Some Lessons I’ve Learn while on the Road

As most of you know, part of my ministry consists in giving talks and retreats all over the country. Along the way, I’ve learned many things. I’d like to share a few of those lessons with you today.

Ruma, Illinois: I gave a retreat here for a group of Sisters called the Adorers of the Precious Blood. In 1992, five of their Sisters were killed in Nigeria during a violent civil war. It is believed that two Sisters were killed in the crossfire between warring factions. Shortly after, men armed with rifles broke into the Sisters’ compound and shot and killed the other three. While in Ruma I read their stories, I talked with Sisters who knew them well, and I prayed at their graves. On the property there’s a beautiful statue of these five “martyrs of charity” as Pope John Paul II called them. It depicts five women standing in a circle facing outward. Their arms are raised high, their hands clasped, and their beaming faces look upward. In one sense, these five Sisters were ordinary women from Midwest America. Several were raised on small farms in Illinois. Their violent deaths while serving people in need reminded me: sometimes ordinary people end up doing extraordinary things.

ruma statue

The statue in Ruma of the “five martyrs of charity.”

Cleveland, Ohio: A number of years ago I gave a talk to 300 lay women, all active in the church. In my talk I referred to Sister Mary Cleophas, one of our Sisters who had taught math at Notre Dame College in Cleveland for decades and spent her later years collecting food for the poor. After my talk, six women, ranging in age from about 35 to 60, came up to me individually to tell me they had all been taught by Sister and how much they remembered and loved her. Lesson: never underestimate the profound influence of a single, good person.

Mary cornhusk

Mary emerging from corn husks in Nebraska.

Schuyler, Nebraska: St. Benedict Center is situated in the heart of the prairie, a two hour drive from Omaha. It is surrounded by rolling green hills as far as the eye can see. The retreat center, one of the prettiest ones I’ve ever seen, is filled with beautiful art work that inspires prayer and meditation. One of my favorite pieces is the statue of Mary outside in the garden. Called “Mary: Fruit of the New Creation,” it depicts Mary rising out of corn husks! The artist (John Laiba of Omaha) gave this explanation: “the husks, symbolizing what is old, fall away, and the new creation comes into being.” It’s a unique and fitting image of Mary in the cornhusker state!

Salt Lake City, Utah: While giving a Saturday retreat at a local parish, I learned that their RCIA program had 54 candidates! I was amazed at the number of people coming into the church that year.

Fort Worth, Texas: Before going to Texas to give a weekend retreat, I received a phone call from a former student of mine originally from Ohio who was now living in Texas. In her church bulletin she saw I was coming to town, so she contacted the retreat center and made arrangements to pick me up at the airport so we could have some time together before the retreat began. Small world!

St. Louis, Missouri: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s motherhouse (close to the Mississippi River) was built in 1836. The original wing has been in continuous use for over 177 years! Lesson learned: Nuns tend to be “good stewards” of their buildings and property!

Immaculata, Pennsylvania: I addressed the Immaculate Heart Sisters in a large auditorium. Over 500 Sisters were present. My talk was transmitted live to their health care center across the road where 180 Sisters watched on several TV’s. At the same time the talk was “live streamed” to their Sisters in Chile and Peru. After I spoke, there was time for questions and feedback. One of the first

In Fort Worth with my former student Chris Madachy Keil.

In Fort Worth with my former student Chris Madachy Keil.

responses came from a Sister in Peru. Lesson: Oh, the marvels of modern technology!

San Francisco, California: While giving a retreat to principals several years ago, I met Sister Suzanne Toolan, the composer of many religious songs including “I Am the Bread of Life.” Now in her 80’s, Sister told me the story of how she wrote that particular song. In 1966 she was commissioned to write a song for the

Sister Suzanne Toolan

Sister Suzanne Toolan

diocese. She worked on it for days in a small music room in their high school. Eventually she got so frustrated with the song, she tore up the papers, threw them into the waste basket and stomped out of the room. A student was sitting in the hall outside the room. She asked Sister, “What was that song you were playing? I really liked it!” Sister humbly went back into the music room, retrieved the torn papers, and (as they say) the rest is history! “I am the Bread of Life” has been translated into over 20 languages. It can be found in hymnals used by Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists. The lesson: Sometimes when we get discouraged, God sends “an angel” to give us strength!

Do any of these stories resonate with your experience?

What are some lessons you’ve learned “along the road called life”?

PS: One of my readers, Jeanie from Michigan, sent me this photo of sunflowers. She wrote: “This happens every year outside the Ford Motor Company Headquarters in Dearborn where I currently live.” Thanks, Jeanie, for sharing this picture with all of us!

