Eulogy for Sister Mary Esther Otter, Nov. 22, 1933—Jan. 13, 2018

January 16, 2018 by

VIGIL:  Jan. 16, 2018, at the Nazareth Motherhouse
EULOGY:  Sister Mary Jo Thummel

Psalm 100

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
our maker to whom we belong
whose people we are, God’s well-tended flock.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.
good indeed is the Lord.
Whose love endures forever,
whose faithfulness lasts through every age.

Sister Mary Esther Otter, born Nov. 22, 1933, to Frank G. Otter and Margaret K. Bates, was christened Irene Fernunda that same day in St. Joseph’s Church, New Almelo, Kan., by Msgr. John B. Vornholdt. She grew up on a farm near Clayton, Kan., in Norton County. She was the third child in a family of eight children. Her brothers are Alvin and Marion and sisters Virginia, (Sister Francis Margaret), Donna, (Sister Donna), and JoAnn (Mrs. Roger Long). Two siblings, Rita and Emory, died at birth.

Sister Mary Esther said, “I live in gratitude for my Faith and value system learned from my parents. Religion meant very much to my parents who were quite contemplative by nature and we shared many hours pondering the Creator, Earth and nature’s contribution to life. My mother was a gentle soft-spoken woman, eager to please. My father felt that the family that prayed together stayed together. Both were creative and we all profit from that talent.”

After attending public grade school taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and high school in Clayton, Sister Mary Esther enrolled in Marymount College in the fall of 1951. After a retreat given by a Passionist Father, she decided to enter. (Mother Chrysostom was the Mother General, at that time.) Sister Mary Esther and three other young women, Christina Meyer, Eulalia Kloeker and Leona Reiter entered on Feb. 6, 1952. Of this experience Mary Esther said,  “I had admired the Sisters at Marymount, my own sister, Sister Francis Margaret, and the sisters from my grade school days who always seemed to be happy and have so little convenience.”

(Sisters Christina and Eulalia remain on the journey with us, but Leona decided that religious life wasn’t her calling and left after a number of years.)

Other significant happenings in Mary Esther’s life at this time were: her father’s death in 1956, and her sister Donna’s entrance into the Sisters of St. Joseph. Mary Esther rejoiced for Donna.

Sister Mary Esther taught for 26 years in Manhattan, Kan., Silver City N.M., Cawker City, Kan., Schoenchen, Kan., Manhattan Kan., and Salina Kan.

Of her years of teaching, Mary Esther said, “My 26 years of teaching were both memorable and, at times, exhausting. I recall many enjoyable experiences and treasure the many years I prepared children for the Sacraments of Penance and their first Eucharist. Often I realize the great responsibility of that trust. In the later years of teaching I also realized that each of the children were so unique and their needs varied so much and I took advantage of the opportunity to try to individualize the curriculum. My frustration with trends in teaching opportunities to meet individual needs and the fact that my feet needed attention were signs that God was calling me to other areas of ministry. Two traumatic experiences stand out in my teaching career. They are my assignment as principal for three years in Cawker City — and my unpreparedness — and witnessing the burning of our school in Schoenchen, Kan., on April 30, 1975.”

During her years of teaching, Sister Mary Esther also assisted with the summer program for migrants in Goodland, Kan., taught religious education classes, and numerous vacation bible schools.

In 1980, Sister Mary Esther was invited to assist in the continuing education program in Junction City, Kan., to help immigrants acclimate themselves to a new country. This was a valuable and broadening experience, but due to limited federal funds and other factors, she left after one year.

Sister Mary Esther saw this as an opportunity to request time for a deeper inner search of God’s action in her life. She entered the Personal Growth program in St. Paul, Minn., where she spent 18 months with 30 sisters belonging to various communities throughout the United States and Canada and realized that the Church was graced with many strong, talented and faith-filled women.

After leaving Minnesota, Sister Mary Esther spent five months assisting in the Emmanuel Prayer House in Iowa, City, Iowa, as receptionist, typist and conveyor of hospitality. During this time, Mary Esther realized the she had to take care of her “ailing feet.”

While waiting to get everything in place to have the surgeries needed, Sister Mary Esther learned of reflexology and arranged to take the International Reflexology Course out of St. Petersburg, Fla. She was able to take this course in Des Moines, Iowa, and received a certificate in the Ingham Method of Reflexology.
After having surgery on her feet and recuperating, Sister Mary Esther felt like she had a new spirit. This gave her the urge to find a new ministry. In January of 1985 she accepted an invitation from Sister Viatora Solbach to assist in opening a hospitality house in Junction City for women and women with children needing a place during crisis times.

At the time of accepting the invitation, Sister Mary Esther also learned that the convent in Junction City was closing. She said, “With only two sisters being in the school the community felt it unfair to have the sisters reside in such a large facility. I also learned that I was coming to a parish community with mixed emotions about the closing of the convent and displeasure over their pastoral minister making plans to live and work in the northeast part of Junction City and predominantly with a black segment of society. But God was having his/her way again.”

In late June, Sister Mary Esther arrived in Junction City. She and Sister Viatora lived with a Mrs. Eleanor Nolan until in August when a third member would be added to their household. She said, “Now I also became a ‘woman in need of shelter’ without income. In retrospect, I realize this was God’s post-graduate classes in empathy and understanding of this ministry not offered in any university.”

