Oral History: Sister Gloria Memering looks back on more than 60 years as a Sister of Providence
Editor’s note: In this piece, Providence Associate Debbie Griffey spent time speaking with Sister Gloria Memering (formerly Sister Cecelia.) Here, she shares Sister Gloria’s story with us. Are you interested in volunteering with the Sisters of Providence, perhaps visiting with sisters and helping share their stories? Learn more about our volunteer opportunities and how you can help.
I suspected early in my interview with Sister Gloria Memering that she is either the oldest child in a family or a first-born daughter. There is a confidence in her telling of a childhood filled with love and struggles. A this-is-the-way-it-was attitude with no hint of pity or regret. Throughout our talk, she tells of the strength gathered through love of family, dedication to duty and her conviction to the works of love, mercy and justice for more than 60 years. “We accept our reality and go on. That’s what Providence is.”
Sister Gloria is from Vincennes, Indiana. She entered the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods congregation on Jan. 6, 1958. She professed final vows Aug. 15, 1965. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a master’s degree from Indiana State University, both in music education. We spoke in November about her life. This is her story.
‘We were ordinary, faithful Catholics.‘
She is indeed the oldest, the first-born daughter of four children, all sisters whom she described as wonderful. Sister Gloria spoke of her family in loving terms and described the hardships of many working-class families. Her own father had gone to work at the age of 13 when his father had died. Because her father was the oldest child, he needed to help his mother who had to take in laundry to get by. As an adult, Sister Gloria’s father became an entrepreneur, a noble endeavor which entailed many challenges. Growing up in Vincennes, Sister Gloria had family nearby whom she saw every weekend. They all attended St. John’s Parish and church was very important.
‘My parents made a wonderful childhood for us.’
Sister Gloria’s first cousins, aunts and uncles got together on Sundays. They were each other’s tribe, their life, their whole world. Her mother’s family raised melons. The “best in the world” melons that travel the length of the state even now, and to Chicago and beyond. Sister Gloria worked in the melon fields in the summers and during the spring plantings. “It was fun! Dawn to dark,” she said, her enjoyment evident in her voice. When she wasn’t working in the fields during high school summers, she worked at the Peach Orchard beginning in fifth grade, to help out.
‘Her influence propelled me to religious life.’
Sister Gloria treasured her grandmother, a woman of deep faith who lived half a block from the family. She loved her ‘country Grandma’ too. Her nearby Grandma attended church with them on Sundays and cared passionately about the missions. Sister Gloria was in fourth and fifth grades at St. John School when the sisters who taught there began to inspire her to become a teacher and a woman religious and to go to the high school at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. But it looked like that could not happen as Gloria was needed to help Grandma.
‘I put it away from my mind.’
In seventh grade, her beloved grandmother began to fail and Gloria and her sister spent nights at their grandmother’s home to assist her. There was no thinking about attending the high school at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to see if religious life was her calling. When she was in eighth grade, Sister Gloria’s grandmother died. But even then, Gloria hesitated. She was close to her family and to the other girls in her class in Vincennes with whom she had always gone to school. Her parents, who had never heard of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, encouraged her to stay home and attend the local high school. Providence had other plans.
‘Something in me wanted me to get started to become a sister if that was my path.‘
So, in spite of her parents’ and her own concerns, she entered Providence Juniorate/Aspirancy, a boarding high school for those considering becoming sisters, that was located at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Gloria believed her grandmother would be praying for her.
“I loved it!” She also loved the novitiate life that came after. She liked the structure, and she thought that someday she would become a primary school teacher. Instead, she was selected to learn music, which was not her first choice. Sister Gloria said that it was not her nature to speak up because she was used to doing what she was told. But she did speak up this time because she was afraid she would miss out on what the other girls were doing and be lonely. She accepted the music assignment with the caveat that she could come back and talk about a change if she chose. She soon made a choice.
‘Music was my path. I loved it!‘
Sister Gloria has found music to be a tremendous way to relate to people, from kindergarteners through all ages of people in a parish. It has afforded her the experience of ministering to wonderful parishes and communities. She taught piano lessons as well, and at one of her schools the boys begged her to teach them guitar. So, she learned the guitar and taught them during noon hours at school. Pretty soon they were performing in church. She also taught religious education classes.
When Sister Gloria returned to Vincennes to care for her mother, she taught most of the religion classes at the junior high and high school there. She also encouraged the church musicians at Sacred Heart and resurrected a wonderful choir and youth group with instrumental music performances. Sister Gloria describes herself as introverted. But introverts never seem like introverts when they are working with what they are passionate about. For Sister Gloria, music was her passion.
