50 years of tradition: Sisters at heart of St. Elizabeth home
JANESVILLE—Sister Denise has the deepest roots in Janesville.
Sister Faustina might have the most amazing story.
And Mother Mary Sarah, like the others, will go wherever God wants her to serve others.
In full white habits and black veils, the sisters of St. Elizabeth Nursing Home stand out in a crowd because of their traditional dress.
“It's a recognizable sign of who we are,” Mother Mary Sarah said proudly, “like police officers who wear uniforms.”
Those familiar with St. Elizabeth will recognize the sisters as the enduring heart of the home in Janesville's historic district.
Earlier this summer, St. Elizabeth's celebrated its 50th year.
The home has come a long way since Helen Jeffris Wood transferred the 1906 house at the corner of Atwood and St. Lawrence avenues to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison in 1955.
The next year, the diocese opened a home for older women.
At the time, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent De Paul took care of the house and its residents. But the number of people in the house grew, and the home eventually became full.
In 1967, a skilled nursing facility was built around the original home, which is a convent today.
A few years later, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, took over ownership of the home.
SISTERS REMAIN COMMITTED
One thing has remained steadfast through the years: The sisters are devoted to serving others.
Mother Mary Sarah and Sisters Faustina and Denise of the Sisters of Charity care for the aging and the sick.
But their work is not a career.
Instead, it is their living response to the words of Jesus:
“Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”
In the 1960s, nine sisters lived in the convent.
Today, the number has dwindled to three.
“Religious life flourished more in the 1960s,” Mother Mary Sarah explained.
She lived at the order's Mother House in Baltic, Connecticut, most of her life until September 2015, when she was transferred to St. Elizabeth.
“Change is never easy,” she said. “But I see it as God's will.”
On many days, she helps at the reception desk, takes residents to appointments or shops for supplies.
Mother Mary Sarah, 53, entered the convent at age 30 after searching for a more meaningful life.
“Everyone has something God wants them to do,” she said. “I wanted a life in service to God. It's a vocation, not a job.”
Sister Denise has lived at the Janesville convent since 1966, before the current home opened.
Now 80, Sister Denise retired as a nurse in her 70s.
“I try to help people when they are dying to meet our Lord,” Sister Denise said. “I hope to help them get to heaven.”
She became a sister in 1959 “to serve our Lord,” she explained.
Today, she does mending for the residents and employees and makes stuffed animals to give to residents on special occasions.
'A HOME, NOT A FACILITY'
Sister Faustina is the nursing home's administrator. She came to Janesville in 2007 and spent two years at St. Elizabeth Manor in Footville.
She said her job is “to oversee everything.”
“I try to make sure the residents get the best care, and I try to make sure the staff has what it needs,” Sister Faustina said. "It's a huge responsibility. Will it be perfect? No, but I learn as I go."
St. Elizabeth home has room for 43 residents, both men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic.
Sister Faustina referred to them as "our treasures."
"What a gift to be asked to look out for them," she said.
The home employs 75 full- and part-time people and others as needed.
Sister Faustina called the employees committed and said they all share in the heart of St. Elizabeth.
"Our staff is amazing,” she said. “I have the privilege of helping them meet the needs of our residents."
In her youth, the 36-year-old sister was Lutheran.
After attending Mass, “something inside said I am supposed to be Catholic,” Sister Faustina said.
She joined the Catholic Church as a senior in high school in 1999.
Later, she considered the religious life and visited the sisters of St. Elizabeth Home in Janesville to learn about the Sisters of Charity. She also visited the Mother House in Baltic.
The visits were life changing.
“I enjoyed the simplicity and joyful spirit of the sisters,” she said. “I felt at home. It didn't matter what I was doing. I knew this was my home on Earth. I trust this is God's will for me.”
In addition to her work at the nursing home, Sister Faustina and the other nuns pray often at Mass, during morning and evening prayers and privately.
Sister Faustina gets strength from the other sisters.
“When there's a need, your sisters are nearby,” she said. “Your family is there to support you.”
Sister Faustina said the community loves St. Elizabeth.
“Some send money,” she explained. “Some volunteer. Others ask us what we need. They want to see this home continue. They have had loved ones here or know someone who has.”
Sister Faustina said she would not trade her life for anything.
“We are blessed to help guide our residents,” Sister Faustina said. “We are a family, not a facility, at St. Elizabeth.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.