Former aspirants reunite after 50 years

Years of searching turns up friends from east to west and Mexico

As aspirants of the Sisters of St. Francis of Holy Cross, class reunions did not exist. Young ladies attended St. Francis Pre-Novitiate; when anyone left, we had no further contact. Several years ago, in a telephone conversation, Ann (Zettel) Backys and her sister Barbara Zettel were reminiscing about "good ol' Chapel days." (The "Chapel" is shorthand for the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion -- now a shrine -- where the Community operated its pre-novitiate.) The common thread question was, "I wonder whatever happened to so-and-so who was at the Chapel in 1959, 1960, 1961 and beyond?"

After this discussion, Ann was inspired and determined to find some of her classmates who entered the Chapel with her in 1959. In addition to finding a few members of her own class, she found many former aspirants from other classes, too.  Telephone calls to people she knew from the past would sometimes lead to dead ends. Other times it took several calls to dig down to find a person. Marriages changed last names making the location path difficult at times. Hours were spent on the internet using several search tools to locate people. When searching for former aspirants, Ann's basic opening line was: "I don't know if I have the right number but I am looking for someone who might be related to so-and-so who 'went to the Chapel.'"  If they recognized the phrase, 'went to the Chapel,'  she had a direct "hit" or at least a lead in finding the aspirant. After hundreds of phone calls, investigative work on the computer, and casual conversations the four years of intense searching for Ann (now known as "Sherlock") resulted in reconnecting about 65 former aspirants.

Forever shaped by their Franciscan years

It was time to pull it all together and move forward with an idea that would have a major impact on many lives. On June 11, 2013,  a special gathering was held in the Milwaukee area, hosted by Mary Code-Johnson in Elm Grove, Wis., for women who entered the Chapel in 1959, 1960 and 1961. About 14 former aspirants attended. Most were from Wisconsin, two from California, one from Tennessee and Mexico. The women shared stories, laughed, hugged, sang the "Blessing of St. Francis," took pictures, and celebrated the theme, "Beyond the Beanie and the Veil." Every woman spoke of either a deep appreciation for how this Franciscan Community forever shaped them and/or how profoundly grateful she was for knowing the Sisters and former members.

"What a gift to re-connect after so many years," says Ann. "We were so grateful for this time together and now challenge other classes to set a date. This gathering was the best medicine for those who attended. Our cake was topped with the inscription and truly said it all:  'Beyond the Beanie and the Veil.' Fifty years had gone by. But for us it was a time for tears of joy, laughter, telling stories and reconnecting to a time gone by."

EDITOR'S NOTE: To receive reunion information, contact Ann Backys at ann45nov@aol.com. Copy and paste the email address into your message. A link is not provided so as to minimize spam.


A few reflections from those who attended
  • "Thanks for getting it all together.  I am very glad I came."
  • "Words can't express how elated I felt all the way home yesterday afternoon.  Seeing the women who were once my companions on the road to becoming a nun (that being our shared destination, anyway) was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!  There aren't words that can describe the experience."
  • "I feel like I need to download all the emotions and information from our gathering.  Fifty years is a lot of territory to cover."
  • "It was great talking together about the event which was "ten-star"...it was so good to be together and learning about each other's life stories and events."
  • "About 3 years ago, I made a visit to the Chapel. It was before the many visitors of these days of busloads of pilgrims, and I was the only one visiting. No other cars in the parking lot.  No other person in sight. No traffic noise. Few birds calling. It was eerily still, and I felt a deep sadness as I walked behind the Chapel and the classroom building. No one was back there either, and the dorm building was gone, demolished.  I broke down in tears.  What was that about?  A lost dream?  Lost connections with girlhood companions who shared that same dream? Today, I know it was that loss of connection.  Maybe I was feeling the energy of the vibrant, idealistic, young women who wanted to live a life close to God and who had once filled the halls and classrooms with Life, but they were no longer there. Where had everyone gone?  Being with all of you at the reunion has helped me to heal an unrecognized loss.  It was important that each of you was there, and I want to let you know that I am grateful. Maybe that energy is still at the Chapel and is now mingled with that of all who ever lived there. At least I like to think that is the case."
  • Mary Ellen Loberger-Spoerke blogged about the event.

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Front from left: Kathy (Zambrowicz) Pigeon, Ann (Zettel) Backys and Marie Therese (Cider) Rogers. Middle: Mary Ellen (Loberger) Spoerke, Mary (Code) Johnson, Ann (Koenig) Hoban and Sue (Marin) Johnson. Back: Donna Brey, Barbara Zettel, Mary (Raisleger) Hughes, Barb (Stahl) Graf, Ellen (Huguet) Yee and Mary Ann (McNamara) Crosby.

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Front from left: Mary Ellen (Loberger) Spoerke and Marie Therese (Cider) Rogers. Back: Barbara Zettel.

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Front from left: Ann (Koenig) Hoban, Barbara Zettel and Barb (Stahl) Graf. Back: Mary Ann (McNamara) Crosby, Ellen (Huguet) Yee, Sue (Marin) Johnson and Donna Brey.

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From left: Ann (Zettel) Backys, Mary (Raisleger) Hughes and Sue (Marin) Johnson.

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