Sister Gloria has ministered in more than 17 ministries:
- St. Paul in Sellersburg, Indiana: Teacher (1962-66)
- St. Patrick as well as the Fort Bragg Chapel in Fayetteville, North Carolina: Teacher (1966-67)
- St. Benedict and St. Margaret Mary in Terre Haute, Indiana: Teacher (1967-76)
- St. John Parish and Flaget Elementary in Vincennes, Indiana: Teacher and Parish Music Coordinator (1976-83)
- St. Joseph Parish and Deaconness Hospital in Evansville, Indiana: Parish Ministry (1983-84)
- Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana: Second Provincial Councilor in Sacred Heart Province (1984-87)
- Precious Blood Parish in Jasper, Indiana: Teacher and Parish Liturgist (1988-97)
- Sacred Heart Church, Vincennes Rivet Middle School and Vincennes Rivet High School in Vincennes, Indiana: Teacher and Liturgist and Music Director (1997-2006)
- Precious Blood Parish, Jasper, Indiana: Pastoral Associate and Music Director, Volunteer in Church and Hospital (2007-11)
- Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana: Volunteer Receptionist, St. Ann Clinic, Providence Center and Woods Day Care (2011-14)
- Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana: Receptionist, Providence Spirituality & Conference Center, and Volunteer for Providence Health Care and Our Lady of Providence Shrine (2014-present)
When I asked which age groups delighted her, Sister Gloria paused in thought. Almost every age group delighted her, she said. She has a fondness in her heart for fourth and fifth graders. Having been a fifth-grade teacher myself, we concurred they are at a wonderful age because they aren’t afraid to fail. Sister Gloria would have all of her kindergarten through fifth graders perform plays such as “The King and I,” and “The Wizard of Oz.” She directed full musicals requiring extensive work with staff and student family support. And she was able to successfully pull them off with joy. Her grand finale was when all of her parish musicians as well as school children presented “Tales of Wonder.”
‘All my life I had good people, supportive people, around me. All my life.‘
Sister Gloria has been called to more than 17 ministries, her most recent Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. It concerned her to think of leaving the meaningful ministries she has held to return to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, but she said it has not proven hard. “It’s been wonderful!” she told me. And although her lifetime of dawn-to-dusk duties is much behind her, the responsibilities and her schedule at the Woods tell me she remains very involved.
She is able to truly enjoy mass now that she isn’t in charge of parish music. There had been singing in recent months at Mass at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods due to COVID-19, but Sister Gloria says she has enjoyed a Mass that she listens to out of Milwaukee that has music and singing. She loves seeing the students at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and the interns at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice and is hopeful when the pandemic passes they will once again be around.
‘We accept our reality and go on. That’s what Providence is.‘
Reading poses its own challenges for Sister Gloria. A series of retinal detachments have left Sister Gloria vision impaired. Yet Sister Gloria stays current with what is happening around her. She has adaptive equipment so she can read or listen to books. The view of the grounds from her window delights her. She writes at times to give her thoughts an outlet. Her knowledge and willingness to talk openly is refreshing.
I asked what she thought are the challenges of the time in which we live. Sister Gloria expressed optimism for the future, a hope that people would begin to accept and respect different opinions, a recognition that the struggle of racism is real, that we might once again be able to trust news sources in search of the truth. She hopes that truth might become more valued and that the sense of entitlement often on display will lessen.
I asked Sister Gloria if she had a favorite year in her ministry. It was 1966-67, when Sister Gloria with limited experience and hailing from southern Indiana, was teaching music at St. Patrick in Fayetteville, North Carolina and two days per week on the Army Base at Ft. Bragg. “It was all cultures, all colors and creeds and the children just ate up everything! I was a part of that. The connection was so strong that I felt I had loved these people all my life!”
Having worked on military bases for more than 13 years, I know the experience. Sister Gloria — like all sisters — were tasked to hit the ground running, just like soldiers and their families. Sister Gloria was away from her family — just like soldiers and their families. I have no doubt that she exuded the calm acceptance of differences and situations that were desperately needed at the height of the Vietnam War. And I do not doubt that they loved her as much as she loved them.
Sister Gloria’s devotion to her path, the delight and awakening of talent and love of music she has no doubt engendered in generations of those she encountered on her missions, is a testament to her life story. Her parting thought summed up her approach to life as I heard her describe it to me throughout our conversation: “Treasure your faith and the Providence of God.”