More than 100 Sisters of St. Joseph live on the campus of Nazareth Living Center, and “every one of them does something to be of assistance to their dear neighbor,” said Angie Vorholt director of spiritual care at the community for older adults offering a continuum of care. “They do everything they can to make their residents feel loved, appreciated and not isolated,” Vorholt said. “They don’t know what it means to retire. They keep going and going. The spirit of St. Joseph is alive in every one of the sisters who live here.”
Sister Pauline Oetgen, CSJ, came to Nazareth Living Center in May of 2019 after serving for 75 years in Georgia, mostly in education. It was a homecoming for her in a way since she had attended the novitiate when it was in St. Louis.
After serving as a primary teacher and principal, she retired in 2014 and volunteered in a parish as a visitor of elderly and sick people.
She loved teaching “because the children were very eager. In those days they were there to listen to you. It wasn’t like they do now — they tell you what they’re going to do,” Sister Pauline said with a laugh.
Now, she said, the children jump out of the car and run into school, but then “I used to have to pull them away from their mother.”
She tells a story of teaching math and asking for a student to volunteer to do a problem on the board. One of the boys said, “It sure ain’t gonna be me.” That became a saying in the convent when some tough task came up, Sister Pauline said, chuckling at the memory. “I should have kept a book of all the things that happened.”
One school day she attended a meeting, and her class had a substitute teacher. The next morning, Sister Pauline said, “this little boy walked in with a flower, put it on my desk and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’”
Nazareth is a wonderful place, said Sister Pauline, who lives in an assisted living unit. “Something would be wrong with me if I didn’t like it.”
She’s using retirement to get closer to God and to learn from others as she visits them at the center. She appreciates “the care that we get and the love and support from all the sisters.”
Sister Mary Rita Essert, CSJ, has lived at Nazareth Living Center 35 years, 29 years while working in its human resources department. Sister Rita also has written about the history of the center and property.
“I still enjoy being here,” she said. “I like the sisters and the community. Certainly the amenities are amazing, I never had it so nice.”
Sister Rita, who now lives in assisted living, taught for about 30 years before coming to Nazareth. It’s grown so much through the years, she said. When the sisters first came to Nazareth they lived in a yellow farmhouse. “They had the foresight, imagination and energy to plan ahead to something so big.”
Nazareth began accepting laypeople in 1992, part of what Sister Rita calls the Sisters of St. Joseph charism of service to “the dear neighbor.”
“No place is perfect because we’re not there yet,” she said. “But at Nazareth if we see something that needs fixing, we fix it. There’s no ‘Oh wells.’”
She met everyone who was hired between 1985 and 2014. It has a good, diverse workforce, she said.
Sister Rita taught eight years in St. Louis at St. Teresa of Avila and Holy Name Schools. She taught 11 years at St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Louis. She also taught in Indiana, Texas and Illinois.
Of the various assignments she and other Sisters of St. Joseph had, she said: “We all like to be of service. We went wherever we were asked to go. When you got there you did the best job.”
Volunteer has fun
Janet Sullivan has volunteered at Nazareth for nine years in the spiritual care department and in sister care (now called health and wellness). She felt called to volunteer with older adults since she was 13.
With COVID-19 precautions, Sullivan is temporarily away from her volunteer work but looking forward to when she returns.
She’s served as an extraordinary minister of the Holy Eucharist in the chapel and skilled nursing center, a sacristan, part of the visiting team and a driver taking sisters to doctor and dentist appointments. Sullivan also has been on call from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. to meet Sisters of St. Joseph who arrive the hospital, staying with them until they return to Nazareth or are admitted.
She’s had a lot of fun as a volunteer, enjoying “being of service, and the interaction with the people,” she said.
Now retired, Sullivan had two careers. The first was 24 years as director of cardiac diagnostic testing at a hospital and the second was 23 years as a licensed funeral director. A parishioner of Cure of Ars in Shrewsbury, she was married 41 years before her husband died seven years ago.
The Sisters of St. Joseph taught her in grade school and high school in Chicago and at Fontbonne University in St. Louis. She believes “there’s a different spirit here, and I know it’s because of the sisters. Many of the lay residents have said to me they wanted to come here because there’s a chapel. And there’s three chaplains and the sisters, roaming the halls all the time visiting folks.”
Also serving in the spiritual care department are Father Andrew O’Connor and Sheila Chibnall-Treptow.
>> About Nazareth Living Center
Nazareth Living Center is a Catholic, nonprofit community for older adults offering independent senior living apartment homes, long-term nursing care, assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing and rehabilitation services, all on one campus in South St Louis County. Its staff is gearing up for its 150th anniversary in 2022, also the 30th anniversary of including lay residents.
Nazareth Living Center’s history begins with the Sisters of St. Joseph who came to St. Louis from France in 1836 at the invitation of St. Louis Bishop Joseph Rosati. Originally asked to establish a school for the deaf, the sisters soon became engaged in health care, education at all levels, pastoral care, child care, advocacy for the poor, counseling, social services and parish ministry. They are known today as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
In 1872, they began their mission at Nazareth as a home for retired and infirm sisters. In 1992, the sisters expanded their mission beyond caring for retired sisters to include laypeople. Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet reside at every level of the campus alongside laypeople and they continue to serve others as is their tradition.
On July 1, 2009, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet of St. Louis and the Benedictine Health System of Duluth, Minn., entered into a ministry partnership agreement to operate Nazareth Living Center.