Retired priests, sisters continue to make their mark on local parishes

Staff writer

For many retired priests and women religious, retirement doesn’t lead to a gold watch and a condo in Florida – it’s the first step to a continuing calling to help others.

They serve in individual parishes and schools, in diocesan roles and in private prayer, serving as a spiritual force multiplier to accomplish greater goals than might be possible otherwise. The Diocese of Belleville will support their work through a special collection at Masses on Dec. 8-9 to benefit elderly Catholic sisters, brothers and religious order priests.

Father Donald Blaes officially retired in 2006, but he has never stopped assisting at both a diocesan and a parish level.

Currently, he serves on the Presbyteral Council, a group of priests who assist the bishop in the governance of the diocese. For the past two years, he’s been a presenter at Into My Vineyard, a program that helps people in lay ministry positions grow parish participation.

“We want to help them expand their ministry and be a helping hand in getting the job done,” Father Blaes says.

And he maintains a regular schedule of filling in at Masses throughout the area.

“I say Mass every Sunday at the Lithuanian church, Immaculate Conception in East St. Louis,” Father Blaes says. “I filled in at Holy Trinity yesterday, and I’ll be back there on Friday. I help out and pitch in – they call me, or they ask me when they see me someplace: ‘I need a priest, are you free?’”

He notes that with Advent coming up, he’ll assist at a number of local penance services and hear individual confessions.

As busy a schedule as that seems, Father Blaes says he’s actually slowed down a bit from the early days of his retirement, when he lived in Waterloo.

“I was called upon much more to help out in Columbia and Tipton,” he says. “But I couldn’t maintain my house by myself anymore and since I came here, I haven’t been as active.”

“Here” is the Hincke-Sense Residence, an independent-living facility for retired priests. Father Blaes estimates that of the dozen other priests who live at his residence, about half are active and volunteering throughout the diocese.

“At this point in the diocese, there is a huge shortage of priests,” he notes. “Those of us who are still on our feet try to help out. We who are retired still feel obligated to serve the people of God wherever we can, however we can.”

Now 88 years old, he knows that at some point in the future, he’ll no longer be able to be as active. “Until the time comes when I can’t do it anymore, I’m going to do what I can.”

Recent retiree Sister Gabrielle Rowe has pursued a lot of important work during her nearly six decades with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. She taught English to high school and college students (including stints teaching at Southwestern Illinois College and McKendree University). She served for 15 years as a chaplain at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and held a leadership role in her order.

She also volunteered for a few years as a court-appointed special advocate for children in crisis.

But retirement has taken her someplace new – kindergarten classes at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis.

“I’d never even taught below ninth grade,” Sister Gabrielle says.

She makes multiple visits a week to Beth Smith’s kindergarten classroom, often giving one-on-one attention to children who struggle.

“I have a little boy who should really be in preschool but he’s in kindergarten – she’s working to help get him a little more comfortable with kindergarten,” Smith says.

“There’s another student she works with who has a hard time sitting still and focusing. She’s very professional, but also very kind, and loving and gentle with the kids.”

Sister Gabrielle finds her new role “life-giving … challenging … fun, delightful.”

“We are a mission-oriented order,” she says. “We minister wherever we see a need, and are called to be a compassionate presence wherever that need calls us.”

In addition to her work at Sister Thea Bowman, she also volunteers with Hospice of Southern Illinois, visiting patients, and works at the Adorers’ local office.

It’s a busy life for the 88-year-old, but Sister Gabrielle says the work gives her life. She lives in an apartment in west Belleville with a fellow retired nun and plans to keep at her volunteer work as long as she can.

Sister Gabrielle notes that even her sisters who can no longer venture out to help in offices and schools and hospitals continue to perform the most important service of all.

“They contribute in prayer,” she says. “Prayer is the powerhouse behind the work of the Church, especially the prayers of retired sisters and priests.

“If you believe in the power of prayer, you’ve got some of the very best, the most practiced, right there.”