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Sister Florence Norton (formerly Sister Thomas Ann)

When Florence and her band celebrated their Golden Jubilee here at the Woods, they chose the gospel story of Jesus reading in the synagogue from the scroll of Isaiah. The heart of that gospel’s message is: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor,” said Sister Denise Wilkinson in her commentary for Sister Florence Norton, who passed away on Friday, April 2, 2021, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 94 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 77 years.

Sister Denise continued: However, when Florence celebrated her golden jubilees with her partners in ministry, the parishioners and staff of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Chicago, she herself chose the gospel just proclaimed.

The central character of today’s gospel is Thomas, forever labeled as Doubting Thomas. Of all the gospels Florence could have chosen, why this one?

It seems an unlikely choice for the woman we knew as Sister Thomas Ann, Florence, Flossie, aunt Sister Flo – or Ana as she was known in Peru because it was not the custom there to have women religious bear a masculine name. It seems a puzzling choice for someone so many described as joyful, with a bright smile and infectious laugh, always positive, generous to exhaustion, quick to laugh, wonderful pastoral minister, gentle, sweet, fun to be around, able to laugh at herself, adventuresome.

Perhaps a glance at Florence’s life will shine some light on her choice.

Sister Florence Norton and Mildred Geisler smile while listening to the reflection at their senior jubilee Mass in 2019.

Florence Theresa was one of six children born to John Joseph and Anna Tobin Norton. Florence never strayed far from the reach of the Sisters of Providence. She attended Maternity BVM and St. Sylvester’s grade school, Providence Juniorate High School here at the Woods and earned her bachelor of arts degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. For variety’s sake, she earned her master of science degree in education from Indiana State University

Florence entered the Congregation in 1944; was given the religious name of Sister Thomas Ann, professed first vows in 1946 and made final profession in 1951. Florence taught in Sister of Providence grade schools in Indiana, Illinois, New Hampshire and Missouri.

Her life took a dramatic turn when she asked to study Spanish in Cochabamba, Bolivia, so she could join other Sisters of Providence at Colegio San Jose in Arequipa, Peru. From a sister who lived and ministered with her in Peru, we learn Flossie — also known as Ana — loved soap operas in Spanish. Watching the episodes led her to “develop her own style of experience facial expressions and hand motions that allowed her to communicate with others and endeared her to them.”

Left to right, Sisters Patty Fillenwarth, Betty Smigla and Florence Norton pose for a photo on their last day in Arequipa on Jan. 26, 1976.

From this same sister we learn: “Ana was adventuresome and never turned down an invitation to do something totally new … like walking with our teachers during a teachers’ strike and ending up being finger printed for her participation.”

Returning from Peru, Sister Ana morphed back into Sister Florence and served as a Pastoral Associate at St. Sylvester’s and Our Lady of Grace parishes in Chicago. Her fluency in Spanish made her an effective minister and advocate for the Hispanic population in both parishes.

Her experience of learning a new language and culture made her a sympathetic and effective ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. Our new members from Taiwan learned English under her “gentle and firm instruction.” For her language courses with our new members, Florence chose as her textbooks the children series The Boxcar Kids. “The books made the English more accessible and gave the new sisters more confidence when everything about religious life, of cultural challengers seemed overwhelming.”

Sister Mary Ryan and Sister Florence Norton

After many years of ministry, Florence asked the Congregation for a year’s sabbatical. She told her general officer that she’d like to go to the Catholic House of Study in County Kildare, Ireland. The response to this request was “Go for it, Florence!” Go for it she did — as she went for everything — joyfully and open to whatever would come.

One of her nieces shared that John Norton, Florence’s father, had stowed away on an ocean liner so that he could make his way from Ireland to the United States to create a life for himself and his future family. How precious it must have been that time in Ireland, as Florence visited family sites, drank in the air and the culture of her father. How precious indeed!

Sister Florence Norton volunteers at the Providence Food Pantry in 2016.

Family members’ words describe their aunt, Sister Flo, in ways so familiar to us. From her niece Mary: “loving, kind, practical, a simple but profound faith, someone to emulate and miss and hold in our hearts.” From niece Kathy: “I learned so many things about prayer from Sister Florence. One of them was the simple intimacy of talking with the father/mother God”

From her brother-in-law: He and his wife won a two-week trip to Hawaii. Florence was engaged as the babysitter. The children lied to her telling her they could eat Captain Crunch cereal — a forbidden treat in their family. That and other escapades may be why her brother-in-law, Jim, remembers when he and his wife returned, the usually unflappable Florence “all but ran out of the house saying to them, ‘I’ve never been so happy for my vocation in my entire life.'”

