COTTONWOOD -- At Evening Prayer (Vespers) on Thursday, Aug. 16, in the chapel of the Monastery of St. Gertrude, sisters and guests honored Sister Maria Elena and her 75 years as a Benedictine sister. Assistant Prioress Sister Mary Marge Goeckner led a community procession into the chapel and the singing of the community blessing song. The service concluded with a receiving line so that those present could personally share their gratitude.
Sister Maria Elena Schaefers was born on July 12, 1927, in South Dakota. She grew up with one sister and two brothers. Her parents were very religious.
“Prayer has always been present in my life,” she said. “Growing up we said prayers before meals and at night before going to bed. At certain times of the year, or for special needs, we prayed the Rosary together as a family.”
Her father’s work with the railroad would eventually bring the family to Nampa, Idaho. Her teachers in the 7th and 8th grades were Benedictine sisters and it was about that time she began to think she would like to become a sister.
“In school my friends and I frequently stopped by the parish church after classes for a visit and began going to daily Mass,” she said. “These activities helped me to include God into my daily life with short prayers of thanksgiving, petition, and forgiveness.”
After a visit to St. Gertrude’s at the age 14, she became a postulant. She made her First Profession when she was barely 17 on Aug. 15, 1944. She made her Final Profession when she was 21.
“During my formation at St. Gertrude’s, I was introduced to the Divine Office, the Benedictine daily cycle of prayer. We learned lectio – Bible readings and reflection – as an important part of our day.”
Sister Maria Elena worked in the sacristy and taught the other postulants piano. Soon she began teaching elementary school in St. Maries and found she enjoyed being a teacher.
Her life changed dramatically in 1964 when she became a missionary to Bogotá, Colombia. It was the beginning of a 33-year ministry in South America.
After four years she moved to San Juan Bautista Parish in Cali, Colombia, working with the Idaho priests who ministered there. It was one of the very poorest areas of Cali. The people faced hunger, sickness, and many serious needs.
“Again and again we heard testimonies of God’s providence – how God had stretched the rice in the pot to feed the family, or how God had helped a father find work that didn’t pay much, but fed the family each day,” she said.
Her years in Colombia included establishing schools, administering relief programs, ministering to drug addicts, improving housing opportunities, teaching, and running programs in growing parishes. At the time, the country was afflicted with poverty and violence. She worked from within communities to address problems one person at a time. She recalls one recovering young man who paid her a dubious compliment: “I want you to know since you’ve been my friend I haven’t attacked or robbed anybody.”
“The years in Colombia taught me about God’s power for and interest in my daily life,” she said. “Experience confirms that the Lord wants a relationship with us, and helps us have an ever deeper relationship with God.”
Sr. Maria Elena returned to Idaho in 1997 and resumed her ministries with vigor in the Boise area. She visited the sick, dying, grieving, shut-ins, and families. She prayed with them for their needs and said prayers of gratitude for favors received.
She believes that including God in daily life became the most important thing she taught in religion classes in parishes and eventually prisons. Sister Maria Elena became involved in prison ministry when she learned that there was a need for bilingual people to work with inmates. On Sunday evenings she would travel with a fellow minister to the Idaho State Correctional Institution to lead prayer and singing for Sunday Eucharist. Then midweek she would return to the prison to conduct Bible classes and Catholic faith studies. There were special sessions for any men who were asking to be baptized.
Now at 92 years old, Sr. Maria Elena lives at home at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho. She is still engaged in prison ministry to a local correctional institution.
“I think that all of us who are prison ministry volunteers feel that all the time we spend in the prisons and jails with the inmates is really worth it,” says Sister Maria Elena. ” We all receive so much affirmation from them. They appreciate all that we do.
“Prayer of any kind makes our lives a real adventure with the Lord. It stretches our lives in ways that we could never have imagined. I have been so enriched praying with my family, my monastic community, the people I have lived and worked with — I shall always be grateful to the Lord for having taken me on this adventure.”
Listen to Sister Maria Elena talk about her ministries in Colombia on podcasts at www.stgertrudes.org/podcasts.