October 29, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – In 26 years of mission work in three countries, Sister Maurine Barzantni has experienced a variety of cultures, languages, and life situations. But in all of those situations, she found people who struggled for a better life for their children and who showed incredible generosity and hospitality to visitors.
Sister Maurine’s service in the missions began in 1990 in the Dominican Republic, where she and the late Sister Renee Richie, OP, worked for 10 years with the people of Sección San José de Arroyo Hondo. The Sisters worked with the people of this small barrio, or village, listening to their needs and helping them to fulfill those needs.
During that time, the people were able to establish a health clinic, pharmacy, and school. Espiritu Santo School, part of Fe y Alegría, a Jesuit system of schools, grew from a few children learning under a tree to a school of 1,500 students from kindergarten through high school. Espiritu Santo recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“I think of my experience in the Dominican Republic as a community organizing venture, and out of that community organizing came health services and then the school,” Sister Maurine said. “We never dreamt of starting a school. It came out of the development of the community.”
After leaving the Dominican Republic in 2010, Sisters Maurine and Renee – along with Sisters Kathryn Cliatt, OP, and Christa Marsik, OP – began their ministry at St. Clare Girls’ Centre in Meru, Kenya. The orphanage takes in girls who have been orphaned and those who seek safety from dangers such as being sold as child brides.
“The community made a commitment of four Sisters for three years to be grandmothers to 250 orphaned girls,” Sister Maurine said. Each of the Sisters also offered her own focus. Sister Maurine offered the girls the opportunity to do painting and drawing. “It started out being just an invitation, but the teachers asked that it be part of the curriculum,” she said.
From 2013 to 2016, Sisters Maurine and Renee were invited to serve in Northern British Columbia, Canada, to offer their presence to indigenous people, members of the Carrier Nation, on four reservations. They served as pastoral assistants to Father Fran Salmon, OMI, Pastor of Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Fort St. James.
“The Carrier Nation not only survived, but had a vibrant community because they worked together,” Sister Maurine recalled. “They didn’t lose their traditional values and traditional way of life. They taught their children how to fish, hunt, trap, and prepare food for the winter season. They preserved their Carrier language and all that kept them united as a community.”
Sister Maurine said she has seen a similar spirit wherever she has ministered. “People who struggle for survival have incredible skills for living together, building solidarity in a community, because they need each other to survive,” she said. “People who struggle for survival also have a deep trust in the presence of the Divine.”
Sister Maurine also recalled the “generous hospitality” that she found in every place where she ministered. She gave the example of the Dominican Republic, where the small community was often visited by high school, college, and medical groups. “The people who had nothing, living in small, small houses without any conveniences, would welcome the visitors with big smiles and would say to us, ‘How is it that they would want to visit us?’ They felt that the presence of visitors was a gift to them.”
She acknowledged the challenges inherent in missionary work – differences in language and “accustoming oneself to a whole different environment.” Still, Sister Maurine said she loved every place she served. “Just the welcoming by the people and the appreciation and willingness of the people to really work for and struggle for a better life for their children” brought her joy, she said.
Her involvement in missionary work always came through an invitation, Sister Maurine said. “Invitation is the strongest vehicle for a calling,” she said. “We call it a vocation in the religious community, but a vocation is a calling. From my earliest years, I was always drawn to the poorest communities,” even in the U.S. cities, she said.
Sister Maurine has advice for anyone who is interested in serving in the missions. “Just say ‘yes’ and be very patient with yourself. Be present. Don’t try to do anything. The people will tell you what they need and sometimes you can help them achieve those goals – and sometimes you can’t. Even if you can’t, your presence is still valuable.”
Feature photo (top): From left, Sisters Kathryn Cliatt, OP, Maurine Barzantni, OP, the late Renee Richie, OP, and Christa Marsik, OP, at their home in Meru, Kenya, circa 2010.
October 24, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – Sister Rose Ann Schlitt has spent 50 of her 65 years of religious life as a missioner, serving in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and in six other countries: the Dominican Republic, Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Italy, and the Philippines.
A native of Vero Beach, Florida, Sister Rose Ann entered the Congregation in 1954 after being taught by Adrian Dominican Sisters in elementary and high school. “I felt called to that way of life,” she said. But she said she didn’t enter the Congregation planning to be a missioner, “not even thinking to be a teacher.”
