Sister Mary Ellen Backes, OSU: Bringing compassion to all she meets

Once a month on Wednesdays, parishioners go to Helping Hands, a homeless shelter, to serve food. On Aug. 19, Eileen Kuchar and Tom Gephart joined Sister Mary Ellen in serving smoked chicken, corn, slaw, and chips to 33 homeless people filing in to fill the beds for the night. Every third Tuesday of the month, parishioners go to Kumler United Methodist Church to serve food and offer hospitality.

“This is just a wonderful atmosphere, people are so down to earth, never disagreeable,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “We think Angela’s charism is steeped here.”

More than 50 percent of the parish lives beyond the boundaries, said Fr. Holinga, a diocesan priest who arrived as pastor in 2002. “People move away, but they come back to the church,” he said. “There’s a feeling of community here.”

Sister Mary Ellen stirs slaw as St. Joseph parishioner Tom Gephart prepares the corn prior to serving dinner to 33 people at the Helping Hands homeless shelter in Springfield.

Part of the community served at St. Joseph is the mentally ill, Fr. Holinga said. “When they come to the door, you try to meet them where they are,” Sister Mary Ellen said.

There are 750-800 families at St. Joseph, roughly 2,200 people, Fr. Holinga said. Probably 250-300 are involved in ministry. Among those are Ursuline Associate Karen Siciliano, and Devocelle, who is scheduled to make his initial associate commitment this fall. The two joined Sister Mary Ellen in the first class of the Spiritual Direction Institute at Maple Mount in 2004. “It helps me in all that I do around here,” Devocelle said.

Siciliano graduated from the lay ministry program in Springfield in 2003, and organized Mass coordinators, who make sure all the ministers and sacred vessels are in place for Mass.

Parishioners John and Grace Blankenberger are another connection to Mount Saint Joseph. They have lived in Springfield for 28 years after falling in love while students at Brescia College in the 1960s. Grace Blankenberger’s mother, Bernetia Tong, graduated from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in 1927, and John’s father was taught by Ursulines at St. Boniface Church in his native Evansville, Ind. They have six children, four of who graduated from Springfield College, which was run by the Ursuline Sisters.

Not all the ministries at St. Joseph are flourishing. St. Joseph School, first operated by the Ursulines in 1892, has about 130 students this year, and is struggling to stay open. But like other ministries, adversity is not an enemy at St. Joseph.

“People in ministry here don’t give up,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “If we have a program and no one comes, we keep doing it. I never get discouraged.”

Sister Mary Ellen holds a quilt made by Sister Amelia Stenger. The Ursuline Sisters of Belleville had several shawls that were worn by the sisters who taught in North Dakota, so to welcome the Belleville sisters following the 2005 merger with Mount Saint Joseph, Sister Amelia cut up the shawls and made each of the sisters a quilt.

The parishioners at St. Joseph will never give up on Sister Mary Ellen either, Siciliano said. When Sister Mary Ellen moved upstairs in the Sullivan House, a building on the church grounds used for potlucks and gatherings, parishioners helped her paint and move.

“Everyone loves Sister,” Siciliano said. “The people in this parish will do anything for Sister Mary Ellen.”

A daughter of the prairie

Jeanne Ellen Backes (pronounced “Bock-us”) was born in Minot, N.D., “where the sky and the earth touch. It’s beautiful,” she said. “My grandfather was from Ireland, when I went in 1996 to meet my grandpa’s niece, I was surprised how much it looked like North Dakota.”

She has an older brother, Norman, and two sisters, Patsy and her twin, Janet. She and Janet did everything together growing up. “Janet was the one they thought would become a nun, but she got married,” Sister Mary Ellen said.

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.