. I went to a one-room schoolhouse for a year,” Sister Marcella said. “We played ball on Sundays, we watched the adults play cards. I had to milk the cows before school.”
It was in Richmond, a small town about 35 miles southwest of Paola in eastern Kansas, that Sister Marcella first met the Ursuline Sisters. “The Ursulines came over on Saturday mornings to the church in Richmond to teach religion to the public school students,” she said. “I was 12. They also came two weeks in the summer.”
It was a vocation that led Sister Marcella to the Ursulines – but not a religious vocation. “When I was a senior in high school, my friend and I decided to be secretaries,” Sister Marcella said. “She had two aunts who were Ursulines, they recruited students to Ursuline College. They had a two-year college to teach secretarial skills.”
It didn’t take long for Sister Marcella to recognize her true vocation. “I was there one semester and I decided to enter the community. I guess it was the Lord’s doing,” she said. It was January 1945. “Five of us entered, I was the only one who stayed. They called me ‘the Rock.’ I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to go by myself.”
Her parents lived long lives, but never left Richmond. Her father, Henry, died in 1969 at age 84. “I don’t think my father liked farming. None of the boys went into farming,” she said. Her mother, Katie, died in 1991 at age 94. “She taught me how to cook and play cards,” Sister Marcella said, still two of her favorite pastimes. She only has one sibling left, her sister Virginia, who lives an hour away in Garnett.
A life in the classroom
The young sister who pretended to be a teacher when she was a child got her wish in October 1947. “They needed someone at Holy Name School (in Kansas City, Kan.),” she said. Her religious name then was Sister Mary James. “I had second grade in the afternoon, in the morning, I kept house. Sister Mildred Katzer (who now lives in Richmond) taught there in the morning. The following year, I had the first and second grades.”
It was the beginning of 43 years as an educator, with one of those years as a principal. All those years were spent at three schools in eastern Kansas. “I enjoyed Holy Name, I was there seven years,” she said. “There were five of us in the house. We didn’t have cars back then.”
In 1954, she went to St. Agnes School in Roeland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, and taught second grade. In ensuing years, she would teach the rest of the grades. “I taught religion to the fifth and sixth grades. Another principal wanted me to teach math, so I was asked to go to the junior high to teach seventh and eighth grade.”
Her favorite subject to teach was math, while the most difficult was teaching religion to five classes a day. “Two or three of the students I taught are now teachers,” she said.
She served as a teacher at St. Patrick/Holy Trinity in Paola from 1957-61, then returned to Holy Name from 1961-69, the last year as principal. “The second time at Holy Name, they started a nongraded school. It didn’t last very long,” she said. “The last year I was principal, I asked not to be principal anymore.”
Sister Rita Lavigne has known Sister Marcella since they taught together at Holy Name in 1961-62. “There were six sisters there, we had so much fun,” Sister Rita said. “There was much laughter and joy in the convent. She was a good teacher and a very good cook.”
Sister Rita is retired and volunteers in the archives office at the Motherhouse in Kentucky. She recalls Sister Marcella’s love of playing bridge, which she continues today. “I was just learning to play bridge, we had to draw straws to see who could play, because bridge is four-handed,” Sister Rita said. “She’s an excellent bridge player.”
In 1967, a young pastor arrived at Holy Name who would become a lifelong friend to Sister Marcella, Father Jerry Spencer.
“We just hit it off,” Father Spencer said. “I enjoyed meeting the Ursuline Sisters, they lived a block away from us and taught in the school. It was the first time I’d met the Ursulines, they had a good group at Paola. I’m good friends with all of them.”
Father Spencer remains as pastor at Holy Name Parish and chaplain at the University of Kansas Medical Center, where Sister Marcella was recognized for volunteering more than 1,000 hours of service. “Sister Marcella and I have shared a lot of good times and hard times together,” he said. “She’s very dedicated. She enjoys being a member of the Ursuline community. She throws herself wholeheartedly into whatever she does.”
Sister Marcella is remembered well by her former students, Father Spencer said. “She’s endeared by everyone who knows her. She’s a model religious, a living example of religious vocation,” he said. “She’s impacted and touched a lot of lives.”
In 1969, Sister Marcella went back to St. Agnes School as a teacher, and remained there until 1990, when she was surprised to be elected superior of the community. She described her four-year leadership term as “peaceful years,” and said she spent a lot of time visiting the elderly sisters in the infirmary.
Sister Kathleen Condry, who served as superior of the Ursulines of Paola until the 2008 merger and now ministers in Leawood, Kan., said Sister Marcella’s former students have very fond memories of their childhood days in her class.
“Often when someone learns that I am an Ursuline Sister, they begin telling me about ‘their nuns’ from the past. Sister James’/Sister Marcella’s name comes up over and over again,” Sister Kathleen said. “They remember all of the fun and creative strategies she employed in her teaching, how much joy there was in her classroom. They remember what she taught them about life and about how to be a good person. Most of all, they remember how much she loved them and they loved her.”
In May, Sister Kathleen met a family at an event in Kansas City and the man started talking about the sister who had the most impact on his life. “It was his fourth-grade teacher from St. Agnes Elementary School – and it turned out to be Sister Marcella,” Sister Kathleen said. “He said that he still remembers and quotes the things that she told them when he was 9 years old. His wife told me that she and the kids have been hearing about this Sister Marcella forever, and now they quote her also.”
