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Oral history: The little things with Sister Lois Ann Stoiber

Sister Lois Ann Stoiber in 2021

“I am the suspenders. I’m there to help you and hold you up. It gives me joy, and joy is my special word. God is my best friend. We’ve become friends. For years I couldn’t say how I was precious in God’s eyes but now I can say that and feel that. Everyone is. I had to feel it before I could see it in others.”  Sister Lois Ann Stoiber, SP

“Pray, be humble, be charitable, and God’s blessing will be with you.”

 – Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, to the Sisters at Jasper, 1843

Sister Lois Ann Stoiber channels this encouragement of humble, charitable philosophy from Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. As we chatted during our interview Oct. 17, 2022, I was struck by her humble reverential stance regarding her missions and her life as a Sister of Providence.

Growing up

Lois May as a baby

Sister Lois Ann is descended from the combined German/Austrian ancestry of her father and the Irish ancestry of her mother. The only daughter of “regular” Catholic parents, she had one beloved brother Ray, 13 months younger. Lois May Stoiber (her baptismal name) was born in Joliet, Illinois, in 1927 to parents who grew up across the street from one another and fell in love and married. Her father Raymond worked for the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railroad — the EJ&E. His father had worked for the EJ&E. Lois May’s father Raymond was one of nine children and all three of his brothers worked for the EJ&E. Her mother Helen’s father also worked for the EJ&E. In Lois’s generation only one cousin continued to work for the railroad that had employed so many.

Helen Stoiber, her mother, was a telephone operator until she married. She then worked keeping the home. Sister Lois Ann reported with amusement that Thursday was her mother’s day off. “Ray,” Helen would say, “don’t forget Thursdays are my days off.” And her mother, although she didn’t drive, would have that day to visit friends or shop or do whatever she chose. That ‘day off’ was a model adopted by relatives and friends.

A wonderful childhood

“I had a wonderful childhood! Our neighborhood, especially a two-block area, was known as ‘incubator row’ because so many of us were the same age.”

A carefree childhood included a swimming pool nearby that was part of a strip mine, complete with a sandy beach, a diving board, and a raft. Children would walk to ‘Michigan Beach,’ go home when they were hungry and then return to the beach. Sister Lois Ann noted that mothers “thanked God” the beach was there! A happy, fun-filled childhood!

Although many of her friends from childhood have passed away, Sister Lois Ann keeps in touch with one who has six sons, and she has attended each of their weddings. She also has relatives she stays in contact with by phone. There is much fondness and pride evidenced in these family members by Sister Lois Ann as she describes them and their accomplishments. She also recalls the delightful trip to Disneyland her relative in Las Vegas surprised her with a few years ago. That’s a trip she believes every child should experience!

Catholic School

Sister Lois Ann Stoiber

Sister Lois Ann attended St. Mary Carmelite Elementary School and Providence High School in Joliet. Her teachers were Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She and Ray took the city bus to and from school, and on her father’s days off he would pick them up and always also took two Sisters to their home in his car. Lois and Ray were the only children in their neighborhood who attended Catholic schools.

Lois Ann was born two years before the stock market crash of 1929. The child of parents who belonged to the Greatest Generation, she herself is a member of the Silent (or Traditional) Generation. She grew up during the great depression and World War II. “The depression years were hard. I grew up hearing ‘After the house is paid for.’ It was a hallmark. It meant security. My first year on mission in Fort Wayne, Mother and Dad came to visit and the first thing my mother said at the door was, ‘Lois, the mortgage is paid off!’”

At Providence High School the last two years had been designated ‘commercial’ because the depression had created an opportunity and a necessity for schools to prepare students with skills for work, especially girls. And if you had a job you didn’t attend school in the afternoon, you went to your job.

Becoming a sister

“In those days girls wanted to get a job. My senior year a Sister called me and said she had a job interview and she wanted me to go for it. I worked for a broker. Oh, that was interesting work! They were very nice to me, very nice to me. It was 1945, my senior year, and I decided I wanted to be a Sister. I told them in January 1946 and came here in February.”

