In March 1941, Jean Ferstl, the oldest of Walter and Margaret Ferstl's four children, was born at home on the family farm in Plain, WI. She attended St. Luke's Catholic School, where she was taught by Racine Dominican Sisters. From an early age, she "felt" a call to church life. At the age of 15, with the support of her family, she was accepted as an aspirant in the Racine Dominican Community, following in the footsteps of her cousin, S. Jane Weiss, and several other relatives (think Dischlers and Bindls).
Upon graduating from St. Catherine's High School, S. Jean received a bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Dominican College and a master's degree in physics from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. For the next 18 years, she taught chemistry and physics at St. Catherine's High School. At the end of her active teaching days, she took a year of study in St. Louis and subsequently embarked on a different ministry – pastoral associate at St. Rose Parish in Racine.
After a few years there, she answered a call to Lexington, KY, and became the pastoral associate for St. Peter and Paul Parish. It was here that she stated she experienced "a great deal of not only personal growth, but also growth in my abilities to deal with the day to day responsibilities of parish management, due to the ill health of the parish priest." She also honed her homiletic skills and became adept at filling in at the last minute for the ailing priest.
It was with some reluctance that after nine years in Kentucky, she returned to Racine after accepting the community's invitation to become the house coordinator at Siena Center for a couple of years. In 1998 she was elected to the leadership team and served in that capacity for four years. It was during this time that she was able to travel to Germany and visit the foundress' community of Heilig Kreuz and her own family roots. After her leadership term, she again answered a call to parish ministry, accepting a position in her home parish, St. Luke's. Shortly after arriving, she learned that she and Fr. Mike would have not only St. Luke's, but also St. John's Parish in Spring Green. It would be a busy three-four years for Jean between the two parishes, until her health became an issue and she returned to Racine.
Upon her "retirement," Jean became involved with several focus groups and was often enlightening the community with her reflections at prayer and Word services. She was instrumental in shepherding her cluster group for many years. Since her stroke in 2018, Jean has resided at Lakeshore. She is most grateful for the opportunities that were opened to her because of the Community. One of her most treasured legacies is that of the Eco-Justice Center. It was Jean’s idea at the Gathering of the Dreamers that planted the seed for the center, and she has had the pleasure of watching it come to fruition and thrive.
– S. Alice Pittz
Sitting across the room with his sister at a CYO dance, Don stated, “That’s the girl I’m gonna marry.” Today, daughter Lorilyn, adopted daughter Ann Marie, and the little Saint from stillbirth Marie, all call her “Mom.” To Sarah (20) and Amy (16) she is Grandma who makes their favorite banana bread. We know her as our Associate Gail Jacobsen.Native to Milwaukee, Gail attended parochial schools, receiving her diploma from Pius High School. The following fall, as a scholarship student, Gail enrolled in Racine Dominican Community Connections December 20195Mount St. Clare College, Clinton, Iowa. Very early on, her sense of values and service involved her in an interfaith, interracial group, only to realize later, “holding hands while singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ didn’t resolve racism issues. However, that experience was rich and has had a major impact on me to this day.”After graduation, marriage and children, Gail’s itinerant spirit of seeking and searching provided employment for more than 20 years at U.W-Milwaukee. Simultaneously, she returned to being a student “working on a communications degree with a minor in gerontology, a new and growing field at that time." Gail’s efforts led to a Masters in Social Work. It was also during this time that she volunteered as a home communion minister to Dan, a history professor with both lung and brain cancer. “This was a very emotional involvement – the trust Dan had in me was key,” she stated. This was also the period when Gail discovered the power of journaling, birthing her own book: Write Grief: How to Transform Loss with Writing. Presently Gail ministers as a Washington County interfaith caregiver, similar to the Senior Companion Program. She first met the Racine Dominicans when she attended a “Women Mystics” retreat given by S. Mary Michna. In a different setting “Sweet S. Mary Vaculik was always very kind to me.” Gail’s desire to minister involved in a community “with strong minded woman” finds her facilitating your retreat registration, guiding you through the Siena Retreat Center Bookstore, or deliberating with other Mission Fund Committee members about the most helpful distribution of the monies you saved, or being a creative, efficient thinker on the Associate Advisory Committee.But the end is not yet! “I feel I definitely need to do something unique to me before I die. I want to feel I have finished whatever God asks me to do. Dominican involvement will lead me to it,” Gail affirms. Thank you, Beautiful Lady, for adding to the richness of our 21st Century understanding of itinerant mendicancy. We walk together, believing the vision still has its time. (Habakkuk 2:2-3)
– Connie Roybal
“Let me cogitate uponst it.” A phrase common to my friend, Sister Adele Karwacki, and one that always made me smile while bringing me great comfort, since I knew she would come up with a good solution! She “cogitated uponst” many things, but most important to me were the retreats she arranged at Manresa, a Jesuit Retreat House, in Bloomfield Hills, MI. They were life-giving and fun! “I was born 81 years ago...in Detroit, MI, and lived with my parents [Arthur and Adele] and my sister until after high school when I entered the Racine Dominican Community,” says Adele. She remembers walking to St. Jude Grade School, staffed by the Adrian Dominicans. “I also remember the stiff, starched white linen of their veils and the tight headband that held the sisters' veils up. And, I suspect, that was one reason why I decided to join the soft-veiled Racine Dominicans.” The other reason was that her cousin, Sister Melanie Chateau, close to her in age, had preceded her. She entered the community in 1956, sharing many “growing-up” experiences with her classmates —“one-of-a-kind-memories,” S. Adele called them. They still reminisce about these when they get together. Initially, S. Adele either taught or was a principal in several Racine Catholic schools. In 1970, she was hired at Assumption Grotto Grade School in Detroit as school counselor. I was a teacher in the school. This began her career as a school counselor and our friendship. She became a high school counselor in 1975 when she was hired at Our Lady Star of the Sea, in Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit. She remained there until the school closed in 1993. I volunteered there as a CCD teacher. At that time, Adele also worked with the Foreign Study League (FSL), accompanying students and chaperones in the study of a number of European countries – Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and England. Her tasks included recruiting both students and chaperones for the FSL and helping to keep them safe and on schedule. My friend, associate Susan Walczak, served as a chaperone on one of those trips, and to this day, greatly values the experience! Adele was at Star of the Sea when I left the Detroit area in 1980. After that, we saw each other from time to time. She always asked how things went in my life. I was happily in the dark about what a busy lady she was, as she continued to work as a high school counselor while remaining an active participant in community activities. She was a high school counselor at Dominican High School, her alma mater, and at Regina High School. Later, she was hired as an evening counselor to students in an alternative study program and as a teacher of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) in St. Clare Shores. During this time, she served her community as secretary of the Stewardship Study Committee, which looked at changes in the sisters’ future needs. This study eventually led to the building of Siena Center. She also served as chair of the Assembly Coordinating Committee and Chapter Planning Committee with the tasks of planning for elections and community business agendas. “These were good experiences. I enjoyed travelling to Racine and reconnecting with the community,” says S. Adele. Actually, she used her talents and personality to build community wherever she found herself, always enjoying life and making life enjoyable for others. “During my Michigan years, I connected with my family, also with S. Melanie’s mother, and over time I helped my aging mother,” she recalls. “After my mother died, I moved to Toledo, Ohio, and began volunteering for ESOL, teaching until 2015 when my illness brought me back to Racine.” Today, as a Racine Dominican associate, I am a member of a group consisting of four sisters and two associates who play cards once a month, initially arranged by none other than S. Adele, and of course, we play Michigan Rummy! Thank you, God, for my good friend!
