March 27, 2020, San Rafael, California – At Dominican University of California, professional faculty members are not the only people who teach students and influence their lives. Sister Mary Soher, OP, as Director of Campus Ministry, and student leaders help the entire university community to understand the ideals of the Dominican Order, reach out to people in need, and become involved in social justice issues.
“I work with our student leaders to help our university community embrace and embody the Dominican ideals of study, reflection, community, and service,” Sister Mary said. “I’m learning how to advise and empower them so that they continue to grow as leaders in developing a variety of skills, amidst all their other responsibilities. I’m learning how to best support them and then together offering quality programming to their peers and to the university.”
An Adrian Dominican Sister, she is in her fourth year of service at Dominican University of California, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.
Sister Mary and her team of students work to make members of the campus community aware of issues such as homelessness and hunger; coordinate Sunday liturgies, labyrinth walks, retreats, and a variety of activities; and support students in their challenges.
An ongoing project of Sister Mary and the student leaders is the Penguin Pantry, initiated in September 2018 that once a week offers students with a selection of produce, starches, protein, juices, and snacks from the SF-Marin Food Bank. “It’s totally run by students for the students and it’s become an opportunity for internships and capstone projects,” Sister Mary said. The students are now working with the food pantry’s government affairs manager, becoming involved in advocacy work.
Student leaders are also active in making their fellow students aware of the issue of homelessness. Sister Mary said, the student leaders recently collaborated with a local group that provides outreach to homeless youth to offer the students the opportunity to participate in a solidarity sleep-out.
“We sleep on the plaza using cardboard boxes and sleeping bags for protection,” she explained. The students do have some comforts – the availability of rest rooms and the knowledge that they can go back to their homes if they get too cold. Despite these advantages, Sister Mary said, the experience is one of solidarity with people who are homeless. “It’s being willing to experience for a night what other people have no choice but to experience,” she said.
Sister Mary also led an Alternative Spring Break that brought 10 students to the San Diego-Tijuana border to learn about immigration issues. During the March 7-14, 2020, trip, the students spent three days on each side of the border, learning about the issues and hearing from people who minister to immigrants – as well as from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Sister Mary’s ministry also involves supporting the students in their challenges. She pointed to financial insecurity as a major issue for many students. “There’s a lot of pressure that I think they put on themselves because many are first-generation in their family to go to college,” she explained. “They feel they have to be perfect.” Many also feel pressured by the idea of repaying student loans and feel the responsibility to be present to their family members at home.
Her work with the students is enhanced by the University community itself, which offers a supportive environment to the students, helping them deal with self-doubts and pressures. “The University is really trying to build a support system to help each student,” she said.
Sister Mary has learned a great deal from her ministry at Dominican University of California, such as developing her listening skills. In addition, she said, she has benefited from her service on the Board of Trustees of Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. “I’m looking at higher education from the perspective of a board member and a member of the Congregation that founded it,” she said. “I see higher education from both ends,” both as a staff member and as a board member who must be concerned about the “hands-on experience of the daily operations of a university.”
Sister Mary said her years of serving in campus ministry have taught her to be present to the students in various activities. “I really believe in the ministry of presence – going to the sport events, the theater events, the academic presentations and being visible so that if a student needs someone to talk to they find me approachable,” she said. “Students come to college, some knowing exactly what they want to do and some not having a clue, and to be one other person to help reflect back to them what’s going on in their life is a humbling and an exciting ministry.”
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.”
May 10, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Sunday afternoons and classical concerts seem to go together so well – and thanks to Sister Magdalena Ezoe, OP, the Sisters at the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse enjoy this beautiful and uplifting combination once every month.
Since 2011, Sister Magdalena has offered a concert in St. Catherine Chapel at 1:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of the month – with the exception of April 2018, when she “let Easter and April Fool’s Day take precedence” and rescheduled her concert for Sunday, April 8.
The idea for the First Sunday concert series grew out of Sister Magdalena’s more than 30 years as Professor of Music at Siena Heights University in Adrian. “At Siena I offered the First Sunday series from 1985 to 1995,” she recalled. Her concerts involved samples of classical works, which she used to teach a lesson about music. “One student asked why I never played the entire piece,” she recalled. “He inspired me to do a complete concert.”
She began the monthly program at the Motherhouse with a series called “Do you Hear What I Hear,” offered from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. on Fridays. “I started teaching the Sisters on campus,” she said. “Music is a structure,” which tells the musician the tempo, how loudly or softly to play, as well as the notes to be played, Sister Magdalena explained. In that series, she taught musical concepts such as two-part music, in which one theme, A, is contrasted with another theme, B. “When A is repeated, you call it three-part form,” she explained. “Very satisfying because when A is repeated, people recognize that they have heard it before.”
Sister Magdalena hopes her current concert series will help the Sisters to appreciate and enjoy classical music. “American culture doesn’t know classical music,” she said. People need to hear a particular musical piece often before they can even judge whether they like it, she explained. “You can’t tell until you’ve heard it several times. The reason people like Beethoven’s work is that people hear it so often.”
Her concert ministry involves more than showing up at the chapel at 1:30 p.m. on the first Sundays of the month. Sister Magdalena selects the music and theme for each concert and devotes hours to practicing for it.
Sister Magdalena grew up in her native Japan during World War II, enduring the bombs and other hardships of life during war. As a child, she was surrounded by music in a musical family; one uncle ran a music conservatory, and Sister Magdalena herself was a pianist for the Yoyogi American School in Japan.
Sister Magdalena also inherited from her family a love for travel. Her grandfather, Ezoe Renzo, used his English skills in 1876 to serve as the interpreter for a Japanese porcelain company taking part in the Philadelphia Expo. He returned to the United States to study commerce in New York, and in 1908 sent his son, Sister Magdalena’s father, to a military school in Manlius, New York, near Syracuse.
Sister Magdalena in turn traveled to Miami, Florida, at the age of 20, to study at Barry College, now University, sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. “A year later, I took the next step in my adventure and entered the Adrian Dominican Congregation,” she said.
As an Adrian Dominican Sister, she taught music for 11 years at Dominican High School in Detroit and for a short time at St. Dominic College in St. Charles, Illinois. Her next stop was Siena Heights, where she taught for 37 years.
Through the years, Sister Magdalena has also composed Mass parts, responsorial psalms, and hymns, as well as chamber music and music for the organ and the piano.
Sister Magdalena’s talents as a musician and a composer have not gone unnoticed. In 2012, the Dominican Institute for the Arts bestowed on her the Fra Angelico Award for her gifts as a musician and composer. The highest honor that the DIA can bestow on a member, the award is named for the great Dominican artist.
Sister Magdalena’s hope for her current ministry is that the Sisters will continue to enjoy and appreciate the music that she offers them on the First Sundays of each month.