Sister Rose Ann’s first assignment took her to Puerto Rico to teach in Guayama. She was then sent to teach in San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic. After teaching for two years in the United States – in Georgia and Florida – Sister Rose Ann returned to the Dominican Republic in 1966 to teach at Colegio Santo Domingo, sponsored by the Congregation and again in Santo Domingo and Haina in subsequent years.
From then on, Sister Rose Ann continued to serve in foreign lands: Peru from 1969 to 1978 and in Nicaragua, interspersed with ministries in Congregational leadership: on the General Council from 1982 to 1986 and as Chapter Prioress of the Rosa de Lima Mission Chapter, which included the Congregation’s Sisters serving overseas. In subsequent years, she served in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, 2003 to 2005; Santa Sabina, Rome, to coordinate the mission work of Dominican Volunteers International, 2005 to 2010; and in San Fernando, Pampanga, the Philippines, to accompany the Sisters of the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of Remedies as they prepared for their merger with the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
Her work as a missioner included education and pastoral ministry, as well as less formal roles. “I was living among the people and helping them to accomplish what they needed to accomplish,” she said. “I’ve taught women income-generating skills that they needed to support their families.” In Nicaragua, this involved helping the women to develop a sewing cooperative.
She has also helped people to build their own faith through Basic Christian Communities, which she coordinated in Peru. “We interpreted Scripture together,” she recalled. “We looked at our reality and response together. That model was a real joy for me.”
Sister Rose Ann clarified that, over the years, she has come to see herself as a missioner rather than a missionary. “Missionary has been updated to be more inclusive of all kinds of presence” rather than the traditional role of missionaries as evangelists. “I have learned to be with the people in very different ways for the purpose of befriending them, of living among them, of forming solidarity – forming a “we” – and not necessarily doing what I knew how to do, but what they needed me to do,” Sister Rose Ann said.
Being a missioner “is very different from one who goes as an expert and teaches from expertise,” Sister Rose Ann explained. “It’s going out of your own poverty really, but open to what is there, who is there.”
Sister Rose Ann said being a missioner has been “a call within a call. Within the call to be in religious life and mission, the second call came to be in mission more closely with the poor and live as they lived – coming down from status, letting go of recognition. It was like going down the ladder to be free, to be with others.”
“You come as a stranger and a foreigner and you have to get beyond that and reach out in a human and friendly way,” she explained. “You have to befriend them, and then anything can happen.” Missioners also have to learn the language of the people and let go of a sense of control.
Another challenge, Sister Rose Ann said, is adjusting to a new culture and customs, even to different foods. “There are some cultural differences that you don’t understand right away, or maybe you never understand,” she said. The key is to be open and suspend judgment.
Finally, Sister Rose Ann said, missioners face the challenge of leaving the people they have come to love. “It’s always a challenge to love people and then leave, but that’s a part of it, because if you love enough you don’t just stay,” she said.
Sister Rose Ann found joy in the people she came to know in her missions, but also in her work with Dominican Volunteers International. “That was a real joy, to be at Santa Sabina [in Rome], to live in an inter-Dominican community of Sisters and to prepare lay people from different parts of the world – to help them prepare, look at their objectives, look at missionary attitudes, and help them prepare for their service.”
In working with the Dominican Volunteers, Sister Rose Ann looked for certain qualities that point to those who are well matched to life as a missioner. She looked for “someone who knows it’s not going to be about them – a certain simplicity and sensitivity to the other.” She saw a good disposition in most volunteers. “None of them really were sent and thought they were going to be the experts,” she said. “All of them felt they had a lot to learn.”
Sister Rose Ann also offers this wise counsel on serving in the missions, attributed to Lao Tsu, a Chinese philosopher who founded the school of Taoism in the sixth century before Christ:
“Go to the people, live with them, learn from them, love them. Start with what they know, build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”
Feature photo (top): Sister Rose Ann Schlitt, OP, introduces herself to neighbors in Barrio Acahualinca, Managua, Nicaragua Circa 1979.