– Ruth Mixdorf
S. Therese Van Thull was the tenth child born to Marie and Anton Van Thull in Kimberly WI. Her mother died the following year, giving birth to her 11th child, who did not survive. When Therese was five years old, her father remarried and had three more children. S. Therese remembers many happy hours working in the family bakery: frying, filling, glazing doughnuts, baking and frosting cakes, rolling out pie dough and making thousands of loaves of bread. As a teenager, she continued working in the bakery, taking over as manager when her father and two brothers died. Those were long days back then, as she got up at 4:30 a.m. to make the dough, then headed off to high school, and came back after school to finish working in the bakery. After graduating high school, Therese met S. Regina Williams and learned of the need for lay teachers. She said yes and went to Michigan to live and teach with the Racine Dominicans. She entered community and eventually earned bachelor's and masters degrees in education. She was drawn to Milwaukee to be a more active participant in working for justice for the poor and especially the African-American community. She lived and worked with S. Regina, becoming very active in protests advocating for those being treated unfairly by their employers. The two women felt the lack of strong education was one of the primary reasons for the continuing poverty in Milwaukee. So they established the Mary Bethune Reading Academy, along with the help of the Racine Dominicans, tutoring women to get their GEDs. She has spent her life as a teacher, principal and mentor.In 2002, S. Therese along with S. Regina, came to Siena Center. S. Therese chose to tutor ESL (English as a second language) and assist in gardening. She has been taking care of all the plants in the Siena Retreat Center plus Siena, for several years now. Only recently she has passed the responsibility of the Retreat Center plants to someone else. You will still find her working in the raised beds to the east of the Sisters’ Residence and caring for the plants at Siena. She loves snapdragons and has a gift for bringing plants back to life. Plants are more than just decorations, she says, they add so much to the environment. She has a quiet strength and loves reaching out to others. S. Therese is very grateful for all the care and love she’s received from the Racine Dominican community. We are grateful, S. Therese, for your love and care for all of God’s people, and for the care of the environment and the beauty of the plants that we all enjoy at Siena.
– Mare Wheeler
This month I interviewed S. Gertrude (“Gert”) Geigle as part of our ongoing Legacy Project. Some of the following information was also taken from Gert’s article titled “My Life Journey.” Now age 99, Gert was born on June 20, 1920, in Kaukauna, WI, the third of eight children. She remembers living on Canal Street, where there was a cistern in the front yard where her mother kept vegetables cool. When she was four years old, Gert met “pretty ladies” from Holy Cross school, who were Racine Dominican Sisters. At Holy Cross School, there were 96 children in her first grade class, sitting three abreast in a double seat. She had large classes all the way through grade school in Kaukauna. After eighth grade, Gert entered the Racine Dominican Postulate in Racine, attending St. Catherine’s High School. She finished high school in two years and also took the County exams, equivalent to Normal School training exams. She entered the novitiate at age 16, and was sent to St. Patrick’s in Racine during her second year of novitiate, where she remained teaching primary grades for four years. During World War II, Gert was transferred to St. John’s in Little Chute. Her brother Jack, an Army officer, with whom Gert was very close, died while leading his men through a mine field in France in 1944, two days after Gert had made final vows. She says that if she hadn’t made final vows that day, she might not be with us now.Gert went on to teach in various schools in Wisconsin and Michigan for 34 years. She recounts that on one July 16, she received not one, but four school assignments, which finally resulted in her teaching in Caledonia! While a principal at St. Louis in Caledonia and then another year at Nativity School in Detroit, Gert says that she had no secretary at either school, but also managed an eighth grade home room in both schools with no less than 43 students in each!Gert’s last teaching days were at Fowler, MI, in 1971. After that time, Gert became a religious educator/catechist trainer, serving in DeWitt and LaCrosse for 31 years, from 1971-2002. In LaCrosse, she went out to train in many rural parishes. She would pack up her car for two weeks, see her scheduled parishes, and then return to LaCrosse to get ready for the next “lap.” She also realized her missionary dream by working variously with the LAMP program in Mexico, with the Agnesian sisters in Harlem, NY, with S. Thomasina Zajac with Hmong people in Eau Claire, and with S. Susan Klein in LaJoya, TX. Gert moved to Siena Center in 2002, and served as a driver for the community. She handed in the car keys in 2015. Gert says that now she is a “free agent,” with time for “Silence, Solitude and Simplicity.” She deems the changes in religious life after Vatican II a “glorious welcome,” as the community is asked to make responsible choices and to be personally responsible for actions. Gert believes there will always be religious life in some form. She says that it will differ with the differing needs of the time. She closes the interview quoting her father’s admonition when she left home before the postulate, "Remember that the habit does not make the monk, and if you are not happy, get out before you make hell for the rest of them.” God bless Sister Gertrude Geigle!
