Loretta Hopgood slowly drove down the alley behind a strip mall, looking for opportunities to clean up. She passed several overflowing dumpsters, several with old tires and debris scattered next to them.
"We had homeless people living up here," she said, pointing to a covered platform on the back of the building. "And we've got tires over there. See, this is getting piled up."
A resident of Spanish Lake for two decades, 80-year-old Hopgood — "Hoppy," as her friends call her, — has made it her mission to help upkeep the neighborhood. She is a volunteer with the Spanish Lake Community Association, and works with other community organizations, such as the Spanish Lake Community Development Center.
Hopgood said her energy comes from a desire to care for others, in the charism of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. This year, the 80-year-old celebrated her 40th anniversary as a lay associate of the religious order. She was among the first group to become an associate in St. Louis, and is the longest covenanted associate in North America.
The SSND associate program is open to lay men and women who desire to live the charism of the sisters. Founded in Bavaria in 1833, the sisters came to St. Louis in 1895 to expand their mission in education. Today, that charism of educating others has expanded beyond the classroom, through working in their communities, prison ministry, with immigrants and in health care, for example. Associates yearly renew their covenant to live their lives in the spirit of the sisters' charism.
Hopgood sees her work in Spanish Lake as part of that education charism. As part of her work with the Spanish Lake Community Association, she and others help residents clean up properties to avoid citations or condemnation; work frequently with police and fire officials to develop relationships and address issues in the area; and take elderly and ill residents to medical appointments or help with other needs.
Hopgood's caring nature comes from a long career in nursing. Born in Du Quoin, Ill., Hopgood was raised in the Baptist faith and later went to nursing school, eventually working at hospitals across Illinois and in New Jersey. She later went back to school to become a certified pediatric nurse practitioner.
Hopgood worked at HSHS St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital in Effingham, Ill., where she cared for some of the SSNDs. "That's when all the conversion started, I think," she said. "They would come in the hospital. I knew they liked milkshakes, and I kind of liked them because they were really nice people to talk to. They would listen to you." Later when she worked for the health department, Hopgood became a nurse in SSND-operated schools.
The School Sisters became like family to her, especially after losing both of her parents at a young age. Hopgood was 11 when her father died in a car accident, and in her 30s when her mother passed away. Moved by the relationships she developed with the sisters, Hopgood entered the Catholic Church in 1967, and 10 years later became an SSND associate, when the program was introduced in St. Louis.
"It was gradual — I talked to the Notre Dames a lot," she said. "At that time, they didn't have an associate program. When they'd go away in the summer, I'd mow their lawn for them and take in the mail, keep the house clean. If they had projects at school, I would help with those, too. I really got to know them better and you could talk with such ease with them. They made you feel like you were somebody."
In addition to her work in the community, Hopgood is an accomplished athlete in the Senior Olympics, competing in track and field events, softball, football, and washers. She has an impressive collection of medals hanging from the rafters in her basement.
Hopgood maintains a positive attitude, with a never give up spirit. "My motto is that I know something can be done — I always say, 'don't tell me it can't be done, because I can do it.'"
The School Sisters of Notre Dame is a community dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others. Their ministry is focused on education as well as serving as parish ministers, social workers, health care providers and spiritual leaders. The concerns of women, youth and the materially poor are a primary focus. To learn more about becoming a School Sister of Notre Dame, visit www.ssnd.org/become-sister.
The SSND Associate Program is open to any woman or man, 21 years of age or older, who wishes to share with the School Sisters of Notre Dame in faith, prayer and spiritual growth. An associate has a desire to live the spirit of SSND and to further the community's mission of proclaiming the good news by directing her/his life toward the oneness for which Jesus Christ was sent. To learn more, visit www.ssnd.org/partner-us/associate.