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Feature Articles

A Sister to All – Sister Marie Pauline Skalski

How would you describe your ministry and role?
For the past six years I have ministered at St. Vincent Home for Children in Okemos, Michigan. Education isn’t my primary focus, however, it’s to be a loving presence to the children. The children have been neglected, abused and abandoned. I look at them with love and acceptance – and that is my primary job! I want to reflect back to them that they are indeed special children of God. Their beautiful faces are clouded with fear, confusion and anger. The staff and I try to make each day the very best day because the children do not know what their future will be.

I’m in a classroom where the children range in grade level from kindergarten to seventh grade, so every child’s work is individualized. We have 12-15 children in the class. When a child gets upset, is uncooperative, or has a meltdown, we work sensitively with them. As a volunteer, I try to be a calming influence. I help the children, talk with them, sit near them.

The children actually realize that I am not on the St. Vincent staff, so they feel confident when talking with me that it won’t go back to their caseworker or friend at the court. I work very well with the teacher and teacher aide, and they are comfortable if a child elects to talk with me rather than to them. As I’m walking in the classroom, I consciously say to myself, what will the suffering Jesus look like today? When I enter the room in the morning, I look for the child who seems agitated or unsettled, and I stay near them. In the mornings, the teacher has each child stand up, and make a goal for the day, and it’s recorded. At the end of the day, each child says whether or not they have achieved their goal, they also tell one thing they have learned, and one positive thing. When they leave that classroom, it is with something positive on their minds.

I have so many stories, and have worked with many children. I teach children how to solve the Rubik’s cube. There was a 12-year-old boy, who came in the middle of September – belligerent, didn’t want anyone telling him what to do. I would often go over and sit by him. He didn’t want to have anything to do with me, until he found out I teach children the cube. His desire to learn the cube was especially strong, so strong he was willing to do his school work so he could have time to spend with me learning the cube. This boy was reading at a third grade level, and seemed to have low ability. I was very concerned because I didn’t want him to have his hopes dashed if he could not learn the very complicated process. The very first step is the hardest, and takes the longest – and he got it right away! I was astounded! He kept earning his Rubik’s time and kept learning quickly every step in the solution. During Christmas break they sent him to a long-term institution. I never saw him again. I’m hoping he took with him something that will have other people look at him with respect and amazement. I would love to know how he’s handling that, if he’s using that in a positive way that reinforces his self-worth and belief that he can learn anything.

Another example is one little well-behaved girl who was working on a reading lesson that had a paragraph to read and questions to answer. All of a sudden she took her pencil, stabbed her paper and ripped it. She put her face in her hands, and cried until she could hardly breathe. I took my chair and put it right next to her chair and I just let her cry. While she was sobbing I looked at the paper she was working on, and the answer to the question that she stabbed was “mother”. It triggered her great emotional response. I put my arm on her desk, and she put her arm right next to mine and then we held hands.

I truly love these children; they are who I want to be with.

When you think of a brave women, who comes to mind?
S. Blandina Segale! She is so fascinating to me. I started a school called St. Martha in Okemos, Michigan. It was a new parish and the pastor wanted a school. I thought about Blandina often, starting a school, not having a budget or staff. I thought about how Blandina could get things accomplished with just her winning personality and her faith in God and people. She is an inspiration to me. She was comfortable speaking with people of any ethnicity, of any age, of any station in life, people who were law abiders and law violators. She truly found God in every situation and every person. I’ve always thought of her as my spiritual mentor.

What do you wish people knew about religious life?
That it is a way of life that makes the world better! When we talk about what’s happening in society, and what’s happening to people who are trafficked, the poor, and the marginalized, we have been working at this since the time of St. Vincent de Paul. I wish people knew and realized that. When you become a Sister, you remain your own authentic self, and the Holy Spirit works through you in your ministry.

What does it mean to you to be part of the sisterhood? What is it like to have this spiritual bond with Sisters?
It means you have a special family to pray with, to play with, and to care about. I am inspired by my fellow Sisters. It calls me to be more than I thought I could be. My Sisters are family to me; we love each other, we laugh together, cry together, and support each other.

As a Catholic Sister one might say that you are giving of yourself, what do you receive?
There is a quote from S. Joan Chittister, O.S.B. that I often refer to, “to use the gifts you have been given is a godly act.” I believe that it is also a path to a loving and fulfilled life. So that no matter what I’ve personally given, I’ve reaped 100 times as much as a person. When you love greatly, you don’t run out.