Sister Rosemary Ward (formerly Sister Sebastian)
We gather today to remember our dear Sister Rosemary Ward, who left us so suddenly. Just why I chose these readings (Ephesians 3:14-19; Psalms 34; John 15:12, 15-17) will, I hope, become clear as I share my reflections. For now, let me just begin at the beginning, said Sister Rosemary Schmalz in her commentary for Sister Rosemary Ward, formerly Sister Sebastian, who passed away on Wednesday, October 21, 2020, at Union Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana. She was 84 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 62 years.
Sister Rosemary Schmalz continued her commentary: Sister Rosemary was born in Chicago on April 7, 1936. She was the fourth of five children of Catherine Jehn and George Ward. Her dad’s sister, Josephine, was our Sister Mary Aimee, and so Rosemary had an early introduction to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, probably visiting her aunt here in the summers throughout her childhood. I don’t know much else about her youth except that she played in the city parks’ softball league and was considered quite good.
She attended Marywood High School in Evanston and then came to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, graduating in 1958 with a degree in biology. It was after graduation that she joined the Congregation on July 22, 1958. She was given the name of her choice, Sister Sebastian. These were the early years of the sister formation program and all of us, degrees or not, remained at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for two whole years after first profession, which was January 23, 1961. Since Rosemary already had a degree, and because it was obvious that she had great organizational skills, she was appointed registrar of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College the next August. She kept that position for the whole five years of her temporary profession.
In 1966, having professed final vows on August 15, she began the “usual” Sister of Providence education ministry, teaching high school biology, chemistry and earth science for 11 years in St. Rose, Vincennes, Indiana; Mother Theodore Guerin High School, River Grove, Illinois; Providence High School, New Lenox, Illinois; and one year each at Providence St. Mel and St. Joseph High schools, both in Chicago. During these years, she earned a master’s degree in biology and chemistry from the University of North Dakota in 1973. If you are wondering why she went to North Dakota, well, this was the post-Sputnik era when universities across the nation were offering federally funded master’s degrees in science and mathematics to high school teachers.
She left teaching in 1976 to begin a varied ministry path, first as a chemist for two years, but then as a computer programmer for eight years. This was still the era when people were hired to create programs from scratch, rather than depending on apps such as Excel, Word, and Access. She loved the logic of programming, and I think it honed her organization skills even further. In fact, she once told me that when she had some big project in her later years, she would frequently start with sketching a flow chart, something you always did when you were designing a computer program.
It was in 1988 that she took the position that most of us remember her for, with Christian Brothers Services, first as Assistant Manager of Religious Medical Programs and then Manager of Systems/Services and finally Director of Systems/Services. She never formally used her biological training after she left teaching, but it remained an integral part of her. She loved anything green, and while I don’t know if she was fond of animals, such as cats and dogs, I do know that she was fascinated by any sort of creeping, crawling, or buzzing thing, such as lizards, ants, and bumble bees.
Sometime in the 90s, she became a charter member of a new parish in the Joliet Diocese, Christ the Servant. I remember worshipping with her there years ago in the cafeteria of a school. I got to return to that parish for its celebration of her Golden Jubilee in 2008, and by then, there was a beautiful contemporary church. Rosemary became quite active in that parish and it was there, I think, that she discovered her passion for justice. I don’t know when she took her first steps. Maybe it was after she had retired from Christian Brothers in 2009, and was seeking new ways to serve.
You may recall that off and on, Archives would ask us to create a ministry report. In her Archives folder are two such reports, one from 2012, and one from 2015. In the 2012 ministry report, to the directive to “Describe your ministry,” she writes: Participate in the following organizations, committees, actions, etc., and then she names 12 groups in which she participates, some of which were: The Sisters of Providence Corporate Responsibility Committee (now the Ethical Investment Task Force); CCRIM, which is the Coalition for Corporate Responsibility – Indiana/Michigan; Pax Christi Illinois; The Peace and Social Justice Committee of Christ the Servant Parish; New Wineskins mission based community; and Religious Women of Illinois against Human Trafficking. If you were counting, that is only six of 12. I want to add here that I think that Human Trafficking was the issue that she held most dearly. She mentions somewhere in the same report that she was also in the parish choir, a lector at her parish, and was POA for her sister Joan who was suffering from brain change during these years.
The forms asks this question: “How is this (your ministry) affecting your life.” She writes: “I feel very blessed being involved in Peace and Justice ministries. It’s not something I could do completely on my own, but joining with others, it is very rewarding.” And later she adds, “I am grateful for the gift of courage to have taken these steps to move out of my comfort zone and to see how I could better serve those in need.”