– Associate David Lauer
Evelyn Lins, the third of fourteen children born to John and Rose Lins from Plain, Wisconsin, entered the Racine Dominican community in 1944, just weeks shy of her 15th birthday. As time passed, she tried to be mischievous enough to get sent home. Thankfully, her efforts failed. She told her postulant directress she wanted to be a cook. “We’ll see,” was the response. Evelyn graduated from St. Catherine’s High School and earned a bachelors degree from Dominican College – and the legacy of Sister Evelyn Lins OP began.After teaching second grade for 7 years at Sacred Heart School and two years at Holy Name School in Racine, Sr. Evelyn was sent to found a new school in Verona where she served as principal, superior and teacher of 55 first and second graders. While it was a huge challenge, Sr. Evelyn says those years were the happiest of her years in the community. During the summers while assigned to Verona, she earned her M.A, in Administration at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Evelyn took her knowledge and skills to Green Bay to teach math, music and language arts for 7 years at SS. Peter and Paul Junior High. She finished her teaching career at St. Edward in Racine, serving 6 years as principal.After 11 years as House Coordinator, she took on the challenge of caring for women victims of domestic abuse. Bethany Apartments accepted its first family in November 1990 and continues today as a respite allowing women and their children up to two years of a secure environment to get their lives back together. In 1994, Sr. Evelyn was elected to leadership for 4 years after which she served on several boards and committees, sharing her experience and expertise. She now finds her English as a Second Language teaching particularly rewarding, and enjoys volunteering at the Retreat Center.My personal thanks to Sr. Madeline for not letting young Evelyn Lins go back home, or become a cook. I’m the little boy who sat in the front desk in second grade at Sacred Heart School 65 years ago who grew up to become a CPA.
– S. Lisa Kane
The past few months Community Connections has had a feature article by an associate who interviewed a Racine Dominican Sister. When I suggested that sisters could also be the interviewer and an associate the subject, I was invited to be the first! I was then urged to interview Mare Wheeler, an extraordinary Racine Dominican Associate. An excerpt of our interview is included here. If you would like to know more, please contact Mare directly! She is very open to the conversation.
