After 106 years of love, Rantoul bids farewell to the Springfield Dominicans

Sister Paulette Joerger, OP, embraces Sara Brown as they share memories at the reception after Mass at St. Malachy Church in Rantoul on June 27. She said she has a special place in her heart for the Springfield Dominicans because her aunt was also a member of the community, but there's another tie that binds with Sister Paulette: "She's a Cubs fan and so am I!" (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

RANTOUL — With a promise to pray for one another, Sister Paulette Joerger, OP, and the members of St. Malachy Parish said goodbye to one another during Mass last Sunday.

There were tears shed on both sides since it is the first time the Rantoul parish and school will be without the Dominican Sisters of Springfield in 106 years.

“It has been a blessing for me to call St. Malachy my home for the last 26 years,” Sister Paulette said from the choir loft, where she was playing the guitar for one last Mass with her beloved choir. “Thank you for your love and your kindness and your faith. We’ll pray for each other as we journey on together.”

“The witness of the Dominicans has been the witness of their prayer, their teaching, their love of neighbor,” said Father Joel Phelps, pastor, shown with Sister Paulette outside St. Malachy Church on June 27. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

The Springfield Dominicans withdrew from the parish because there was no way to maintain community life for Sister Paulette. Her friend and longtime companion in ministry, Sister Sara Koch, OP, died suddenly on Oct. 18, 2020, leaving her alone.

There were four Dominicans serving St. Malachy when Sister Paulette arrived to teach at the school in 1995.

“We pray together, preach together, study together, play together. That’s community life,” she told The Catholic Post. “We support each other. It’s a blessing. It’s a blessing.”

She added that it is “pretty profound” to move Sisters out of the parish.

“We will never forget you,” Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma, OP, prioress general, assured St. Malachy parishioners in a letter.

“From that moment on Sept. 8, 1914, when three of our Dominican Sisters of Springfield welcomed 120 students at the doors of Donovan Memorial School, our lives have been intertwined in the service and praise of God,” she said, noting that in the last 106 years 104 Springfield Dominican Sisters had served the faith community.

“As I wrote to Father (Joel) Phelps when I shared the news of the need for our departure, ‘God will never be outdone in generosity of grace and will continue to care for the people of St. Malachy Parish and School in our absence,'” Sister Rebecca Ann said.

FRIENDSHIP IN CHRIST

“The witness of the Dominicans has been the witness of their prayer, their teaching, their love of neighbor — love of God and love of neighbor has been so manifest,” said Father Phelps, pastor.

He also talked about friendship.

“As they developed the relationship with God they also developed their relationship with the community — building up friendships, getting to know people, their care for the sick and the homebound, those in need. That was one thing even during the time of COVID,” he told The Catholic Post.

In addition to a heart filled with memories, Sister Paulette Joerger, OP, will take gifts such as this blanket made out of St. Malachy School spiritwear by Bonnie Specchio. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“Sister Sara was a phone warrior. She was always calling people and checking with Sister Paulette, always letting me know who to pray for,” he said.

In addition to ministering as teachers, principal and directors of religious education, the Springfield Dominicans served as parish life coordinators, Father Phelps said. That included spearheading the parish’s outreach to the Spanish-speaking community.

“I just told her that we were going to miss her more than words can say,” Sonna Iorio said as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue.

“I think they just brought so much more to our worship and to our school,” Iorio said of the Dominicans. “There was an extra special presence of the Lord through the Sisters. I’m going to miss them.”

Not only will choir director Terri Mickey miss having Sister Paulette’s voice and guitar at Mass, but she said she’d miss going to the convent to sit and talk and watch a Cubs game.

“It was amazing to have them there when you didn’t know that you needed them,” said Theresa Kennedy, who was at the Mass and reception with her son, Owen, and mother, Mary Roney. “They would give us a call just at the right moment.”

“I’LL BE FINE”

The Dominican Sisters of Springfield played a pivotal role in Sister Paulette’s life at a very young age.

Growing up in Mendota, she had the Sisters in every grade except one at Holy Cross School. It was in the first grade that Sister Johnette helped her “walk through that suffering” when her 13-month-old sister died of a heart condition.

“I just knew there was a God who loved me and my sister was with that God,” Sister Paulette said. “So my faith journey started with that Sister’s help with the death of my sister.”

A “Come and See” weekend at Sacred Heart Convent in Springfield when she was in high school “pretty much clinched it for me,” she said of her vocation to consecrated life. She would make her religious profession on June 19, 1972.

A teacher in Illinois and Minnesota, Sister Paulette also taught at St. Vincent de Paul School in Peoria before coming to St. Malachy. “I’ve loved every place I’ve been,” she said sincerely.

Most recently she was the director of religious education at St. Malachy and taught religion in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. She also helped with the youth choir, youth group and Catholic HEART Workcamp, among other things.

A small group of Springfield Dominicans was to come to the Rantoul convent on June 30 to help Sister Paulette close the convent before having lunch. After she turns in the key, they will drive away together so she doesn’t have to do it alone.

Her next chapter will take her to Holy Family School in Decatur where she will assist with faith development for the faculty and staff. She will live in community with Sister Jerome Quinn, OP, who has also served at St. Malachy.

“That’s perfect for me,” Sister Paulette said of her new assignment. “I’ll be fine. That’s a gift.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: More photos from the farewell Mass and reception may be viewed at The Catholic Post’s site on Facebook. 

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