When she filled out a similar report in 2015, she only lists eight organizations, committees and actions to which she belongs. But one of them was director of an English as a Second Language (ESL) center at Greenleaf, the senior citizen complex where she resided. According to an article I found in her file, the ESL center began with her meeting over morning coffee in the building’s lobby a new resident at Greenleaf, Katrina from Egypt. Rosemary realized she needed help with English. She got her enrolled in the schools and Tutors on Wheels program established by the Sisters of St. Joseph in LaGrange, and then volunteered to be her tutor. Because many of the 300 residents in the complex were not native English speakers, Rosemary got the idea to start a center there under the Tutors on Wheels auspices. Initially, all of the tutors and all of the students were residents of the Greenleaf complex. In her ministry paper in 2015, she says this about her tutoring: “They (the students) always know that they are accepted and respected. My favorite quote of Mother Theodore is ‘love them first, then teach them.’ I try to live by that.” Just a few years ago, she received the Outstanding Tutor of the Year award from Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner at Tutor and Adult Learning Conference in Chicago.
As you all know, Rosemary had a stroke in April 2019. Initially, she could not even wiggle her fingers though luckily her mind and her speech remained clear. All of us here know of her determination to return to normal living. After months of rehab, first in Illinois and then here, she was able to move to Lourdes Hall in October 2019. Her ultimate goal was to move to Providence, also to be able once again to drive. She had another goal also, to make her annual retreat in 2020 in the Chicago area and to visit all of her friends. She regretted that she never had the opportunity to bring closure to her years there. Alas, old COVID kept that from happening.
Many, many of you have remarked to me how amazing her recovery was, how she doggedly worked for more independence. And she also worked hard at building relationships. Like many of us, she had lived with a sister of another community and then single for many years and didn’t travel to the Woods too often. So, she really didn’t know very many sisters outside the Chicago area personally. She joined a prayer group, she went regularly to rosary in Mother Theodore chapel, she enjoyed having relaxed conversations at meals or working a puzzle with other sisters, and she fulfilled a lifelong desire to learn to play pinochle and played it several times a week. And why was this a lifelong desire? She told me that there was a considerable age gap between her three older siblings and herself. The three often played pinochle together. She pestered them to let her play with them and they always refused. Well, she finally showed them!
Rosemary and I were band members and though we kept up with each other through the years, we didn’t have lots of regular or extended contact. And so like most of you, I got to know her much better in these last months. Not only did I marvel at her recovery, but I marveled at her serenity and patience with herself in dealing with all the little things that she had such a difficult time doing, things like writing, manipulating her cell phone, picking up a playing card from the table, getting clean clothes on hangers. But I never heard a word of self-pity. She acknowledged how hard some things were for her, but she just kept pushing herself and was grateful for her progress and for everyone who helped her progress.
More than that, what I noted so often was her love and care for those around her. I put in her obituary in The Tribune-Star that she had an innate kindness. This is why I chose the readings that you heard today. She indeed had a loving attitude and her living here let it show forth, blossom, expand and touch all of us. Recall what she said about her students, that they know that they are accepted and respected. I noticed over and over how she brought this gift to us. To her, we were all worthy of being accepted and respected. Truly, she responded to Jesus’ command to love one another.
Dear Rosemary, God chose you and sent you forth to bear fruit. You fruit will endure in myriads of people you loved and who loved you. We thank you for your acceptance and respect for us. You have given us a glimpse of God’s loving kindness, God’s unconditional acceptance, which you are now experiencing, its breadth, length, height, and depth, filled as you are now with all the fullness of God. Welcome to newness of life!
Funeral services for Sister Rosemary took place on Tuesday, October 27, 2020, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.
A Virtual Wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by Funeral Outside Mass at 11 a.m.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Rosemary in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions may be made in Sister Rosemary’s honor to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Rosemary Ward (formerly Sister Sebastian)
In Indiana: Registrar, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1961-66); Teacher, St. Rose High School, Vincennes (1968-70).
In Illinois: Teacher, Providence High School, New Lenox (1966-68); Teacher, Providence-St. Mel, Chicago (1970-71); Teacher, Mother Theodore Guerin High School, River Grove (1971-75); Teacher, Providence High School, New Lenox (1975-76); Chemist, Silliker Laboratories, Chicago Heights (1976-77); Teacher, St. Joseph High School, Chicago (1977-78); Office Supervisor, Putman Publishing Company, Chicago (1978-80); Computer Programmer/Analyst, Household Finance Corporation, Prospect Heights (1980-87); Parish Business Manager, St. Francis Xavier Parish, Wilmette (1987-88); Assistant Manager for Religious Medical Programs, Christian Brothers Services, Romeoville (1988-96); Systems/Services Manager, Christian Brothers Services, Romeoville (1996-99); Director of Systems/Services, Christian Brothers Services, Romeoville (1999-2009); Peace and Justice Activities, Bolingbrook (2010-14); Peace and Justice Activities/Director of English as a Second Language Site, Bolingbrook (2014-19).
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