Not many people can say they have received communion from a saint.
Sister Virginia Hebbeler is one of those lucky few.
When St. John Paul II toured the western U.S. in September 1987, he celebrated a papal Mass at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. Among those selected to receive communion from the then-Pope John Paul II at the Mass were three people from St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix. Sister Virginia, who ministered at St. Mary’s for more than 20 years, was one of them.
The temperature touched ninety degrees that Monday afternoon as Sister Virginia waited for three solid hours to enter the stadium, home to Arizona State University’s Sun Devils football team. More than 75,000 people packed the stadium for the papal Mass. Inside, the sacraments were being administered.
“The services were such that in the stadium they had every sacrament,” Sister Virginia said. “It was beautiful.”
As the Mass wore on, Sister Virginia recalled the letter she had received instructing her to hold out her hand to receive communion, which was just coming into vogue at the time. Make sure the Holy Father notices your hand, the letter urged. The pontiff, wearing red vestments, offered communion and pressed the Host in her palm.
Just like that, she joined a select club.
“It was very thrilling,” she said. “When he was canonized I thought ‘What a privilege.’”
Sister Virginia never set out to receive communion from the pope, live in the western United States or even become a nun. As a senior at Regina High School in Norwood, Ohio, she was planning to graduate and enter nursing school with four friends. Her mom, who wanted to be a nurse but never got the opportunity, was pleased.
In the middle of the school year, however, a Precious Blood Sister at Regina asked Virginia, whose religious name was Mary Claudine, what she wanted to do after graduation. The girl explained that she was going to be a nurse.
“I don’t think so,” the nun replied, and asked Virginia to pray a novena to the Blessed Mother. She did and her path changed.
On Christmas Eve, as Virginia and her mother were in the bathroom getting ready for midnight Mass, Virginia shared that she was going to forego nursing school after graduation and enter the convent. Her mother was disappointed, but her father was thrilled.
After novitiate, Sister Virginia trained as a teacher and taught grade school in Ohio and Missouri. She eventually fulfilled her desire to become a nurse and worked in Dayton, California and Indiana. She later returned to teaching in California, Arizona and Colorado.
In 1975, she became a pastoral assistant at St. Mary’s and stayed there for the next 22 years. She kept the books and handled other administrative duties. She also helped with pastoral ministry. She enjoyed working with the Franciscans who still operate the parish.
“I was very happy there,” Sister Virgina said. “I loved Phoenix. I got along with the Franciscans so well. We never had any problems, and if we did, we solved them.”
Sister Virginia, who is celebrating her 75th jubilee this year, retired from St. Mary’s in 1997 and moved to Salem Heights in Dayton, where she volunteered her nursing and financial skills.
In her bedroom is a photo of John Paul II, a link to a highlight of her life as a Precious Blood Sister.
“I’m grateful for everything I’ve had,” she said. “It was just something that happened in my lifetime.”
Story by Dave Eck; contributed photos