Sister Christine lights up lives
by Greg Eckerle
It’s no wonder people break into a smile when they see Sister Christine Marie Fendel.
Her visits to the homebound, senior citizen centers, and area nursing homes are all about being upbeat, positive, and bringing joy.
As coordinator of the ministry to the sick and elderly for St. Ferdinand Parish, Sister Christine Marie is constantly on the go six days a week, delivering communion, prayers, compassion, and hope.
At a recent prayer service attended by 10 residents at Scenic Hills Care Center in Ferdinand, Indiana, Sister Christine launched into her usual rousing start.
“OK, how many of you woke up this morning with a good attitude? You’re not up yet? Goodness gracious,” she laughed. “When you wake up, you can have a good attitude, or what? A bad attitude. You can be happy or grouchy. So let’s be happy today, how about it?”
There were smiles and nods of agreement as Sister Christine gave instructions on how they were all going to just relax and meditate for a bit before a communion service. Sit up straight, close your eyes, breathe in deeply and hold it. Breathe in the love and goodness of Jesus, and breathe out anything bothering you. Breathe out any pain, your worries, your anxieties.
“You can do this exercise every day,” she said. “Jesus is telling you, ‘I am with you, I love you, trust me.’ So when you get ruffled, think of Jesus saying that to you.”
After leading the group in prayer, Sister Christine asked if anyone could think of something they’d like Jesus to do for them.
“I have a great grandson I’d like to be baptized,” said one.
“I’d like to have my children stay in the Catholic faith,” said another.
“I’d like to get walking again.”
“I’d like Jesus to give me a better mind.”
“I want my children healthy.”
A gospel was then read that reminded Sister Christine of the song “You Light Up My Life.” Before playing a tape of the song, she told the residents, “Jesus lights up our life every day. When I come here, you light up my life. As we listen, think of Jesus lighting up your life, and giving you hope to carry on.” She then handed out colorful streamers to everyone, turned on the song, and led the group in happily waving the streamers while singing along.
Sister Christine then visited other center residents, either in a gathering area or in their rooms. She greets people with comments about their pretty clothes, or a stylish hairdo, or how they’re looking like a movie star. The subsequent meetings typically include praying aloud together, receiving communion, and delivering a blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord let his faith shine upon you . . .”
As Sister Christine weaves a beeline through Scenic Hills, one resident shakes her head, saying, “She just keeps going and going.” Her normal routine is visiting parishioners in nursing homes in Ferdinand, Jasper, and Huntingburg, then traveling to see the homebound. Her job is termed as part-time, but is likely much closer to fulltime. She declines to count the hours she works, because she feels “it’s a real honor to serve these people.” She’s been serving for nearly five years, after ministering for the Sisters of St. Benedict in California for 44 years, mostly teaching special education children.
“They’re all so special; I love them all,” she says of the people she visits. “Aren’t they delightful? Wherever they go in what they’re talking about, you go with them.
“Both teaching special education and this ministry are alike in that it’s a blessing to be with them. I see it as a real sacrament, a true honor. And they teach me so much. I feel they give me more than I can give them. I have a plaque in my room that says ‘What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?’ That’s how I see it. These people are in need of help. I want to do as much as I possibly can for them, because they deserve it.
“I feel I’m in the presence of Jesus when I talk to people. They have lived such a good life, and are trying so hard. Just to see what some go through is such an inspiration to me. They give up so much. Most have lost a spouse, or a child, or their home. Most of them go through the suffering so cheerfully. They’re generous, and kind, and patient. People in a convalescent home have to be patient, because their whole life is about waiting. It’s inspiring to see that. Many who loved to read can’t anymore because their eyesight is gone, many can’t hear. Yet they do it with such a good spirit, and are so accepting of so many things.”
Helping to keep their spirits up are the visits by Sister Christine.
At a prayer service at Brookside Village Senior Living in Jasper, she appropriately plays the song, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . .,” on a rainy day. She exhorts everyone to show their happy face. And they invariably do. She reads aloud a gospel about Jesus curing a paralyzed man, and then asks the crowd how they are paralyzed. Maybe it’s pain, or a worry, or a grudge. She encourages them to let it go, to put it in God’s hands, so they can get closer to Jesus. As always, she follows by leading a suitable prayer.
Later, in a visit to a bedridden patient in her room, she delivers a Blessing of the Sick. Sister Christine blesses her forehead, ears, eyes, hands, feet, and heart, all the while thanking her for the many ways she used those senses. She concludes by saying, “The whole world has been better because you have been in it. You have touched your family so much . . . you are the light of Christ . . . thank you for being a gift in our lives.”
The people she visits quickly claim that Sister Christine is a gift in their lives as well. Kathy Nauman, whose mother, Freida Berg, has lived alone for 48 years, told Sister Christine, “She always talks about you, and how much she appreciates that you come out. It’s the companionship and that you’re so genuinely interested. And of course the spiritual side of it, too.”
Laverne Uebelhor and her husband, Jim, of Ferdinand really look forward to Sister Christine’s weekly visits. “She’s an angel, just a super person,” says Laverne. “She comes up with the most beautiful prayers you ever want to imagine. She says a prayer over us, and it’s so meaningful. It makes you feel wonderful. She’s just real close to us.”
Pat Bender’s home is filled with people who love Sister Christine’s appearances – Pat and her 95-year-old mother, Violet Kunkler; Pat’s husband, Larry; and their son, Greg. “We just love her,” says Pat. “She’s the sweetest person. She is so good with my handicapped son. He’s basically at home all the time, and he really enjoys when she comes. It’s a pleasant time; it makes us all feel good.
“I always tell her that I’d love to adopt her. She knows how to treat people. I don’t think there’s a situation she couldn’t fit into.”
Along with the happy discussions Sister Christine ignites, there are often serious, spiritual talks, too. “They ask me questions, and I try to be a good listener,” she says. “A lot feel guilt because they’re not able to go to church anymore. I reassure them that God has a plan for all of us, that sometimes it’s not our way, and we have to follow God’s way. It’s not always the easiest, but I tell them God never makes a mistake.”
This story appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Seek.Pray.Share.