An interview with Mare Wheeler
What Racine Dominican do you know – vowed or associate – who is a member of the Mission Fund Steering Committee and Allocation Committee, SRI and SRI ad hoc Committee, Integrative Wellness Task Force, Preaching Committee, Justice and Rights Commission, Siena Handbell Choir, and in her free time conducts Goose Patrol for the campus with her rescue dog Stella, writes for Global Sisters Report, presents wellness seminars for the sisters at Siena, (oh!) and is active on the HOPES Center Board of Directors! Let me share a bit more with you about Mare Wheeler.As we talked, I quickly learned that Mare has always been an adventurer. It began in her youth, growing up in a military (USAF) family, where she attended eight different schools by the time she graduated high school. Years later, she would follow in her father’s footsteps as she, too, joined the Air Force where she learned to repair fighter jets and pilot a plane. She reflected how her father bragged, "she knew how to change the oil in a fighter jet before she learned to do that on her VW Bug." Mare is a Vietnam veteran, having served in Texas, Illinois, and southeast Asia.Mare has also been a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, where she acquired degrees in Theology and English Education, taught the children of prostitutes and drug dealers in a red-light district in Albany, NY, and worked with students who had been expelled from the public school system – most often for violent behavior. After leaving the CSJs, Mare taught emotionally-disturbed youth. Mare is “at home” ministering with those whom society would cast off.Mare chose to become a physician assistant when her daughter died due to inadequate medical care. Mare decided to specialize in mental health, and the multitude of co-occurring health issues that are common with this too-often-homeless and underserved population. Mare the Adventurer has served medical missions in six countries – Haiti, China, Madagascar, Nepal, Belize, and here at home in the US (Appalachia). Most recently, Mare went for a one-month mission trip to the Dominican Republic, where she worked with our Adrian Dominican Sisters. Please know that Mare loves to travel – and travels for fun and adventure far more often than for missions!Now it might seem from these few paragraphs that Mare has lived a number of careers – and for many people, that would be true. Not for Mare! She continues to live life "to the full" with courage, gusto, and wonderful sense of Irish wit as well as a ton of wisdom! Please take the time to chat with Mare the next time you see her. You might get an invite to her new home where she shows off her catering expertise and serves the tasty morsels on treasured dishes from around the world. It is great to count you, Mare, among our many committed Racine Dominican Associates!
– Kathie Solie, Associate
Early in 1995, I arrived at Siena Center as the first lay administrator. I knew that I had the support and acceptance of the Dominican leadership team. They, after all, had hired me. Other sisters and staff were not so certain about this newcomer. The position of Administrator had always been held by one of the Dominicans.While making my way into the tunnels, the storage rooms and the back hallways of Siena Center, I came across a small room behind the kitchen. In a circle of comfortable chairs, I met a small group of sisters. I soon learned that these were the women who kept the complex going. Sister Bernadette Weinberger was the original Head of Maintenance when the Center opened and was among the first women to hold a boiler license. Sister Marlene Hetzel was the house baker and a tremendous support to the kitchen crew. Sister Imelda Kaltenbach had managed the Siena laundry from the time the doors opened and shared hilarious stories of the laundry in the "old motherhouse." Another member of this hard working and joyful group was a woman I came to admire greatly. Sister Donna Marie Koeningsknecht was Sister Imelda’s partner in service in the laundry. The list of other responsibilities she had was long.When interviewed for an article at the time of one of her Jubilee Celebrations, Sister Donna Mariewas quoted, “I prefer to be in the background.” That is the woman I came to know and love. "Background?"...no way. Her life of service was more of a "foundation" than that. I watched her for my 13 years at Siena, doing so much more than laundry. If something needed to be done, DonnaMarie was able and willing. If someone needed a gentle ear, she was there. For the hardest and nastiest jobs, she was always first in line to help.As much as she loved and served Siena Center, Sister Donna Marie’s heart will always be at the former Our Lady of the Oaks in Pewaukee. In this rural, beautiful place she worked in the garden, the orchard and kept the complex going. She lived and worked side by side with Sister Bernadette. All I had to do was ask about the years there. She would smile and positively glow. While so many Racine Dominicans have enriched my life and taught me so much, Sister Donna Marie stands out. My respect for her is endless. This quiet woman is religious life personified.