Sisters Viatora and Mary Esther wrote for grants and appealed to the administration of our congregation for aid. Sister Mary Esther mentions that the administration team was of great support. During this time, Sisters Viatora and Mary Esther visited other shelters, many churches in Junction City and spread awareness of their cause throughout the city. It was also during this time that Sister Mary Esther’s mother suffered a stroke on Jan. 6, 1986. Because St. Clare House wasn’t yet ready to open, Sister Mary Esther was able to help with the care of her mother.

In February of 1986, St. Clare House was ready for them to move in, and continue readying the house for ministry.

Through the “summer ministry program” Marrayne, a young woman from Los Angeles, was added to the staff and proved to be very valuable to the ministry. Sister Mary Esther said, “I stand in awe at the unfolding of such miraculous happenings of Providence to us all. I believe thoroughly that God had called Sister Vi to this work and each of us to assist at this time.”

In the summer of 1987, Sister Mary Esther experienced her first plane ride to Los Angeles when she and Marrayne attended a religious education congress. Sister Mary Esther felt that perhaps this was a provision by God for her as she would take a longer plane trip to Brazil in late June.

With Sister Donna’s visit to the United States in 1987, a seed of a possible visit to Teresina, Piaui, Brazil, to assist with the 25th anniversary celebration was planted. In June of 1988, Sisters Mary Esther, Francis Margaret, and eight other community members traveled to Brazil. About this trip, Mary Esther said, “For 23 years I could only imagine my sister’s and the other Sister’s surroundings, the climate, the people and all. I read letters of sharings with love, trust, concern and wondering what all was not being shared. How I treasure the experience of actually traveling, landing and meeting the women who also blindly accepted us across the waters in Concordia. I saw Donna in the setting of a people she dearly loved and I saw how loving and graciously accepted she was by these same Spirit-filled people. I witnessed the responsibility placed on her and us in forming native religious to take on the bringing of the CSJ charism to another people and another country. I observed that we had much to learn from this group of women and their passionate zeal, basic communities and Earth spirituality.”

Sister Mary Esther continued to minister at St Clare House through June, 1994. By that time, the old convent in Junction City had been purchased by the Ministerial Alliance and became a shelter for men, women and families. St Clare House, which was deemed to have served its purpose, became a ministry of the Crisis Center of Manhattan that was in need of space in the Junction City-area. Those were years that tried Sister Mary Esther’s strength and blessed her with opportunities to meet God in the dear neighbor of women in need. She said, “I realized each day was full of the profound awareness of God’s presence.”

After leaving St. Clare House, Sister Mary Esther took a sabbatical that she called ‘a year of nomadic ministry.’ She spent time making a 30-day retreat in Republic, Mo., with the Little Portion Franciscan Sisters. She also spent time at Open Door in Junction City and as a driver in Plainville, Kan.

In 1995, she returned to her home parish in New Almelo to care for her mother. While caring for her mother she also ministered at the parish, made craft items for Open Door in Junction City and offered some reflexology treatments. She speaks of learning much from her mother’s suffering during those years.

After her mother’s death and because of her own failing eyesight, Sister Mary Esther returned to the Motherhouse in 2000. As was her pattern, her ministry to the “dear neighbor” continued among her sisters here. She Assisted Sister Mary Julia Stegeman in the greenhouse and with the plants in the Motherhouse, took the Eucharist to sisters within the Motherhouse, assisted with recycling, shared in the weekly rosary at Mt. Joseph and lent a hand wherever needed.

In February of 2017, a fall and broken hip necessitated that Sister Mary Esther move to Mt. Joseph. As she was able, she continued her ministry of loving presence to Sister Francis Margaret, the community of sisters at Mt. Joseph and other residents. Up to her last breath she had a smile and show of appreciation to all who were present with her.

As I reviewed Sister Mary Esther’s life story, I couldn’t help but note the many times she mentioned how she came to see the presence of God in all the events of her life. Often she mentions that she didn’t understand an event in her life but then speaks of a lesson which she thought God was unfolding for her by that happening.
There are nuances throughout Sister Mary Esther’s life history that speaks of the depth of her relationship with God. One that spoke to me was a piece she had written about what might be recorded in her eulogy. The piece has six stanzas the last of which says:

“Yes, let my life be written and care not what is said
of the good, the bad, and the misunderstood
But know instead pages will rot long after I’m dead
And only my relationships written in
the heart of God will be read.”

The reason I started our tribute this evening with Psalm 100 was because of another piece that she had written. Among Sister Mary Esther’s papers I found a sheet of notebook paper with a line from Psalm 100, “Come with joy into the presence of the Lord.” What followed this line was a prayer written by Mary Esther, which I would like to share with you.

How can I pray
You who are beyond the mystery of knowing
beyond what is knowable and unknowable
beyond speech and silence
beyond the only words I know
beyond the prayers I can say
beyond the prayers I trust
Set me free so that for just
this day I can pray to you
not with words
but with wonder and
amazement

Dear Mary Esther, I believe your prayer has been answered and that you are joyfully present in amazement before the face of God.

Memorials for Sister Mary Esther Otter may be given to the Sisters of St. Joseph Health Care/Retirement Fund or the Apostolic Works of the Sisters; P.O. Box 279, Concordia KS 66901. To make an online donation in Sister Mary Esther’s memory, click on the button below:

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