July 30, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – Four years ago, Sister Sharon Spanbauer, OP, Nurse Practitioner, made a significant move – not in miles but in patients. She changed her ministry from treating retired Adrian Dominican Sisters at the Dominican Life Center (DLC) in Adrian to treating students in their late teens and early 20s at the neighboring Siena Heights University.
But whether treating retired Sisters with often complex medical conditions or young students with headaches or colds, Sister Sharon remains the caring nurse who focuses on healing her patients holistically. “Each person to whom I minister is the face of God,” she said.
Sister Sharon has been the Director of Health Services at Siena Heights University since 2015. During the school year, she runs a free, one-woman health clinic for the students, faculty, and staff members. “I’m here Monday to Friday, no appointment needed,” she said. “They come in and I assess them in the exam room and diagnose, and a lot of times I can treat them here with over-the-counter medications.” If a patient has a more complicated or a chronic illness, she said, she gives them “stop-gap care” and recommends that they have a primary health care provider in town.
Sister Sharon also gives TB tests for nursing students who must be tested before they begin clinical rotations, free flu shots, speaks to classes about health issues, and serves on Siena Heights University committees.
Sister Sharon said the most common complaints of her young patients are respiratory problems like colds or gastro-intestinal illnesses, but she has seen a wide variety of illnesses, including some cancer patients. She diagnosed one student with lymphoma. She also has surprising cases – such as the young man who had accidentally cut off the tip of his finger on the razor blade in his personal items kit. “I told him it would grow back and it did,” Sister Sharon recalled. “The human body is amazing.”
On a busy day, Sister Sharon said, she might see 10 patients. This gives her enough time to be thorough in her examinations. “I believe in examining and listening and really asking good questions, trying to understand who they are, what they’re studying, what their home life is like,” she said.
In addition, Sister Sharon gives her patients a listening ear, compassion, and healing, along with “a lot of information, some guidance, a lot of teaching,” she said. “Nobody comes here and sees me without coming out with some teaching. It’s the teacher in me.”
Sister Sharon enjoys her work with the students and finds them to be “very kind and thoughtful.” She added that she is “proud to work for a university that works so diligently to provide an education to those who might not otherwise have one. And I love the students. It’s just a joy, working with them and being able to use my skills in a really satisfying way.”
Sister Sharon said she also loved her ministry – from 2001 to 2014 – as a Nurse Practitioner with the Sisters at the Dominican Life Center. Typically, she said, the Sisters had “multiple diagnoses, multiple medications were far more complex, and required a level of rigor in my care of them,” she said. The clinic at Siena Heights University “is more relaxed – most of [the illnesses] are handled very simply.”
Like most Sisters, Sister Sharon began as a teacher. “I loved teaching and I loved my students, but I always wondered what in their life was happening that I knew nothing about,” she said. She yearned for a one-on-one ministry. In her search, Sister Sharon considered becoming a physician or a physical therapist, then decided to become a nurse practitioner after recalling her experience, while a novice, as a nursing assistant for the Sisters in the infirmary.
In 1989, Sister Sharon left her ministry as a chemistry teacher at Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights, Michigan, to earn her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) from Wayne State University through its “second career, second degree” program. “Anyone with a degree could get a degree in nursing in 14 months, paid for by Henry Ford Hospital,” she recalled. She completed her clinicals at Henry Ford and worked at that hospital as a registered nurse for three years, from 1990 to 1993. The requirement was two years. She then served as home health care nurse until 1995.
Sister Sharon earned her Nurse Practitioner degree from Michigan State University and went on to minister at Dillon Family Medicine, a large, busy clinic in Dillon, South Carolina, sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. Sister Sharon has been pleased with her choice to minister as a nurse practitioner. “I’ve been so fortunate,” she said. “When I went to the DLC I got to shape my role because I was the first nurse practitioner in Adrian. Nobody could figure out what I was.” She helped the hospital and the local physicians to understand that nurse practitioners had the training and certification to write orders, order lab tests, and receive reports about their patients.
She said she would recommend nursing and serving as a nurse practitioner to anybody who is considering it. “I think nursing is the perfect profession for many people – male and female,” Sister Sharon said. “You can do clinical work, research, work in a doctor’s office, in a school, in a prison system – it’s endless what you can do with your specific gift. You can find your place in nursing. If you feel called to help others, nursing is a natural choice.”