|Update: Sister Mary Shelia Higdon completed her ministry in Missouri in 2011. She spent a year as coordinator of formation for the Ursuline Sisters, and since 2012 she has served at the Motherhouse in transportation, as an information receptionist, chapel hospitality minister and substitute sacristan.|
Perhaps it’s fitting that a sister who everyone refers to as “creative” should minister in the heart of the Ozarks, where the beauty of nature is the greatest attraction.
“In the fall, this place is just glorious,” said Sister Mary Sheila Higdon, who ministers to three parishes in the tourist area around Van Buren, Mo. “I can’t believe how beautiful it is.”
Sister Mary Sheila is a native of Owensboro, Ky., but she has found her home in southeastern Missouri. She has ministered there for the past 14 years, 11 of those in the mist of the Current River amid the Mark Twain National Forest.
“This area attracts me so, the beauty of the area, it does something for my soul,” she said. “I feel peaceful here. There are a variety of people. I have so many friends here.”
Sister Mary Sheila’s schedule sounds anything but peaceful. Now in her 62nd year as an Ursuline, Sister Mary Sheila is the lone staff member of St. George Parish in Van Buren, a town of about 850 people. A couple of times a week she drives 35 miles along constantly winding roads to Piedmont to minister to the people of St. Catherine Parish. On the weekends she travels to tiny Williamsville to offer her ministry to the nine parishioners of Our Lady of Sorrows Church. “It’s in danger of closing,” she said.
“St. George is a mission church of St. Catherine, there’s no pastor here,” said Sister Mary Sheila, whose office in Van Buren doubles as her home. “I’m pastoral associate. The pastor, Fr. Mark Binder, comes on Wednesdays and Sundays for Mass.” There are 35 families at St. George, 72 at St. Catherine.
Fr. Binder has been the pastor for four years at the three churches, and calls Sister Mary Sheila “a vital part of keeping the parishes going.
“There’s a gift she’s giving that goes beyond the call of duty,” he said. “She very strongly represents the church. She very specially watches out for the needs of the people there.”
Sister Mary Sheila has a beautiful liturgical sense of the church, and is very strong with adult education and RCIA, Fr. Binder said.
“All the people coming into the church this Easter were from Van Buren, she was very instrumental in that,” he said.
With two mission churches, Fr. Binder said it’s essential that he have someone like Sister Mary Sheila to count on.
“We have that trust relationship, the two of us doing the work of the church,” he said. “It’s neat to have someone who is very concerned about the church and very alive in her faith.”
Sister Mary Sheila can likely quote the Sunday liturgy verbatim — she attends that Mass four times every week. On Saturday night she attends Mass at St. Catherine in Piedmont at 4:30 p.m., then drives 22 miles to Williamsville for 6:30 p.m. Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows. On Sunday morning, she coordinates parish high school religion at St. George in Van Buren, where Mass is at 8 a.m. Then she drives 45 minutes to St. Catherine for Mass at 11 a.m., and does religious education. “Weekends are really busy,” she said.
There’s an ebb and flow to the number of people to whom she ministers. “The churches fill up in tourist season during the summer at St. George and Williamsville,” Sister Mary Sheila said. The Current River and nearby Big Springs are a tourist attraction.
“When I have the time, I’ll drive out to the Springs and sit awhile,” she said.
The beauty of the area does not mask the hard times the residents have. Van Buren is in Carter County, the third poorest county in Missouri, where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty level. With the downturn in the economy and fewer people traveling for recreation, Van Buren, Piedmont, and Williamsville have struggled.
That has made Sister Mary Sheila even more steadfast in serving the needs of parishioners.