While school was out during the summers, Sister Marcella took the opportunity to take on new challenges. For several years she worked at a camp the sisters ran outside Paola for girls 8 to 12.
“We had 100 girls the first year,” Sister Marcella said. “Sister Millie (Mildred Berdelle) was in charge. She said, ‘Mother Charles (McGrath, the superior) said you’d be a good one to teach boating.’ I said, ‘Millie, I’ve never been in a boat in my life.’ One of the counselors taught me how to teach boating.” For three years she worked at another camp to help boys and girls who needed help with reading.
She also used her love of cooking in the summers. “I spent a whole summer cooking for kids doing plays in Estes Park, Colo.,” she said. “Another summer, I was a cook in Denver, where sisters were training for different ministries.”
Father Spencer said getting to eat Sister Marcella’s cooking is among the many benefits of knowing her. “She whips up a mean fried chicken,” he said.
She also enjoys making jams and jellies, and was thrilled to have them for sale at the Mount Saint Joseph Picnic in 2010. “I started 10 years ago. I got into it and really liked it,” she said. She first started making the jams and jellies for the Ursuline Boutique in Paola, in which she also crocheted some items.
“She’s very community-minded,” Sister Rita said. “Someone gave her some fruit recently, and she was going to Paola to can it. She’s got endless energy. Anything she sees that needs to be done, she does it,” Sister Rita said. “She’s an all-around good person.”
A new mission
“As I got out of leadership (in 1994), I thought I was too old to teach,” Sister Marcella said. “I didn’t want to go back to the classroom.” She was 68 that year, when she began her 10-year ministry as a receptionist at the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center in Lawrence, on the campus of the University of Kansas.
“The college kids would just come chat away,” Sister Marcella said. “Quite a few are still in contact with me.” One student who remembers her fondly from those days is Roush, now her co-worker at St. John the Evangelist.
“She made it a safe place to land,” Roush said.
While in Lawrence, Sister Marcella returned to community leadership for a year in 2001, completing the final year of Sister Karen Klaffenbach’s term, after the young sister died of cancer.
After leaving Lawrence in 2004, she became the pastoral associate at Holy Family Parish in Eudora. It was her first parish ministry, at age 78.
“The priest came on the weekend and sometimes on Wednesday night,” she said. “I did a lot of communion services. The people hated to see me go.”
Although her ministry in Eudora turned out to be more work than she imagined, she never complained. Her attitude is one of her many positive traits, Sister Kathleen said.
“One of the many things I admire about Marcella is the way she enjoys life and intentionally plans ahead to include in her day the special, holy little moments that bring her joy,” Sister Kathleen said. “Crossword puzzles, naps, walks to the cemetery, flowers, time alone on the lawn chair with her iced tea and prayer book, bridge games, making jelly, good novels, visiting with friends and relatives – she truly loves life and makes sure that she doesn’t let it fly by without savoring and appreciating it.”
Among Sister Marcella’s many loves is traveling. “In 1974, I tutored math all year to save enough money to get a three-week Eurail pass to travel through Europe with Sister Kathleen Condry,” she said. “Kathleen wanted to go to France, I wanted to see Mont Saint-Michel, the little monastery (in Normandy) that was in a story book I had read to the children. I had taught a little boy from Germany, I got to visit his family.”
Sister Marcella is a great traveler because she doesn’t get upset when things go wrong, Sister Kathleen said. “We went to Europe together one summer with Eurail passes and absolutely no itinerary after we landed in Luxembourg,” Sister Kathleen said. “We would get on a train, read up on interesting places to go, and take off to see the sights. She was fine with it and she delighted in each adventure,” Sister Kathleen said.
“Our most memorable night was in Pontorson, France. We wanted to go out to the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, and we arrived in Pontorson where you get on the bus to go across the bay,” Sister Kathleen said. “It was too late in the day – no bus running until the next morning. There were no motels or convents in the little town, so we talked the director of the train depot into letting us sleep there. He actually gave us the key to the train station so we could go find supper, tour around the town and then let ourselves in to spend the night on the benches. Not one word of complaint came from Sister Marcella!”
Sister Marcella said Father Spencer has helped pay for many of her trips, but the two traveled together only once. “We were on a pilgrimage together in Guadalupe, Mexico,” Father Spencer said. “She knows I have special fondness for Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
Some of her other memorable trips were to the Holy Land in 1989, and two visits to Rome. “In 1991, the Ursulines of Rome invited all superiors to study Saint Angela for two weeks,” Sister Marcella said. “I got to go where Saint Angela was born.” In 1996, she and Sister Karen traveled to Rome with the St. Lawrence choir. “We sang in three to four churches, and at the Vatican,” she said.
“In 2000, my friend Maxine and I went to see the Passion play in Germany, they have it every 10 years,” Sister Marcella said. In December 2010, she went with Father Schmeidler to Monarch, Colo., where he took some teens from St. John parish skiing. “I didn’t ski,” Sister Marcella said with a smile.
Perhaps that’s her next adventure.
By Dan Heckel