In sixth grade Lois Ann Stoiber remembers being told that students should pray that they would be what God wanted them to be. And she was faithful to that prayer. She was torn because in the back of her mind she believed she would become a Sister, yet it was something she did not wish to pursue.

“I loved to roller skate. We had a big barn and organ music played while we skated. I think the thing was the music and the rhythm you felt in your body. I wasn’t fancy, but I loved to roller skate. This particular night a group of us had gone and I thought ‘I have to give this up. I have to give this up.’ That’s when I had a strong feeling I was going to give it all up. I just felt that was what God wanted me to do. And it’s most important that you follow God’s will. But a day or two later I thought, ‘That’s not reason enough.’ Now, it was reason enough but I always liked it to be my reason. But God has given so much to me that it was time for me to give. And that was it.”

Let it be done.

Lois May Stoiber on her high school graduation

“I hadn’t told Mother or Dad. I thought this would really hurt them; they wouldn’t be for it. I was 18 years old. But I did what I needed to do with Sister and then told Mother and Dad. Mother said, ‘Tell your father.’ He said, ‘I won’t sign it.’ I said Dad, it’s already signed.”

The girl with a wonderful childhood now had a father who wouldn’t speak to her. After a couple days, though, he came around. When she did enter the convent that same father gave her a train ticket for whenever she wanted to come home, to make it easy for her to leave. She never used it. Her mother was sad that she would not have grandchildren when the announcement had been made. and although Lois had assured her mother that Ray could provide grandchildren, Ray never married. Her pride in her brother Ray is evident with everything about him she shared.

“Ray would’ve been a great husband and father, but he didn’t marry. He was the ‘grandfather’ of the neighborhood. He had a beautiful, beautiful garden of flowers. He named his flowers and plants after the neighborhood kids. One family had three little girls and the youngest went near the tracks and was killed. Her rosebush bloomed first that summer, and Ray cut the flower off, piled as many kids as he could into the car and they went out and put it on her grave.”

Love all in God and for God, and all will be well.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Living faith

Her parents didn’t tell Lois Ann and Ray about faith, they showed them. “I never heard them speak uncharitably about anyone. Eighth grade was a rough year for me. One day I was complaining about a teacher. My mother said maybe the teacher was scolded by her superior before school.” That attitude of understanding has stuck with this Sister of Providence through the years. It was fostered at home by loving parents.

“When I was a teenager I never wanted to disappoint them. I’d tell my mother something and she’d say, ‘That’s all right, Lois, I understand.’ When I stood at her coffin I remembered that so well…‘That’s all right, Lois, I understand.’”

Parents who picked up another family in the neighborhood to take to Mass. A mother who knew the egg lady had a hard time getting around the neighborhood and would say ‘Leave them here and I’ll get Ray and we’ll deliver them.’ Parents who didn’t look down on other people. Parents always doing something for someone. Like Ray’s flowers, Sister Lois Ann blossomed from that environment. She reflects their example of good Christian living, enhanced by her own Silent Generation qualities of interpersonal respect, loyalty, determination, hard work, sensibility and the ability to communicate face-to-face. This is the generation that built up the churches of the 1950s because of women like Sister Lois Ann and her fellow Sisters who were in the workplace as well as in the churches.

Your heart will tell you what to do.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

What does it mean?

What does it mean to be a Sister of Providence to this Sister?

A young Sister Lois Ann Stoiber in her habit

“A very warm feeling. I’m not alone. I’m close to God. Things have happened in my life, and I think, ‘Only God could arrange that.’”

Her novitiate was very, very hard on Sister Lois Ann. She was homesick and felt terrible. When she returned to the Woods after decades of missions, Sister Lois Ann discovered that everybody had felt the same way. During her first year on mission in Fort Wayne, her father was in a railroad accident. He had been in the caboose of a train and saw an accident about to happen and jumped. He didn’t make it clear of the crash and was in the hospital for a long time before returning to work. The choice she had to make at the time of the accident was to either go to the hospital then or to wait until he died. She decided to go to the hospital. Of course, when she appeared her father thought sure he must be dying! She was there only a few days.

