Story by RAFE MIDDEKE
The phone call came at 2:35 a.m., Oct. 31, 1992. The message: The five Ruma Adorers ministering in Liberia, Africa are dead. Sister Mildred Gross’s immediate reaction was obvious: One of shock, numbness, disbelief of the senselessness of their deaths.
For Sister Mildred, as the provincial of the Ruma Adorers at the time, the ensuing hours, days and weeks were preoccupied with calling families, responding to the sisters, news conferences, processing the return of the bodies of the “martyrs of charity” — first called “martyrs of charity” by Pope John Paul II — from a country engulfed in a violent civil war. The first calls, after verification of the initial message, were to families of the sisters.
“It was a long time before I came to what my feelings were, feelings which were so mixed,” she said recently.
At the same time definitive initial responses were made. “We decided we couldn’t focus on the brutality of their deaths but on the legacy of their lives. “It is the lives, not the violent deaths that I and we as a province remember, honor and celebrate,” she said. “We also didn’t get involved in the politics of the Liberian people.
“Today, many churches, clinics and schools (in Liberia) are dedicated to them,” she said.
Sister Mildred was born Aug. 8, 1937 in Evansville.
Although she completed four years of high school at the Precious Blood Institute in Ruma as a day student, and three of her sisters were members of the ASC community she had no intention of following in their footsteps. “I felt strongly that three of my sisters had entered and that was enough,” she said. “However, in my senior year I realized there was more to life than having a good time. I felt called to help others, particularly in the field of nursing. I was a little like St. Paul knocked off his horse.”
After graduating, she entered the Ruma convent with her parents’ blessing, though “my father found it extremely difficult to give up another daughter.” She was the youngest of 10 siblings. And, though “my friends gave me a one-week stay at the convent, once I entered and put my hands to the plow I was confirmed in my decision.”
In the early years of her religious life she experienced a heart problem which might have indicated a lack of vocation to religious life. She emphasized: “Nevertheless I was never asked to leave nor did I ask to leave. I have reflected often on this and that God really wanted me” to be a religious.
She professed her first vows in 1957, and her final vows in 1962.
After a year of teaching at St. Clare School in O’Fallon she continued her education and was then unexpectedly asked to be the director of medical records at St. Clement Hospital in Red Bud. She continued as a medical records director for 17 years, receiving a degree in medical records and growing in her pastoral commitment to her ongoing health ministry.
Sister Mildred later received a post-graduate certification in spirituality, certification in chaplaincy and certificate in spiritual direction.
After serving as director of pastoral care/assistant administrator at St. Joseph Hospital in Murphysboro (1981-83) she was elected to leadership as a provincial councilor of the Ruma Province in 1983 and as the community’s provincial in 1987 until 1994.
Leadership models had changed dramatically since Sister Mildred’s
early years as a member of a religious community, largely because of changes introduced by Vatican Council II and developed in the ensuing years. Sister Mildred said her assignments supported her ongoing ministries, particularly in the field of health care. As provincial, leadership was exercised as a team and ministries were developed in a discernment process.
When her leadership roles ended in 1994, Sister Mildred continued her health ministry as corporate director of spiritual care for Southern Illinois Healthcare, a non-denominational, not-for-profit health system.
She returned to Ruma (2002-12) as director of community life and mission at the Ruma Center, which largely responds to the needs, including health needs, of retired sisters. “I think the job fit me,” she said, “with my laid back personality, my calming presence, my organizational skills and domestic ability.” She said that sharing in the sisters’ faith journeys enriched her own life and gave “me courage to embrace my own aging process.” When a visitor asked one of the sisters what Sister Mildred’s job was, she said: “It is her job to keep us happy.”
The ministry was also a daily reminder of the dramatic diminishment of her religious community. The Ruma Center serves as the community’s retirement and nursing home, and new vocations are not present in classes as they were when she joined the community. They occur as an individual entry here and there. The former three U.S. ASC provinces have merged into one in 2000 — a reality common for many female and male religious communities in the U.S. Asked how that affects her, she responded in the context of the gift that has been fundamental to her religious life and ministry. “We have a strong commitment and dedication to moving on. We are more creative. I have to live in the present.” She also said the ASC community is an international community and the American community diminishment is not necessarily the experience of ASC communities internationally. At the same time lay people have taken a more active role in the church. The reality of ASC associates is an example.
Almost five years ago Sister Mildred began volunteering at St. Vincent de Paul in East St. Louis as an administrative assistant and prayer leader at Cosgrove’s Kitchen. She has also inherited Sister Ann Connolly’s and Sister Mary Jane Schrage’s role as the cookie sister.
The Vincent de Paul ministry provides a less structured experience, in the sense that problems are immediate and often not open to planning. “I am an organizer,” she said, and this less structured experience is enervating for her, and the Vincent de Paul ministry is “a holy ministry.”
Sister Mildred’s leadership talents continue to be recognized. She has been a board member of Catholic Charities of Southern Illinois and served a term as its chairperson. She continues as a member of the diocesan diaconate committee, on the board of the Ministry to the Sick and Aged and the board of the Apartment Community at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.
Family and friends gathered Tuesday, Aug. 8, to celebrate Sister Mildred’s 80th birthday. Her plans for the future are a continuation of the ministry at St. Vincent de Paul.
Reflecting on her religious life and ministry she said: “I have a grateful heart for God’s faithful love for 60 years and for the education and experience that I have had as an Adorer.”