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

“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.

“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 be superior of the Belleville Ursulines 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.

She joined the Ursulines right out of high school in 1962, even though the motherhouse was 1,000 miles away in Belleville. 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.

St. Joseph parishioners Grace and John Blankenberger provide another Kentucky connection for Sister Mary Ellen. The Blankenbergers met while they were students at Brescia University, and Grace’s mother is a graduate of Mount Saint Joseph Academy.

When she entered, the community was at its peak with 73 sisters, during the cutting edge of Vatican II. “We studied our history, and got to know Angela,” 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.

On a mission

Her first mission was teaching fifth grade at Holy Childhood of Jesus in Mascoutah, Ill., during her postulant year of 1967-68. After three years as a student at Minot State College, she returned to Mascoutah to teach from 1971-80. Mascoutah was a small community of Germans not far from Belleville, solid people, but not as open as those in Springfield, she said. She worked with a wonderful faculty there, and some of her students stayed in touch.

Years later, when she was struggling with her sacramental work in the early days at St. Joseph, she got a letter from a former student in Mascoutah, Annie Flanagan. “She wanted to tell me how much I’d touched her life,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “It made me feel so good.”

Another teacher with her during her days in Mascoutah was Sister Frances McDonagh, now retired to the Motherhouse at Maple Mount.

“We have a lot in common, although there is 20 years difference in our ages,” Sister Frances said. She appreciates Sister Mary Ellen’s sincerity and honesty. “She tells it like it is. You know where you stand with her,” Sister Frances said. “She’ll go out of her way to help somebody. She puts herself last, so she can think about others.”

In 1980, Sister Mary Ellen left Mascoutah to work on a master’s degree in theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Benedictine monks run the school, but with a dearth of women on campus, they often pleaded with Sister Mary Ellen to accompany them to country and western dancing in nearby St. Cloud, she said. She was always too devoted to her studies, but one night she agreed, and she stayed out all night dancing with the monks.

It was during her time at St. John’s that she realized she’d never properly grieved for her parents, and she thought perhaps she should leave the convent. But Mike Egan, a psychologist at St. John’s, told her she was OK. That was the last time she ever considered leaving.

“I’ve always been happy,” Sister Mary Ellen said. Some good advice she got during those days was, “Kiss pain right on the lips,” or in other words, meet it head on and get through it.

In 1982, she moved to Caseyville, Ill., to become director of religious education at St. Stephen Parish, handling RCIA and sacramental programs.

“That was just when RCIA was starting,” she said. She enjoys parish ministry more than teaching. “There’s more interacting with the people. Now I’d like to work with families more.”