“I realized I belonged on mission and not at home.”

And those missions occurred in Indiana and Illinois. Sister Lois Ann Stoiber has a bachelor’s degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a master’s degree in elementary education and reading from Illinois State University.

Sister Lois Ann Stoiber

See a complete list of Sister Lois Ann’s ministries here.

We discussed whether she wanted to be a teacher. “I taught first or second grade most of the time teaching. I also spent a lot of time working in the infirmary here. I liked that. I was accepted. I felt it and it’s important to me. Teaching and nursing are equal favorites.”

Helen Stoiber, her mother, died in 1971 and she asked Sister Lois Ann to take care of her father and her brother Ray. So she went to Joliet and taught and worked in the schools and the office of Providence High School. She also worked in a special needs classroom with non-verbal students ages 10 to 15. “I loved it, and they did too. I could be myself.”

Changes with Vatican II

What impact did Vatican II have?

Sister Lois Ann

“It opened up such a wide world to me. The world has opened up so much for me. I went and got an atlas from the library. There’s so much to learn and be a part of. I didn’t have the desire to do that before. (Vatican II) opened up that there’s a suffering world out there that for a long time we never knew anything about. And now I’m reading about it. Things that happened when I was growing up that weren’t opened up to me, like a series of books about Ireland. It was hard reading about it.”

Although Sister Lois Ann was not the first to give up the habit after Vatican II, she completely gave it up when she went to Illinois State to study for her master’s degree. “I was glad. I didn’t want to be looked at as a Sister. I wanted to be looked at as ‘one of you.’ The habit created a barrier. I like the idea of not having special privilege because I’m a nun. That was one of the big things Vatican II did.

“Yet, it’s amazing how many people pick you out and say, ‘Oh, I knew you were a nun’. And of course [before Vatican II] I could never have gone to a casino, and on tours that were so much fun on the bus. But several sisters left at the time of Vatican II. It was hard to see Sisters leave.”

The Cubs and travel

This Sister is a die-hard baseball fan. The Cubs, of course. In fact her whole family are Cub fans. When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 for the first time in 108 years, the whole Sisters of Providence Guerin house in Chicago celebrated with snacks and team towels that friends from Wisconsin had delivered to them.

A clipping from the 1992 Community newspaper

Sister Lois Ann is also a traveler. Sister Pat Geis and I would travel a lot in the summer. She’d map it out. Oh, the places we went! She’d get a convent so we wouldn’t have to pay to stay somewhere. We’d leave a donation.” Twice to Cooperstown, New York, and the Baseball Hall of Fame for this Cubs fan. Niagara Falls on the Fourth of July? Big mistake … hot, crowded, every nation represented. Arch at St. Louis? Ready to go down as soon as they got up. But then there was Ireland, a favorite destiny. Her memories of that trip to Ireland remain gratifying to this day. “The people in Ireland stop and talk to you whatever they’re doing.” She has kissed the Blarney Stone. Another favorite was a trip to Nova Scotia, a gifted trip from a former student.

Family

Sister Lois Ann

Sister Lois Ann’s father loved the horses and often met his friends at the track. She drove him to the races in his later years. She related that you couldn’t talk to him between the races while he studied the race program; it was serious business. She’d collect his winnings and he always gave her the change.

“I was very, very fortunate to be with my mother and my dad and my brother when they died. Mother went too quickly. I wasn’t able to take care of her, but I was with her. Dad slipped on ice and broke his hip, the beginning of the end. Ray lived with Dad. He fell backward changing a window and crushed seven vertebrae. They could not be repaired. I got permission to go home and take care of him for three months, but I had to return to the convent. He went to the nursing home. I took care of him with God’s help — got him set up, sold his home — the right people came along to advise me and to help. When he died I was right there.”

Changes

How is the church different today? “It’s not the fear and anger, it’s a loving God now, not a fearful God.”

