They toiled in the shadows, rarely seen or heard.
In seminaries and retreat houses. In Bishops’ residences and assisted living facilities. From Cincinnati to Denver to Phoenix, generations of Precious Blood Sisters cooked, cleaned, did the laundry and kept house for more than a century. They lived in community in their own quarters, with their own chapel, often separated from the rest of the institution.
The work was challenging and physically demanding, yet they were dedicated to serving those who served the rest of us.
They were the backbone of the church.
“I just think those Sisters really supported the church in a very humble, simple way,” said Father Joseph Beckman, remembering the Sisters of the Precious Blood who worked at then-St. Gregory Seminary in Cincinnati when he was there as a student and later as a teacher.
Sometimes they were young, newly professed Sisters who had to learn on the job.
Sister Eva (M. Lelia) Roehrich was assigned to St. Gregory to cook shortly after her formation. A farm girl from North Dakota, the kitchen was new to her.
“I had never cooked. Then I had to go and cook the priests breakfast,” she said, laughing at the memory. “I didn’t know what to cook. I didn’t know how to fry bacon or pancakes. I didn’t know anything about that.”
The head cook, Sister Euthalia Boeke noticed Sister Eva standing in the kitchen and showed her young charge how to prepare the dishes. Soon Sister Eva was whipping up her own slices of heaven at mealtime.
Sister Eva went on to spend 23 years in kitchens in Cincinnati, Dayton and Colorado, including eight years in charge of food service at then-St. Thomas seminary in Denver. She remembers the special dinners her staff prepared for the students at St. Thomas each month. One Thanksgiving they prepared one turkey for a table of 16, poured brandy on the bird and lit it so it would flame up. There were carving sets for each table and a cornucopia with fruit flowing from it. Another dinner had a winter theme and someone brought in skis for decoration.
After leaving food service Sister Eva spent nearly 30 years as a receptionist in Dayton and Virginia.
Though now retired, the Sisters who served in domestic arts share with each other stories from their years of active ministry.
Sister Adeline Mertz worked in food service and housekeeping in Indiana and Ohio. She recalls one day while working at a seminary, she noticed a cherry tree bursting with cherries. The next day the Sisters went to pick the cherries, but they were gone. They first thought the culprits were students, but the Sisters quickly realized a flock of birds had pilfered the fruit.
In 1956 Sister Adeline was assigned to St. Gregory Seminary when the building housing the kitchen was destroyed by fire. She was visiting in Dayton the night of the blaze and heard about it the next morning.
Sister Verlina (M. Benet) Mescher, food service supervisor at St. Gregory then, remembers waking up that morning to see fire engines on the seminary grounds. The Sisters lost everything. Sister Verlina oversaw the relocation of the kitchen into the school’s auditorium. As the reconstruction progressed they moved their equipment four different times. “It was something,” she said.
Sister Verlina and her staff fed hundreds of people three times a day during her 26 years of food service at St. Gregory, at the former Fatima Hall in Dayton, at the Sisters of the Precious Blood motherhouse, and Lourdes Hall and at then-St. Thomas Seminary in Denver.
“Everyone worked together,” she said. “We made everything from scratch.”
While making beef stew one day, Sister Verlina accidently threw macaroni into the stew.
“It turned out real beautiful,” she said. “They liked it, too. It was real tasty.”
Sister Verlina transitioned into working with the elderly in 1981 until retiring to Salem Heights in Dayton in 2014.
Growing up on a farm near Ft. Loramie, Ohio, Sister Jeannine (Leo Mary) Kloeker had little use for the kitchen. Her mom and older sisters did the cooking while she helped her dad with the farm chores. Besides, there were grander dreams than learning how to cook. Jeannine wanted to be a professional baseball player for the Ft. Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
But after she finished grade school, God intervened.
“I felt the calling,” she said.
Sister Jeannine entered Fatima Hall, the former aspirancy for the Sisters of the Precious Blood after eighth grade. After profession she began a 40-year career in food service in Dayton, Burkettsvlle, Carthagena, Maria Stein and Centerville, all in Ohio.
“I had to learn from scratch,” she said. “I really did.”
As food service director at the Maria Stein Retreat Center, Sister Jeannine planned the menus and ordered the food. Each year she packed away in a freezer all the packages of meat from a cow that they had butchered.