Sister Florence, seated left, served for many years as a beloved member of the formation community, living with and mentoring our newest sisters.

Back to the beginning. Why did Sister Florence Norton, an enthusiastic, faith-filled, true-blue Sister of Providence choose the gospel highlighting the disciple Thomas? From what we know of Florence, we know she wouldn’t have focused on Thomas’ doubt but on his struggle to believe and his willingness to believe. Florence would recognize and accept in each Thomas or Thomasina-like person she met, how confusion, feeling left out and alone can blind us to the immediate presence of a loving God.

Recognizing that, Florence would do as she always did – walk up to that person with her wonderful smile and her gracious, gentle manner and say, “Hello. I’m Sister Florence. I’m so happy to meet you.” In that simple, loving greeting, the hurting person would see and recognize Love; and Love, as we know, is the surest, most authentic sign of the presence of God.

Sisters Florence Norton and Editha Ben.

Florence, we’re glad you let Mary and the angel know you didn’t want to die until you were Home, here at Saint Mary’s. Maybe all of us, yourself included, just needed a little more time to say goodbye. Thanks to you, we had that time. Thanks to you and the way you lived your life, we see what joy it is to see love in action, to be love in action. Thank you, Florence Theresa, Thomas Ann, Florence, Flossie, Sister Flo, Hermana Ana. Thank you.

Most certainly, your friend Thomas greeted you warmly when you passed over from this life to the next. No doubt, Mary and that angel said, “It’s about time, Florence.” What joy when you saw your mother and father, all your family loved ones! We know Mother Theodore embraced you — as did every Sister of Providence.

Florence, we believe you will greet each of us when our Passover comes. You will greet us with your smile, your laughter, your gentleness. Perhaps you will even say to each of us, “Blessed are you who have not seen but have believed.” We know you will say: “Welcome home.”

Funeral services for Sister Florence took place on Thursday, April 8, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

A virtual wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m.

Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Florence to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Florence in the comment section below.

Complete Ministry

In Indiana: Teacher, St. Thomas Aquinas, Indianapolis (1946-50); Teacher, St. Catherine, Indianapolis (1950-51); Teacher, St. Catherine, Indianapolis (1951-52); Volunteer – Woods Day Care/Pre-School, Providence Food Pantry, Helping Hands, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods/West Terre Haute (2010-18); ESL Teacher, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods/West Terre Haute (2014-18); Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Shrine/Church of the Immaculate Conception Docent, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2010-18); ESL Teacher, Shrine and Church Docent, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2018-2020); Prayer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2020).

In New Hampshire: Teacher, Lady Isle, Portsmouth (1952-55).

In Missouri: Teacher/Principal, Our Lady of Providence, St. Louis (1955-68).

In Illinois: Substitute/ESL-City College, St. Sylvester, Chicago (1976); Teacher, St. Sylvester, Chicago (1976-82); Pastoral Associate, St. Sylvester, Chicago (1982-85); Pastoral Associate, Our Lady of Grace Parish, Chicago (1986-2010).

In Country of Peru: Teacher, Colegio San Jose, Arequipa, Peru (1969-76).

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1 Comment

  1. Amy Schmidt Stowe on April 3, 2021 at 11:16 am

    Sister Florence Norton taught me and both my siblings at Our Lady of Providence in Missouri. I was so excited to have her as my teacher: she was known to be kind, but firm as a teacher needed to be when teaching 40-50 children in a classroom in the 60’s. She was my favorite teacher!

    Our dad died when I was very young, and when Sister Florence Norton was principal, she made sure to offer free tickets to the St. Louis Symphony to my mom numerous times – something Mom could never afford! I fell in love with classical music and can’t hear any piece without thinking of Sister! Her thoughtfulness really impacted the course of my life.

    A few years back, my brother reconnected with Sister for his 50-year reunion from Our Lady of Providence. That connection brought he and his wife to Terre Haute quite a few times just to visit with her. He shared just how vibrant Sister was during those visits.

    She lived such a rich life of service – her life will be remembered by me and many individuals whose lives she touched.

    May she rest in eternal peace.

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