What is the biggest difference in the Congregation since your entry in 1946?

“There is a lot more freedom. We are all equal. There is freedom to be yourself more. To walk into a group. I used to find the first chair and sit down but now I don’t. This young group of sisters we have now are active. They’re a close-knit group. One is a doctor. There are three sisters on the border. I think that’s wonderful!”

Sister Lois Ann, center, celebrates 75 years as a Sister of Providence in 2021. Pictured here with Vicar Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp, left, and General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, right.

There were 1,500 Sisters of Providence when Lois Ann entered. They had a song, ‘1500 Strong.’

Advice you would give a new Sister of Providence?

“Be yourself. Think about how everybody is doing the best they can with what they know. Be the best you can be. Give it a try and put it in God’s hands every day.”

Words of wisdom? “Be yourself. Know that your intentions may not have been received the way you had hoped they would be, but you did it for the right reason.”

Being support

My duty has been simply that of the ass who bore the prophet.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Sister Lois Ann Stoiber

What does it mean to Sister Lois Ann Stoiber to be a Sister of Providence?

“My role as a nun is like a pair of suspenders. I’m somebody who supported and held up, not somebody that had great ideas and made them happen. But I was right there and that’s the way I would express my role in religion and that’s okay. It kept me close to God and that’s what is important. It’s also meaningful to me to relate to the masses and that I can do by accepting all.”

I can express it only to God, Who understands the language of the heart.                                        

– Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, Letter to Le Fer de la Motte Family, 1843

Supported by prayer

Sister Lois Ann Stoiber is quietly fierce in her prayerful devotion. Her words are a guide for many. “Every morning I don’t leave my room before I say my prayers. I ask God to be my shadow, to walk with me. And sometimes when I’m trying to find the answer or don’t know what to do, as soon as I pause and ask God to take care of it … I’m not kidding! It happens! And I know that only God was the One that made that happen.”

On her first morning working in the front office of one of her schools, Sister Lois Ann wondered, “How will I ever get through this morning?” Parents in the office, parents congregating outside, questions needing answers, and the phone ringing with more questions and reports and absentees, seemed overwhelming. What did she do? She prayed to God to get her through that morning. The phones went out of order, and she knew that only God could have thought of that solution.

“It helps me to know that God is right there with me and I can call on Him if something would happen. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Did you ask God’s help? No, I didn’t.’

“Once in a while I say, ‘Don’t shadow me, get right here and walk with me.’ I can talk to God. I say, Can You do something about this, Lord, if I put it in Your hands to get me through this?’”

Celebrating sisters 90 years old and over, Sister Lois Ann Stoiber, right, with Sister Andre Panepinto in 2017

“God allows things to happen for some reason.”

Sister Lois Ann returned to the Woods in 2020 from Lockport, Illinois, where she had lived with a group of sisters who were very close. “When I came here I was in poor health and I thought it was preparing me for death. How wrong I was! But it gives you time to think. You’re OK. You’re OK in your own way.”

Let us yield our hearts up to Joy.

– Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

What delights this Sister of Providence after being a member of this order for 76 years? “The little things. I can find great joy in little things. I love to read and work puzzles. I used to do embroidery and other things. I was never a star at anything, but I’ve enjoyed it. Now I enjoy little things, birds and trees. How resilient a tree is, standing there doing just as God wished, swaying back and forth, coloring their leaves. And I have good friends. I’ve made friends here.” Mass and communion in the Chapel are important spiritual practices.

“I am the suspenders. I’m there to help you and hold you up.”

The wisdom of years, the humble servant, the devotion to prayer and God. All of these describe Sister Lois Ann Stoiber. May we gain from her experience and her path. She has walked the grounds that Saint Mother Theodore Guerin has walked and she has returned to the Woods to carry on, to find joy in each day and to be the suspenders and the support we all need at some time in our lives.

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Debbie Griffey

Debbie Griffey has been a Providence Associate since 2009. Debbie is a clinical social worker and a licensed teacher. She has spent much of the past decade working outside the country most of each year. She has worked on military bases in the United States, Europe and Japan. She currently works part-time while residing on the family farm in Shelby County Indiana, where she manages the adult llamas her children showed in 4-H. Debbie has three adult children and five grandchildren.

