On a chilly mid-November morning, Sister Martha Bertke, manager of St. Charles Senior Living Community in rural Carthagena, Ohio, strolls the halls of the massive former seminary chatting with residents and getting in plenty of hugs. Visiting with residents is the best part of her day, and she’s all smiles. She drops by her office to check email, look over details of coming events and take a few phone calls.
On this day, however, the tasks are bittersweet. It’s her last day before retiring from the job she held since 2005.
“I’ve enjoyed it very much,” Sister Marty said. “It’s been very good! I appreciate very much what the Missionaries of the Precious Blood have done for me and with me. I appreciate each person who lives here. I’ve had many interactions with a lot of people.”
The Missionaries built St. Charles, parts of which date to the early 20th century, and still own it. The seminary closed in 1969 and the property became a home for priests and brothers. The main building was renovated and opened up to both religious and laity in January, 2007. It now has 59 residents, including 31 priests and brothers, and 28 lay people. All of the 54 apartments are occupied.
“She knows everybody and everybody’s family,” said Larry Holler, a resident at St. Charles. “(Sister) Marty has been a godsend to us when we needed it.”
Ministering at St. Charles was a homecoming for Sister Martha. She grew up in nearby Maria Stein, but spent 10 years teaching in Catholic schools, and 30 years of pastoral work in the Diocese of Toledo. She welcomed the opportunity to be nearer to dozens of family members.
The renovation at St. Charles was still underway when Sister Martha arrived. Amid the sounds of hammering and sawing, she began to envision an active community. She worked alongside the Missionaries as they selected their apartments. An open house attracted more than 1,000 visitors from all over the area.
Still, the early months were challenging. While local people were intrigued with the idea, they were reluctant to rent apartments in a former seminary and live there with religious men. It took four months for the first lay resident, a widow named Betty Humbert, to move in. More months passed before St. Charles landed its second lay resident. The going was slow.
Sister Martha relentlessly promoted the project in newspaper articles and on radio programs. She created a billboard, coordinated open houses and conducted tours for potential residents. She let the property sell itself with beauty, its amazing history and expansive grounds.
“I felt like I had to have faith in God who would guide me in the vision that the Missionaries had to open this place up and allow others to live here,” Sister Martha said. “I had to have faith in the people who would be here and the goodness of them. That was an inspirational thought that kept me going.”
Little by little people liked what they saw and the community started to grow.
Meantime, Sister Martha began to appreciate how working at St. Charles enabled her to live the charism of the Sisters of the Precious Blood.
“I think our charism is so special because it is focused on Jesus Christ who is at the center of our Catholic faith and the center of our spirituality,” she said. “I felt very blessed that nearly every morning I could attend Mass here a St. Charles. Celebrating Mass, you were around the Eucharistic table, and I often thought that my desk is an extension of that table, so the work that I do is an offering to God, to give praise and honor and glory to God with whom I interact.”
Sister Martha, who lives in Coldwater, is pleased with the success of St. Charles, but now wants to slow down. Though she has no immediate plans, she’s ready for a break.
“It’s time to go to the next chapter,” she said. “We’ll see where the Spirit leads me.”
Story by Dave Eck