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  1. Kathleen Magiera on September 8, 2014 at 5:30 am

    Wonderful God sightings!

    I like Mary rising out of the corn husks. I live in small rural community with plenty of fresh corn at the farmers’ market right now. What a great image of Mary.

    Thanks for sharing.


  2. Carol Ann Petersen, OSB on September 8, 2014 at 9:15 am

    St. Benedict says, “Listen with the ear of your heart.” I think you do that, Melannie, and also with your eyes wide open! You are a blessing to many of us each Monday morning.

  3. mary james on September 8, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Another wonderful meditation. The statue of the 5 sister is very moving.
    In case you find your way to Avon lake and use I-90 you will see a live
    sunflower display like the one in your picture( from Dearborn)–in memory of a little girl
    who died of cancer.

  4. Karen on September 8, 2014 at 10:00 am

    I don’t get to travel as often as I would like to, so I always love to hear of other’s adventures and especially their insights and strongest impressions. Thanks Sr. Melannie.

  5. Mary Schneider on September 8, 2014 at 10:22 am

    I loved all of the remembrances of each retreat, and your travels around this country. I was quite surprised to see that you went to Salt Lake City, Utah. The only year I ever had the opportunity for a Catholic education was my last year of high school, in that city. Coming from mountainous, rural Nevada, that was a big trip for me. I graduated from St. Mary-of-the-Wasatch as a boarding student. There was also a college in our school, and a school of nursing. None of these are there any more.

  6. Rita on September 8, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Melanie – I love these reflections. Several years ago, I made a retreat you gave at Cape May Point at the retreat house of the Sisters of St. Joseph. I think often of the things that you said – but especially a way you spoke of your illness and said “God is with me in this. God is in me with this.” That has been very helpful to me in my life since that time. You also introduced me to a write whose name I cannot remember at the moment – she is a poet and writes of biblical stories and person – I believe her first name is Irene. I love and use her poetry often. Thank you. I am off to retreat today at that very same place. Blessings, Rita

  7. Kathi Szott on September 8, 2014 at 10:45 am

    I’m burying my precious Mom today. Thank you for your many inspirations that have helped me along the way. You are one of my blessings!

    • Cathy Baier on September 8, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      You will be in my thoughts and prayers today. Remember that God is close to the brokenhearted (Ps 34:19)

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm

      My readers and I are holding you and your family in special prayer…Our faith tells us your “precious Mom” has gone on ahead of you and you will be reunited with her for all eternity…Melannie

    • Josita on September 8, 2014 at 1:46 pm

      Always remember, Kathi,
      ” They whom we love and lose are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.” St. John Chrysostom
      My prayers are with you. Josita

    • Kathi Szott on September 9, 2014 at 5:55 pm

      Thank you all, so much. I was feeling down today, then read your kind words. God sent you as angels to lift my spirits and give me strength. I likewise will hold you all in prayer.

  8. Josita on September 8, 2014 at 10:50 am

    I loved all of your experiences and the lessons(very simple and practical). I especially am impressed with the beautiful statue of the 5 martyrs.
    The story reminded me of 5 of our sisters who were martyred by the Serbian Chetniks and thrown into the Drina River in Bosnia in 1941. They are honored as the “Drina Martyrs” and have been beatified in 2012.
    We are hoping for canonization soon.

  9. Dorothy on September 8, 2014 at 11:43 am

    We never know God’s plan for us. We must just Trust Him always & good will come with Divine guidance.

  10. florence on September 8, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    I wrote down your quote , God is with me in this God is in me with this. I will remember that as I know that it will help me. Sure wish you would do a retreat in my area. Thanks.

  11. Cathy on September 8, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    I loved seeing the photo and hearing the story about Sister Suzanne Toolan. When we sing her song during Communion, my soul is filled with gratitude to Our Lord and now it will include gratitude to her. What a gift she has given us!

  12. Ellen on September 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    I will be attending a women-only retreat this Saturday 9/13 at Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, Ohio.
    I so enjoy retreats and hope to attend one that you lead in the area. Keep us posted of your schedule. Thank you for your inspiring words!

  13. Jeanie on September 9, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    Sounds like you continue to live with your eyes and ears and heart wide open, and present to your moments, Sr. Melannie! Thanks for the reminder and inspiration to do likewise. Glad you liked and used the picture! 🙂

  14. Sr.Maggie Moore SSJ on September 11, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Sister Maggie,SSJ

  15. Sr.Maureen on September 12, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Melannie, your stories are beautiful and inspiring. I so love the one of the 5 sisters. We do not know how blessed we are day to day. So many living saints among us.

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