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7 Comments

  1. Donna Butler on December 20, 2022 at 6:25 am

    Thank you Lois Ann for sharing the delights, the ups and downs of your life journey of family, faith and ministry. I know my brother benefited by your kindness when you taught him in second grade.
    Having our mother die when he was only six, he needed kindness in his life, I am grateful you were his teacher.

  2. Annette Maggio on December 20, 2022 at 7:57 am

    What a beautiful telling of the life of S. Lois Ann! There were moments that brought tears to my eyes…joyful tears. One thing I would like to share is that S. Lois Ann usually has a wonderful smile and a delightful sense of humor. Joy….Annette Maggio

  3. Paula Modaff on December 20, 2022 at 9:54 am

    Sometime within the last year, I was sitting alone in the health care courtyard and Lois Ann came and sat beside me. Honestly, it was as if we had known each other all of our lives. What a treasure we have and I am certain Lois Ann is simply one of many. She is one marvelous set of suspenders!

  4. Theresa Tighe on December 23, 2022 at 8:38 pm

    Thank you Sister Lois Ann Stoiber. You are suspenders to me. I spent 4 months this year mostly in bed. Physical ailments. I am recovering now but it will be a slow go. Just like the switchboard broke when you needed help, lots of I call them ordinary miracles, are happening to me. Greatest of all, although sometimes my inability to keep the house clean now or go places with my friends bothers me, God has shown me that this is the time I have needed for years to heal. I have a mild to moderate cases of bi-polar disorder. My father’s death when I was 11, probably triggered it. But my brothers and I had and my mother and all my relatives. They continued to give us a home like the one you grew up in. My mother and father didn’t preach Christianity they lived it. Our childhoods were very happy. With help of God and a lot of people, especially my Mom and my psychiatrist, and my employer, I was successful as a newspaper reporter, very meaning full work. I used to say to myself when things were rough that I was a pen in Gods. But sometimes because of the illness – fatigue and migraines – it took everything I had and then some. I stuffed the negative thoughts about Dad dying and my survival and thriving with the illness. Had I considered them, I wouldn’t have been able to function. Something that would have hurt me and the people around me. Now as I look back I can see God caring for me every step of the way. I prayed a lot to Mary. The point here is. The story of your life will give me the strength and faith to come out of this illness. And this illness has given me the time I needed to grow from believing God to loving God and wanting to serve him more fully. I would like it if God would want me to use my writing talent. But I have come to know that what God wants the most from me is to be a pair of suspenders to the people in my life. That is a miracle. I was and am very ambitious. Another miracle: during this time instead of deepening ,my depression has lifted. Would you pray for me. That I don’t push and continue to profit from this time. Thank you. If your prayer list is already so long you can’t get through it, not to worry. I am a Providence Associate and under Mother Guerin’s wing and I have your story and your metaphor.

  5. Jeanne Hagelskamp, SP on December 24, 2022 at 1:43 pm

    Lois Ann has been one giant pair of suspenders for so many people! I lived with her on my first mission at Providence HS in New Lenox. She was such an example to me of gracious hospitality and unconditional love…and still is! And never a negative word about anyone! Since then, our paths have crossed in myriad ways….and always I am blessed in her presence. She is God’s precious gift to us!!!

  6. Theresa Tighe on December 24, 2022 at 3:25 pm

    Thank you. That is how I imagine Sister Lois. Now I have confirmation. And she is now my inspiration in good times and bad. My suspenders. God’s suspenders. A Christmas Gift from Jesus, Mary and Joseph. And you have the gift of pithy, meaningful writing. Something I have to work on. More people, especially younger people, only read such writing. Another lesson.

  7. Sister Sue Paweski on December 28, 2022 at 5:24 pm

    Sister Lois Ann, thank you for sharing your story. I truly loved reading this. Have a joyous New Year!

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