Ursuline Sister Mary Ellen Backes was raised by her grandparents after she lost both her parents in a car accident when she was 14 years old. Another person who helped “raise” her was Fr. Blaine Cook, the administrator of Bishop Ryan High School in her native Minot, N.D.
“He was like a dad, he really took us in,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “Fr. Cook always asked us to be kind to people. I took him so seriously, I always wanted to be generous.”
Listening to the people Sister Mary Ellen serves with in Springfield, Ill., it’s apparent she has succeeded.
“Sister is the most compassionate person I’ve ever met,” said Larry Devocelle, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Springfield, where Sister Mary Ellen is pastoral assistant. “She is so considerate of other people. She always seems to have the appropriate words for those in need.”
“Sister Mary Ellen brings a lot of vitality, life, interest, and knowledge,” said Fr. Tom Holinga, pastor at St. Joseph. “She’s a great personality to work with.”
Sister Mary Ellen came to Springfield in 1995, after completing six years as general superior of the Ursuline Sisters of Belleville, Ill., prior to the merger of that community with Mount Saint Joseph in 2005.
She was at an Ursuline convention in Cleveland and told some of the sisters from the Illinois area, “Someone with a sense of humor needs to give me a job.” She was told about the opening at St. Joseph, and was hired by Fr. Pat Render, a Viatorian priest. The Viatorians served at St. Joseph from 1930 until 2002, and Sister Mary Ellen feels a special kinship with the order, both for their long commitment to education and the fact that Saint Viator’s feast day is Oct. 21 – the same as Saint Ursula, and Sister Mary Ellen’s birthday.
Fr. Render’s first goal was to unite the sacramental preparation for the students at St. Joseph Catholic School, and the parish children in public school. “We started having family retreats, to get the whole family involved in faith development,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
In those early days, Sister Mary Ellen said she was “bent out of shape” making sure the sacramental programs were run correctly. Now she says she’s been doing it so long, she can put it into the hands of the families to run, and concentrate on other areas of ministry.
“But you never do the same program twice, you always work hard,” Fr. Holinga said to her.
Over the years, Sister Mary Ellen has been involved in efforts such as “Generations of Faith;” creating small church communities to share faith; “Just Faith,” which teaches the social teachings of the church and urges more activity in social justice; and “Why Catholic?” a study of the catechism done during Advent and Lent.
Ursuline Sisters first came to Springfield in 1855, but Sister Mary Ellen was the first Ursuline Sister of Belleville to minister there, about two hours north of Belleville. St. Joseph Church is built in the round, in northern Springfield, an older part of town with a diverse community. It’s within walking distance of Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Abraham Lincoln is buried.
The Ursulines of the Roman Union lived in a convent across the street, and Sister Mary Ellen lived there for 10 years, until 2005. One of the sisters she lived with was Sister Brendan Jacoby, who now directs the RCIA process at St. Joseph.
“You don’t find any better than Mary Ellen,” Sister Brendan said. “There’s a great diversity of people at St. Joseph. There’s a real concern for the poor and homeless thanks to Mary Ellen and Father.”