Sister Yvonne Hiess ponders her day as she sits at her teacher’s desk at St. Elizabeth School in Milwaukee.
One woman’s call to the ministry of a lifetime
Meet Yvonne Rosemary Hiess, An admittedly shy little girl growing up in Eau Claire County in the 1940s. Surrounded by her brothers and sisters, she attended a one-room schoolhouse built on the end of her family’s farm. Across the street was St. Bridget Church, a facet of daily life for her family: playing pump organ for Benediction, locking and unlocking the church and, of course, cleaning.
She looked forward to summer days, especially those spent in the care of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) who came from Chippewa Falls for two weeks to teach the neighborhood children catechism. The visit meant Yvonne got out of chores and instead enjoyed the company of the other farm children. The sisters gave them all little prizes for learning their prayers.
After graduating from the one-room school, Yvonne made the 10-mile bus commute to attend McDonell High School in Chippewa Falls. During her sophomore year there, Sister Ursilia began urging her to consider becoming a sister, too. But boys were much more interesting, and life on the farm with her family was where she wanted to stay. Home was comfortable. Home was safe.
But little did young Yvonne know that the Lord was calling her out of her place of comfort and toward a journey of faith she never could have expected.
“To quiet [Sister Ursilia,] I thought that I would ask my dad about what she had suggested, of me going to be an aspirant at St. Mary Academy in Prairie du Chien,” recalls Yvonne. “I had a plan that I thought would work. I would ask my dad, and he would say, ‘No.’ I couldn’t go, and then I would be off the hook. Instead, he said, ‘Show me where it is on the map and I will take you there.’” And he did.
Yvonne spent her junior and senior years of high school as an aspirant at St. Mary in Prairie, graduating in 1955.
Her childhood experiences with the sisters and their encouragement during her high school years prompted Yvonne to join the order that fall.
“Sister Mary Godfrey was the superior at Notre Dame McDonell in Chippewa Falls and helped me get all of those countless ‘nun things’ ready to put in my trunk,” Yvonne remembers. “In the fall of 1955, when I was 17 years old, dressed in the long black candidate dress, with my big trunk, I said goodbye to my parents at the depot in Eau Claire and, along with Sister Innocenta, took the 400 train to Milwaukee to enter the big motherhouse on Milwaukee Street that looked like a fortress to a girl my age.”
During her formation, Yvonne progressed through the ranks of candidate, postulant and novice. Her continued education at Mt. Mary College was daunting, with courses like logic and calculus. She was often discouraged, thinking perhaps she was not meant to become a teacher. But with encouragement, she kept at her studies and soon made her profession to become a junior sister. Yvonne Rosemary became Sister Mary Rochelle and exchanged her street clothes for a habit.
It was then that she received her first assignment to St. Aloysius in Arcadia in 1958. “Here I felt at home, teaching in a farming community, getting my driver’s license and struggling to finish my degree during summer school,” she says. But past experience taught her not to get too comfortable. “Packing our trunk and being ready to move was routine.”
Sister was assigned to St. Elizabeth in Milwaukee as a primary teacher in 1964. She admits that she was “scared to death.” Coming from a small farm community, she never wanted to minister in a big city. But much of her ministry would be done at various parishes in the heart of the city for the next 25 years.
“This country bumpkin met people of all different nationalities,” Sister explains of her time teaching in Milwaukee. And through her work with Urban Ministry, she and her fellow sisters took a hands-on role learning about many cultures, cooperating with other religious groups and really becoming immersed in the community, all in order to improve the plight of the poor in the city.
In the mid-1960s, racial riots took place just blocks from the convent where Sister lived. There was much turmoil in the schools and community at the time and neighborhoods drastically changed. The sisters were part of community organizations that fostered collaboration in the process, sometimes merging parishes as membership lessened. Many parish schools closed and became community schools led mostly by lay people. While many businesses left the area, the Catholic Church continued to minister to the needs of the neighborhood.
When one of her placement schools closed, Sister took on the responsibility of directing their religious education program for several years. The new role at St. Michael marked the end of her years in a formal classroom and also her formal religious name. She went back to her baptismal name: (Sister) Yvonne Rosemary.
A six-month sabbatical and novitiate renewal were a short respite before she was called back to Milwaukee, this time to St. Leo. There, she took on great responsibility, helping minister to the parish alongside her pastor. She treasures the experience, especially the lesson:
“The church is strongest when men and women work together for God’s people.”
As Milwaukee became more comfortable to her, she was again called out of her security, this time to return home.
Sister Yvonne wanted to be a part of caring for her aging parents during their last years. In 1991, she was granted permission to serve at her childhood home as a care-giver. She also became a part-time chaplain for the local Catholic hospital. Then, in 1993, she was hired as the director of religious education at her childhood parish, St. Bridget. The position brought her ministry full circle.
Following the death of her parents and the passing of the associate pastor of St. Bridget, she stepped in to become the pastoral minister, a role she continues still today.
Sister stays busy coordinating activities at the parish, writing the weekly bulletin, holding Communion services at care facilities and ministering to parishioners and families through joys and sorrows of life.
“At St. Bridget, two things are certain,” says Pastor Justin Kizewski. “One is that Sister will welcome you, especially if you are visitor. The other is that if you are a parishioner, she will find out where you live. It is manifestly evident that Sister deeply loves the people she serves and has served in her over 60 years of religious life. She has come from this parish community and has returned to it, and in many ways, embodies the spirit of the parish in her own person. She has a motherly heart for all, especially the group of special needs individuals for whom she hosts a monthly meeting, which she aptly calls ‘The Friends of Jesus.’ She continues to help with everything from the Church picnic to music at Mass. I am grateful for her counsel and knowledge of the parish. I am grateful for her friendship. I am grateful for the vastness of experience and life of service she has faithfully lived.”
“I tell you what,” says Sister Yvonne, reflecting on her life and ministry, “Jesus calls us out of our safe and secure places and invites us to take a chance. Taking a chance with Jesus … is the work of a lifetime. Our loving God rewards you and me in ways that we weren’t expecting.”
Story by Amy Eichsteadt
Photography by Robert Rogers