Cookies and milk. That’s how Sr. Jolene’s vocation began. Her father was the janitor at St. Boniface when she was little, and she remembers sitting on the basement steps of the convent every Monday morning, watching the nuns doing laundry. When they were done, they invited her to the kitchen with them, and gave her fresh-baked sugar cookies and milk. The sisters were loving and caring, and, spending time with them, her love for them grew. When she began school at St. Elizabeth’s, she met the sisters there, and loved them too.
By the time she started high school, she knew she wanted to be a nun, so she went to the Mother House on Milwaukee Street for her Freshman year. She wasn’t old enough to formally enter the community, however, so she spent the following two years at the Academy of Our Lady, in Chicago. Her Senior year, she spent at an aspiranture that had recently opened in Prairie du Chien. She remembers there were seven girls who graduated together. Most came back into formation at the Mother House in Milwaukee, and then, somehow, she became the only one who stayed.
Her teaching degree is from Mt. Mary, and she subsequently earned a Master’s in Reading at Cardinal Stritch. Those of us lucky enough to know her while she was at Cabrini remember Sr. Jolene as a warm and wonderful 1st and 2nd grade teacher. So you might be surprised to know that, after leaving Cabrini in 1976, Sr. Jolene left teaching, and began a whole new segment of her long, rich, and varied career.
When Sr. Jolene came to Cabrini, it was her third teaching position. She began at Holy Cross right out of school. Her first class had 54 children. “Wow.” It was a big challenge for a new teacher, and she is grateful she had a good mentor teacher to help her.
After three years, she and two other teachers were invited to leave Holy Cross to open a new school, St. John Vianney. The school building wasn’t ready in time, so the first class was taught in the parlor of the convent. They brought student desks right into the convent. You could see cows out the window, she remembers, and the kids were fascinated.
In 1968, she came to Cabrini, and she taught here for eight years. She began teaching 2nd grade. She loved working with the children who were preparing for their First Communion and First Reconciliation. She loved seeing how earnest they were, and how they changed, and began to see God in a new way. She loved helping to prepare them for an experience that would affect their whole lives. Even then, the 2nd graders held a special, day-long retreat before their First Communion, with no other subjects that day, just preparation and practice, and gearing up for the Sacrament, to help the children be more conscious of how special it was.
She thinks of preparation for First Confession as helping children develop their sense of right and wrong, so they can understand it. “But you don’t want to make them afraid of God,” she explains. “Instead, you want to do the groundwork for showing them how to be with one another and with God.”
Sr. Jolene taught 2nd grade for three years, then taught a combined 1st and 2nd grade class for a year, and then 1st grade for four years. School enrollment was high, but also fluctuating, so it wasn’t unusual at the time to have classes with mixed grades. Her students loved her, and so did the families. “She has a wonderful presence that she brings,” says Sr. Marianne, her friend and colleague. Francis and Rita Peters even named a daughter for her. Her namesake Jolene is a teacher now too, which delights Sr. Jolene.
Neighborhood kids loved the nuns, and felt comfortable ringing the doorbell and visiting the convent, pretty much any time. There were a lot of Cabrini families on the block, and a real family spirit among the families and the nuns. “They loved us and we loved them.”
She remembers doing an exchange with 2nd graders at St. Leo’s in Milwaukee. The children sent each other letters during the year. One day the children from St. Leo’s came to visit their friends in West Bend. She loved seeing the children find their pen pals, and hug them, seeing only a new friend, and not seeing the differences. She also remembers field trips to the Peters’ farm for a hay ride.
Sr. Jolene was interested in innovations in teaching. One year, she and Sr. Marianne and a group of colleagues took a summer class on the methods of British primary teaching. They learned a lot they thought was valuable, and were very gung-ho. They came back and tried to implement it all. “Some of it worked,” she says with a smile. Some of those innovations are things that are commonplace in classrooms now, but at the time were groundbreaking, for example lots of hands-on experiences, and working in smaller groups. Sr. Jolene was recognized for her innovative and excellent teaching with a Teacher of the Year award from the Archdiocese.
As gifted as she is at teaching, Sr. Jolene has many other talents. When she left Cabrini, it was to go in a different direction. She made her first directed retreat, which, as she says, gave her a different perspective on her life, and helped her see that her teaching experience was coming to an end. She took a year of discernment, and during that time, was invited to join the staff of the House of Affirmation, where she worked for five years.
At that point, she took a year to be trained in Spiritual Direction, after which she was invited to be the Novice Directress in St. Louis. She worked with women who were just beginning to live a religious life, and were involved in the discernment process, as they came to understand whether they wanted to make this life their own. “The women were wonderful. It was a blessed experience to be part of the growth of spirituality on a human level.” She held that position for four years.
Her next adventure had her on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, where she served for four years as a pastoral associate for a Hispanic parish. She fell in love with the desert. She says she carries the desert in her heart. Whenever she had the opportunity, she would climb the hills, and enjoy just looking around. She loved the mountains, and meeting God up on the mountain tops. She also loved the flowering cactus. There are flowering cacti at Notre Dame of Elm Grove, where she lives now. They’re outside, and all winter they “droop like ears, and then summer comes and they’re so beautiful.” She has a little book called The Way of the Desert, which she treasures.
After four years in Arizona, Sr. Jolene received calls suggesting she consider a leadership position with the Province. After discerning, she felt it was the right time. She spent six years working on a team with sisters, “who were wonderful.”
Her next move was to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she worked in the Diocesan Office of Spiritual Development. She spent ten years in that position, working with 27 parishes, before ending her formal ministry. She “sort of retired back to Milwaukee” in 2007, and continued to work in a voluntary capacity in spiritual direction. She moved to Notre Dame of Elm Grove last year, “when arthritis got the better of me,” but continues to keep a busy volunteer schedule.
Looking back, she observes, “It’s been a full life, and an enriching one. I’ve met lots of people along the way.”
We’re blessed to have been part of her life journey.