In her 65 years as a Franciscan Sister of St. Mary, Sister Connie Fahey has been a lab technician, a hospital and hospice administrator, and a spiritual guide.
She helped establish a school of medical technology, a transitional home for homeless women and children, and a parish nurse program. She has served women religious in Zambia, St. Louis and in many, many Catholic parishes.
But that’s just a listing of jobs. More than anything else, Fahey has provided presence. She was there—wherever “there” was—in body, mind and spirit.
On Sept. 8, Janesville’s Catholic community and Fahey’s friends across denominations will celebrate her retirement with a concert. The event is a fundraiser for the Academy of Performing Arts and After School Programs at All Saints Anglican Church in the Fourth Ward.
Fahey, 83, grew up surrounded by religious women.
The oldest of 12 children, Fahey and her family lived in a large house across from St. James Catholic Church and School in Madison, where she was taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
She ended up skipping a lot of school because, as the oldest child, she had to care for her younger siblings. The sisters offered to tutor her.
“I’d often be sitting on the sisters’ back porch getting caught up on schoolwork,” Fahey said. “I wanted to take music lessons, and one of the sisters there, Sister Mary Loyola, gave me free music lessons. I had no idea that when I was taking music lessons that it would be a lifelong avocation.”
She attended Edgewood High School, where she was taught by the Dominicans. After high school, she worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, which was run by the Sisters of St. Mary, a St. Louis order that established several hospitals.
Fahey liked the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
“They were good to me; they mothered me,” Fahey said. “My mother was busy having babies—she had her hands full.”
One wintry day in January 1954, Sister Mary Elise, Fahey’s supervisor at the hospital, died in a car accident while driving back to Madison from Marquette University, where a group of nuns were pursuing nursing degrees.
“I was just devastated,” Fahey recalled. “So I went down to the hospital for the services, and the sisters from St. Louis were there. And one of them walked up to me and handed me an application and said, ‘How about entering? March 1 is the entrance day.’”
She went home and told her mother. Her mother, who had delivered all her children at St. Mary’s, loved the nuns and was OK with the idea. Fahey thought, “Why not?”
“Oh, but the School Sisters were mad at me,” Fahey said with a laugh.
She admitted that the convent provided an escape from the daily responsibilities of being the oldest child in a family of 12.
“The day you enter religious life is the day you leave the world behind you,” Fahey said.
The first thing the sisters did was send her to St. Louis University to earn a bachelor’s degree in medical technology. It was an opportunity she wouldn’t have gotten if she had stayed at home.
Fahey eventually earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate.
Then came the jobs. The list that begins this story is just a partial one.
Fahey came to Janesville in 2010. Here, she works as a spiritual director, raises money for African missions, sits on committees at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital and serves local churches. She also volunteers as an organist at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and All Saints Anglican Church.
Which ministry does she like best?
“That’s a real hard question for me,” Fahey said. “Each one had its own gift. If I had not done it, I wouldn’t have received those gifts.”
She wants to keep helping people as a spiritual director. She describes the work as “being a companion with someone in their search for God.”
“As a Franciscan, I believe that God is love,” she said. “And no matter what happens, you’re still the image and likeness of God, who created you.”
Guiding people in their search for God requires “presence,” which means being with a person in body, mind and spirit. Fahey describes it as allowing the other person to be his or her “full self.”
Here’s the easiest way to describe it: When a reporter interviews someone, the reporter does all the listening and tries to understand what the speaker says.
When a reporter interviews Fahey, that kind of listening seems to go both ways. As the conversation goes on, it produces a kind of tranquility that endures even after the interview is over.
Presence is central to Franciscan spirituality, Fahey said.
She said she doesn’t have any particular plans for her “retirement.” But she imagines she will find some way to serve.
All she needs to do is be present.