The Pilot News



their first 100 years, the Poor Handmaids listened to the Spirit and served joyfully at 11 hospitals, four nursing schools, four senior care homes, three orphanages and 24 schools.

Sister America, a play written and directed by the late Sister Jeffrey Hegger, PHJC, commemorat­ed the PHJC Centennial. Sister America symbolized the spirit of the American Poor Handmaid, joyful in her service to God and her neighbor. Portrayed through song and dance, the play dramatized the Sisters’ service to God’s people as they traveled across America. The 40-member cast, comprised of PHJC Sisters and four children, took to the road during 1968.

It was an amazing experience, according to the late Sister Celine Tomasic, as she belted out the theme song Sister America during a 2017 interview for Ripples. The lyrics came back to her like it was yesterday, not 50 years ago. “We hit the road, and I loved it,” she laughed. Sisters Deanne Blume and Michelle Dermody were also cast members, and cherished the experience, too.

“We reached out to a lot of areas where our Sisters ministered,” said Sister Deanne, also in 2017. “She (Sister Jeffrey) wanted perfection.” Sister Michelle recalled, that “the community needed it, the world needed it and our families saw us having fun. “My Mom came to see us at Andrean High School in Merrillvil­le, IN. It would be so perfect today. People would say, ‘oh, they’re nuns, I love this; they’re fun!’”

As Sisters, residents and co-workers watched the 10-part Ken Burns PBS documentar­y Vietnam, which aired in 2017, some may not have known that two Poor Handmaids, the late Sisters Helen Watkins and Justine Buescher, served there for 18

months, caring for the sick and malnourish­ed in South Vietnam at the height of the war in 1968.

Establishe­d in 1968, the Vietnam Assistance Program, part of the United States Catholic Conference, recruited Sisters to serve in war-ravaged Southeast Asia. “We received one month of training in Hawaii,” Sister Helen told Word Gathering, the Poor Handmaids quarterly newsletter, in a 1988 story. She and Sister Justine then served in two civilian hospitals in the cities of Nha Trang and Bac Loc, Vietnam. The Sisters cared for collateral war causalitie­s and sick patients alike. “I wanted to go where I was needed,” Sister Justine said.

Sister Helen was surprised by the many misconcept­ions about Americans serving in Vietnam, and she spoke of her own readjustme­nt period upon returning to the U.S. in the same Word Gathering story.

In July 1970, Sister Flora Offerle, followed by 20 Poor Handmaid Sisters, became the first residents of Catherine Kasper Home. During that year, 80 Sisters moved to CKH. In 1973, Sister Justine Buescher, then the home’s administra­tor, declared, “This is not a place of retirement, but a place where Sisters are active in service to others.”

Catherine Kasper Home began as the dream of Sister Symphoria Miller, who raised funds to build a place for the Sisters to retire on the grounds with the Ancilla Domini Convent and Chapel. It didn’t remain a Sisters’ only home for long. CKH welcomed the first lay residents, John Kirchhoff and Clara Wagner, in 1978.

In an entry in the CKH Chronicles dated April 1970, Sisters Ernestine and Mercedes wrote about a visit from Sister Jolise May, who spoke to the retired Sisters about how to adjust in their lives from “active duty to retirement to make it more meaningful.” The day’s entry recalls that the Sisters in the attendance were receptive to the ideas and that they shared in Mass and lunch together after the presentati­on.

Catherine Kasper Home completes as a ministry on March 31, 2023. Motherhous­e Sisters will move into the former CKH during a renovation of their living areas in the Motherhous­e. Catherine Kasper Home Sister residents will move to Catherine’s Cottage.

In the late 1970s, as Thailand opened its boarders to Cambodian refugees fleeing the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, 10 Poor Handmaid Sisters were dispatched to serve at refugee camps. Upon their return, five more Sisters left for another three-month stint of service. Sisters who served in the refugee camps included Sisters Damian Mcnamara, Nora Hahn, Carole Langhauser, Marie Heppeler, Pam Tholkes and Shirley Bell. The late Sisters Mary Carolyn Welhoelter and Julia Huelskamp also served.

The endeavor came about when the late Sister Stephen Brueggeman, then provincial, read an article about other religious communitie­s assisting in relief efforts and thought, “Why not The Poor Handmaids?” She contacted a New York priest who worked with Catholic Relief Services. The Sisters got their vaccinatio­ns and had orientatio­ns both in Donaldson and in Thailand. They arrived in the Khi Dung camp that January. The second group went in April, and were missioned to the Khao I Dang Camp, just three miles from the Thai-cambodian border.

Sister Nora Hahn described her time there as “life-changing” in a 2018 Ripples story. The Sisters served in the ministries of child-care, education, and nursing “My job was in a mother and child feeding center,” Sister Nora said. “We taught them about nursing, and that it was more nutritious for the infant than sweetened condensed milk; we weighed the babies and then on neighborho­od visits, we gave out tickets for additional nutrition assistance.” These tickets entitled the barer to fresh fruits and vegetables, in addition to their rations. “We gave them to anyone who looked malnourish­ed,” she said.

When the Sisters had extra food or supplies, they smuggled it into the camps for the refugees. The late Sister Julia Huelskamp smiled during a Ripples interview, also in 2018, as she remembered riding into camp in the back of a pick-up truck with several dozen eggs, without cartons, in her blouse. “I kept thinking, I hope we don’t hit any bumps,” she laughed. The Sisters even managed to smuggle in supplies, including a wedding dress and shoes, to help a refugee couple get married in the camp. “We traced the bride’s foot, so we’d get the right size shoes,” Sister Nora said. Sister Julia wanted to give the bride a gift, and she heard that the couple liked fruit. She got three bunches of bananas from a priest who worked in the kitchen for the couple as a wedding present, again smuggling them into camp in her blouse. “They were so thrilled,” she said. “You’d think I just gave them $100.”

Numerous dignitarie­s visited the refugee camps and the Sisters serving there. Sister Nora’s favorites were actress Liv Ullman and author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. When she met Wiesel again years later at an event in Fort Wayne, she was impressed that he remembered the Poor Handmaids and their joyful service to the refugees.

Timeline 1962-1982 Ancilla College

Donaldson, Indiana

April 21, 1967

Ancilla College became a commuter college and was opened to the public.

100 Anniversar­y of PHJC in America


In celebratio­n of the 100th Anniversar­y in America, PHJC Sisters performed a musical, “Sister America” throughout the U.S. Midwest.

PHJC went to Vietnam


Sister Helen Watkins and Sister Justine Buescher went to Vietnam to provide nursing.

Catherine Kasper Home

Donaldson, Indiana

July 16, 1970

Catherine Kasper Home opens to 22 Sister residents

PHJC went to Thailand


Fifteen Poor Handmaids went to Thailand to provide nursing and childcare to Cambodian refugees.

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