By Amanda LePoire
After years in education, Sister Marilynn Wittenauer is helping Mercy co-workers put the Mercy charism into action outside their workplaces.
For the past nine years, Sister Marilynn has served as the co-worker volunteer coordinator for Mercy Neighborhood Ministry (MNM) in St. Louis, Missouri. The ministry connects economically poor people with health and social service resources. In 2008, the director of MNM wanted to connect Mercy co-workers interested in volunteering with agencies needing assistance. Sister Marilynn stepped into the role, and today, more than 750 co-workers have volunteered.
“It’s a real credit to co-workers,” Sister Marilynn says. “After putting in a full day’s work—for most, not sitting behind a desk—they have to be really committed to wanting to serve.”
Sister Marilynn meets with area agencies to determine their needs and how Mercy co-workers can help. She publicizes the opportunities to co-workers and then schedules the volunteers, now with the help of an online system developed by the Information Technology Department of the hospital that MNM is connected to. She also follows up with thank-yous and a reflection tool for volunteers.
Opportunities to express Mercy charism
Co-workers regularly volunteer at four area agencies. At one of the agencies, five departments each serve nutritious meals at one of the area dinner programs. The Dietary Department provides menu choices for each department’s selection and then prepares the meal, which the Resource Optimization & Innovation (ROI) Department delivers.
“I just love them all working together to make this happen,” Sister Marilynn says. “These are our lay people, not sisters, initiating these things. They happen because they are committed people of Mercy who have seen the need.”
Other regular volunteer locations include Food Outreach, which focuses on health and well-being for AIDS and cancer patients; Feed My People, a food pantry outside St. Louis; Harvest Table, which provides a meal every Saturday for anyone in the Washington, Missouri, community; and St. Vincent’s dinner program. Co-workers also can select ad hoc opportunities with organizations meeting a myriad of needs in the community, including many that serve immigrants and children—all of whose missions connect to Catherine McAuley and the sisters’ Critical Concerns.
“I don’t know who is more inspiring to me: the people struggling and receiving services from the agency—their courage—or the co-workers who care about those who don’t have what they need,” Sister Marilynn says.
As more ministries offer formation programs to reinforce and develop the Mercy charism in lay co-workers, the volunteer program provides them an avenue for living out what they learn.
“It gives them an opportunity to express the Mercy charism in their lives,” she says.
Responding to the call
Sister Marilynn was once a co-worker ministering alongside the Sisters of Mercy. A lay teacher in a Catholic school staffed by sisters, she had completed the two years her degree required to teach. She went on retreat to decide whether to leave teaching to finish her college degree. When she arrived in her room, she found a note from her principal, Sister Maureen Egan, saying she thought Sister Marilynn had the qualities for religious life. Sister Marilynn, 27 at the time, thought she’d already considered religious life years ago, but by the end of the April retreat, she realized she was being called.
“Instead of entering school in September, I entered the Community,” Sister Marilynn recalls.
After several years as a teacher and principal in Missouri and Oklahoma, she served as director of education for the St. Louis Regional Community for six years. In the 1990s, Sister Marilynn was involved in founding two ministries that were the essence of responding to the needs of the time. The first, Women in Charge, was a direct response to the Welfare to Work movement. The ministry offered practical solutions to help women trying to return to the workforce, including training and counseling in computer skills, healthy cooking on a budget, and good work skills, such as punctuality; child care; GED and reading/math assessments; and prayer services.
“I was so inspired by the courage of these women,” Sister Marilynn says. “They could see the blessing in everything.”
Serving the needs of the time
After ministering with Women in Charge, Sister Marilynn was one of the first tutors for the English Tutoring Project, a collaborative ministry of several communities of women religious in the St. Louis area. The program offers free English tutoring to immigrant children in Catholic elementary schools in South St. Louis. Sister Marilynn and another sister traveled between schools and held sessions in an RV. At the time, St. Louis had large Vietnamese and Hispanic communities, as well as the largest Bosnian population outside Bosnia.
“All these groups of women religious with a long history in St. Louis and several with motherhouses here were responding to the needs of today, not why they came here originally,” Sister Marilynn says. “It’s the response of women religious today to the present moment.”
In her 56 years as a Sister of Mercy, Sister Marilynn sees a common thread connecting the ministries in which she’s served.
“In all of these ministries, you see the hand of Mercy in it,” she says. “It’s not always the Sisters of Mercy, and it doesn’t need our name on it. It’s a willingness to be part of something because it’s a real need.”