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

In 1989, she was asked to consider becoming superior for the Belleville Ursulines. The sisters had broken free from the German Ursuline Sisters of Mount Calvary, and became the Ursuline Sisters of Belleville in 1983, with Sister Dorothy, her former teacher, serving as superior since 1975.

“There were so many challenges, and there were only 16-17 sisters,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “I woke up every morning and asked God to help me.”

After completing her term in 1995, she got her job in Springfield, but the winds of change were continuing to blow as the number of Belleville Ursulines continued to dwindle. Informal talks about merger began in the ‘90s, and more official ways of collaborating occurred in 2000.

In 2002, Sisters Mary Ellen and Frances, both on the council in Belleville, took a retreat to Maple Mount. They went into separate rooms at the Guest House with their Bibles to pray for the scripture to guide them on their next step. When they got back together, they were amazed to learn they’d each chosen the same scripture, the Gospel account of the Transfiguration of the Lord. (Matthew 17:1-8)

Sister Mary Ellen holds Monsy, Fr. Tom Holinga’s dog, in the lobby of the church office. One of Sister Mary Ellen’s hobbies is walking Monsy.

“We knew that was a sign that we needed to do something,” Sister Mary Ellen said. That spurred the Belleville community to write a letter asking if their three elderly sisters could move to the new Saint Joseph Villa infirmary. Soon after, the sisters arrived.

Traces of the Mount

In her free time, Sister Mary Ellen likes to knit, read, or go out with her friends. She also plays the 12-string guitar. Her other passion is walking Fr. Holinga’s dog, Monsy, which is short for “Monsignor,” a title Fr. Holinga has earned, but doesn’t choose to use.

Although she’s never lived at Maple Mount, her apartment has several reminders of Kentucky. Her daily coffee is poured in a Brescia University mug (the college the Ursulines founded and still minister at), and a multi-colored quilt nearby was made by Sister Amelia Stenger out of shawls the sisters from North Dakota once wore.

Sister Mary Ellen is two hours from the nearest Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, but visits monthly with the sisters in Illinois for prayer and sharing. She has never ministered outside Illinois, but she knows that day will come.

“I know when the time comes, God will give me the direction to redirect my ministry to minister with Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines,” she said. “It’s about living the charism, sharing the charism.”

By Dan Heckel