“Sometimes we worked from morning to night,” she said.
Business groups rented the center for seminars and requested certain dishes. One group wanted prime rib roasts. Sister Jeannine had never prepared the dish and was rather nervous about the order. The group had paid for the expensive beef.
“I worried about it all night,” she said. “I didn’t sleep very well. I read the recipes and figured out how to do it.”
She followed the directions and held her breath. After the dinner one of the businessmen came into the kitchen and told her it was the best prime rib he ever had.
“I never worried about it again,” Sister Jeannine said.
The center also hosted meetings of the Catholic bishops from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. After one gathering then-Cincinnati Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin came back and talked with each of the cooks.
“I never forgot that,” Sister Jeannine said. “He recognized what we were doing.”
Sister Jeannine moved away from cooking and spent 11 years as the assistant coordinator for the infirmed Sisters living at the Maria Joseph Center.
She’s still a baseball fan, often wearing a Cincinnati Reds t-shirt and staying up late to catch a ballgame on television. Though she never chased her own dream of professional baseball, Sister Jeannine feels she made the better choice in following God’s call.
“I just felt it was the right thing for me to do,” she said. “I have to say I’ve been happy. I really have.”
The Sisters at each institution formed their own little communities. They worked, prayed and played together. Mass in their private chapel was celebrated each morning. At some places there was an afternoon rest. After evening prayer, the Sisters talked or played cards.
It was a quiet, holy life that brought them closer to God.
“I think gradually we grew,” said Sister Adeline, who remembers feeding the Chicago Bears football team when they trained at St. Joseph College in Renselaer, Ind., in the 1950s. “I think we grew a little each day, each week and each year.”
“Your prayer life comes with what you put into it,” Sister Eva said. “No one else can put it in for you. You’ve got to build it up yourself.”
For Sister Ritamary Bulach work and prayer make up life. Her work in food service at Lourdes Hall, the former Precious Blood Sisters infirmary, complimented her lifestyle.
“I loved it there,” she said. “I got to know the older Sisters and what they did. You got the spirit that way. They were just holy souls.”
She later worked in food service and housekeeping at Maria Stein Retreat House before returning to cooking at the Maria-Joseph Care Center in Dayton.
Preparing food helped her fill her vocation.
“I was feeding people,” she said. “I was making people happy and what makes people happier than food?”
Prior to 1969, Sisters were assigned in ministry. In many cases Superiors of the Congregation chose the type of ministry a Sister would do, with or without dialogue before making the assignment. The talents of the Sister and the needs of the time were considered in making the decision.
Sister Dolorosa Oen, who at 103 is the oldest living Sister of the Precious Blood, freely admits that she didn’t particularly enjoy school. So after profession, she was glad to be missioned to domestic work.
After ministering in food service in Ohio and Indiana, Sister Dolorosa was assigned to the residence of then-Lafayette, Ind., Bishop John G. Bennett as a housekeeper. That was the beginning of a journey that took her to Columbus, Ohio, then St. Louis and even on a visit to Rome and an audience with Pope Paul VI.
After Bishop Bennett died, Sister Dolorosa continued working for his successor, Bishop John J. Carberry. She followed him when he was named bishop of Columbus and again when he was appointed St. Louis archbishop. She accompanied him to Rome when he was elevated to cardinal in 1969.
She remembers driving the cardinal’s family members to see the sights in St. Louis when they came to visit. There were trips to the St. Louis Arch and rides on the excursion boat Admiral with music and dancing.
Sister Dolorosa spent 40 years working for Bishop Bennet and Cardinal Carberry before retiring to Dayton in 1989. The Sisters provided companionship during the bishops’ downtime. The Sisters would sometimes eat with them.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “I enjoyed it. They were both so kind. They had a hard job, working for the people.”
Though the bishops could have hired anyone to serve in their homes, they preferred Sisters because they brought with them a deep spirituality.
“Those Sisters were a living evangelization,” said Sister Joyce Ann (Karen Edward) Zimmerman, who remembers the Sisters working in the motherhouse when she was a postulant. “That’s what those Sisters contributed. They didn’t teach anything. They didn’t speak anything. They simply lived through the work of their hands. The prayer life, their love of God [is what] they embodied.”
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Story by Dave Eck