– Mare Wheeler, Associate
What a pleasure to interview S. Judene Walsh! Born the third of seven children outside Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, on an 150 acre dairy farm, Judene describes her growing up as “very wholesome.” She says that she learned early that the many kinds of work done around the farm, were “all done as family.” Judene was a very lively and intelligent student. She had a couple great aunts who were in religious life. At the end of her junior year in high school, she entered the Racine Dominican community on September 8, 1946, as a postulant, after her oldest sister Pauline. She also entered with Sr. Mary Ellen Paulson. She remembers going to chemistry class at St. Catherine’s with Sr. Yvonne Renner. She eventually attended, graduated from and taught at the Dominican College School of Music. At that time, she says, music was a very high priority with the community. She had a career of great variety. In about 1959, she was sent to Madison to teach sixth grade and music. She then taught in South Milwaukee, Verona, Racine, Pewaukee, Milwaukee, Kansasville, and Burlington. She went on to be a school principal, an executive secretary, and Siena Center administrator. She eventually became a secretary for Justice and Rights Commission and for Mission Fund. She says, “Everything I did, I had to find out on my own. I was always the neophyte.” However, she says that she thoroughly enjoyed how many different jobs she’s had. She concludes, “We are all living our lives is faithfully as we can. Spirit draws us all together.” Blessings on Sr. Judene!
– Marilyn Lauer, Associate
Legacy is about sharing the richness of life, living in the present, learning from the past, and building for the future. Recently, I had the honor of interviewing S. Eugenia Kaster for the Racine Dominican Legacy project, as she delightfully shared her life and experiences with me.Gardina Mary Kaster was born August 31, 1927, on a farm in Freedom, Wisconsin, located between Appleton and Green Bay in Outagamie County. She was the eighth child in her family and had Dominican blood and religious service in her genes. From her mother’s side of the family, three aunts were Racine Dominicans – S. Cornelia, S. Esther and S. Arnold Vander Loop. Additionally, uncles Steve and Ted became Norbertine priests. She and S. Celia Evers are first cousins. S. Celia’s mother and Gardina’s mother were sisters.Nicknamed “Dean,” by siblings, she had eleven brothers and two sisters. At age nineteen, while reciting nightly prayers, she said, “I had a thought enter my mind to go to the convent.” A short time later in 1946, she entered the Racine Dominican Community postulate. At the time of professing final vows in 1950, Gardina was given the name of Sister Eugenia, an early Christian Roman martyr.On July 13, 1965, S. Eugenia received a Dominican College degree and taught children for twenty years. After LPN training, she worked for twelve years at St. Luke in Racine. Later, she become a healthcare board-certified chaplain. She worked in this profession for twenty years at that same hospital before retiring in 1989. Today, S. Eugenia enjoys prayer and contemplation, participating in community activities, writing, drawing and corresponding with family and friends. During her lifetime, S. Eugenia courageously endured uterine and colon cancers and two brain surgeries. Faith, family, the Racine Dominican Community, and a sense of humor inherited from family, have provided S. Eugenia with joy, gratification and an abundant life of service to further the Kingdom of God.
– Stacey Walsh, Associate
Recently I sat down for lunch with S. Rita Martin. I delighted in her story of a life full of faith and love. Rita was the fifth child born to Louis and Louisa Martin of Fowler, a small farming community in central Michigan. When Rita was a little girl, her father purchased a dairy farm. She described her dad as a keen businessman who upgraded the equipment and ultimately bottled and sold milk under the Martin Dairy label. The girls did not milk cows, but Rita did put the caps on the bottles. After eighth grade, Rita stayed home to help her mom, who wasn’t in the best of health. But as long as she could remember, she wanted to be a teacher. Rita watched as her older sister Frances joined the Dominicans and became Sister Geraldine, a welcomed name change. At the age of 19, having dated a few nice boys in Fowler, Rita too decided to join the Dominicans. She became S. Louis Mary. She continued her schooling and became a teacher. The close faithful community of Fowler fostered many vocations. Or, maybe there was something in the water!Today, Rita enjoys a spectacular view of Lake Michigan from her room at the Racine Dominican Residence. She feels so blessed to have a view that inspires her to paint; she absolutely loves to paint nature and birds. However, as a youngster she didn’t want to ask her parents for painting supplies. Recently she asked herself, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” The answer came clearly and simply: "I want to paint and play the piano." Although she has more aches and pains than she did even a year ago, she accepts them with joy and gratitude, knowing that it is what God wants, and she is at peace. Sitting with S. Rita, I couldn’t help but feel happy and thankful.