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Sister Eileen O'Connor's Vocation Story

S. Eileen O’Connor

God called S. Eileen O’Connor into eternity on January 26, 2016.

For information about her services, etc. go to her obituary page.

May we follow her example of generous service!

Let me take you back to Brooklyn, NY, in August of 1957. I was looking for community, and I had a holy longing for more of God; one particular passage from the Bible spoke to me: “from one to whom much is given, much is expected.” So I thought: Eileen, you have a good family; what will you give back? Mom and dad, Eileen and Hugh O’Connor, both natives of Ireland, never had a hungry day. I’m one of three girls; my sisters are Catherine Heffernan and Chrissy O’Connor. Church was a big part of my life at a young age, as well as school and the public library.

1988– Classroom Photo

In grade school I strove to learn more about my faith and was influenced by the Sisters of Mercy who taught me. I remember every teacher I ever had. I thought being a teacher would really be something I could do that would have a great impact.

When I was in high school, my future and the possibility of Sacred Heart Monastery came to be when I received a magazine, “Children of the Prairie,”  from St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD.  I was aware of other orders such as Maryknoll, but they wouldn’t take me until I was 21, and at the time I was sixteen years old. I was captivated by a picture of a Sister with Native Americans, and I thought that could be a fit for me.

It would give me an opportunity to teach and I always wanted to be a teacher. I filled out the coupon and sent it to Mother Jerome Schmitt in Yankton, SD and exchanged several letters with her. In sharing this with my parents, I was surprised to find out that they not only supported me, but my father said, “I would love to see the Midwest again.” I made my first trip to the Midwest by train with my family. Once here in Yankton, I entered the Monastery on August 20, 1958, one of twenty-seven entering that year! It was an exciting time for Sacred Heart Monastery, which was establishing a new Motherhouse in Watertown in 1960. Two other classmates from that time still with me now are S. Esther Holzbauer and S. Jacquelyn Ernster. The three of us had a beautiful Golden (50th) Jubilee celebration in 2010, and were privileged to see some family members at that time.

Getting ready for First Communion at St. Joseph Indian School, Chamberlain, SD.

I knew this life was for me after I had a little time to learn more about the Sisters and deal with the culture shock (most Sisters spoke German, and I was from the East Coast). Little by little, I adjusted to life here through the different areas of ministry, shaping coifs (then part of the traditional habit), and working in the garden and the kitchen. I loved my time at Mount Marty College, student teaching with S. Victorine Stoltz, and also with another influence, S. Veronica Fasbender, who taught science for teachers and who also enriched my education in astronomy. During my time as a Sister I have served in three different missions: St. Lambert’s Parish in Sioux Falls, St. Patrick’s parish in Lincoln, NE, and ten years in Chamberlain, SD. My mother passed away in 1974, and shortly after I helped my dad find a place to live in Sioux Falls, SD. It was wonderful having him close, and he was the grandpa to several of my first grade students. One of them is now S. Kathy Burt, who remembers that he would leave candy bars on each desk.

First Communion class, Father James Bream, St. Therese Parish Sioux Falls, SD

My favorite part of Benedictine life is seeking God, every day in every way, and it’s never complete.

I love the prayer, the music, the liturgy, the love of beauty, and our core values of awareness of God, hospitality, community, and life-long learning. Living in community has made me grateful and it makes me more patient. One motto I like from The Rule of Benedict is “be the first to show respect,” which can be as simple as greeting those I meet in the hall or dining room. Another nice aspect of community life is that the Sisters are always concerned about the welfare of others.

I’m committed to this life, but I’m open to whatever new forms of it that history presents to us. Pope Francis inspires me by saying that “Our church is not a museum, it is a fieldhouse for care of the wounded.” Life in a Monastery is not an escape hatch to life’s problems; it is a place to have awareness of life’s challenges and to know that you have the grace of God to help you with the challenges that come.  I ask myself often, where did I meet God today?

What excites me about the future for Benedictines is that they “do what needs to be done.” That perspective has offered some unlikely surprises, such as spending Christmas Eve in a state prison with 1600 guys. Benedictine life is hands-on and I very much enjoy that. I also am nourished by reading and movies, finding Jesus in the movies with student oblates. I love my fifth grade pen pals at the local Catholic school; they and the Sisters write to each other and share prayer occasionally. As long as I am healthy and can continue to work with kids and prisoners, I’m happy. Whatever comes in my life’s journey, I will welcome with a Benedictine heart.

S. Eileen O’Connor

Benedictine Sisters
Sacred Heart Monastery
1005 W. 8th St.
Yankton, SD 57078

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