Some people experience their callings as a wordless tug, a sense from deep within that points them to the right path.
Sister Arlene Einwalter ’60, however, experienced her calling somewhat differently. After about 40 years as a School Sister of St. Francis, during which she served as a Catholic school educator, religious education and pastoral minister in parishes and dioceses throughout the Midwest, she felt called to bereavement ministry in New Mexico.
“I remember standing at Mass and I heard this message inside: ‘Arlene, get yourself to Santa Fe.” Einwalter had a friend there, whom she visited during the Christmas season. The friend suggested she look into hospice ministry. As a lifelong educator, Einwalter was skeptical, but recalls, “My whole body said, ‘will you listen to her?’”
In New Mexico, Einwalter enrolled in a two-year hospice-training program and later went to work at a funeral home. “I felt so guided by God to go where I was supposed to go,” she says. “I called every family who had experienced death. Many people came in for individual counseling. I did a support group for parents who lost children and another group for spouses. It was a wonderful ministry.”
She recalls waking one morning to hear a new calling; she answered the call by helping to establish Gerard’s House to serve grieving children and their families in Santa Fe. “It’s still going,” she says proudly. “They have now served between 10,000 and 11,000 children. They not only serve children who have lost loved ones but also work with children whose parents are in jail, children in foster care and children who crossed the border without their parents.”
Earlier this year, Alverno Magazine connected with Sister Arlene, retired since 2009, to discuss her favorite memories from her ministries as well as how we can meet grief and loss with grace.
How were you called to the sisterhood?
I had the School Sisters of St. Francis for my grade school teachers in a little town called Fort Atkinson, Iowa (not Wisconsin!). From the age of seven, I knew I wanted to go to that community. I attended high school at the convent and lived there with the sisters.
It’s so interesting how as I look over my life now in my 80s, I know that God was guiding me all the way. I believe God guides all of our lives like that. He’s guiding your life just like He’s guiding mine.
What do you remember about attending college at Alverno?
I went for summer school and on Saturdays. When I was [teaching at a parish school] in Chicago, the Alverno teachers would come down to Alvernia High School [which closed in 1989] on Saturdays. I came to Milwaukee for summer school.
At that time, Alverno was in the motherhouse. Later, I remember going to the [newly built] Alverno campus and doing a lot of scrubbing of the floors. Sister Jutta [Hollenbeck, academic dean] and Sister Augustine [Scheele H’76], who was president at the time, joined right in with us. They were down in the kitchen washing dishes and doing some of the same things that the novices and young sisters were doing. It was very impressive to see how these women who were going to be running the college were also cleaning it and working in that way. They were really wonderful.
You were a teacher for many years. What was that ministry like?
During the two years I was a novice, I prayed: “God, send me any place but Chicago.” And where did I go? Chicago! I had nine wonderful years there. I started teaching the second grade, with 54 second graders and no practice teaching. I was 18 years old. That was typical. We went out right after novitiate.
I learned fast because we had to, with 54 second graders! During the first year, they were on the floor more than in their seats. But after the first year, I became a good teacher. Over my years of teaching in Chicago, some of the beg teachers from the Archdiocese came to observe my teaching. I taught second, third, seventh and eighth grades, and high school, and I loved teaching.
What did you find fulfilling about your grief ministry?
I learned to understand a lot about grief just listening to people’s stories. I taught grief and loss in the community college. I was asked to do different things around the city. I felt very welcomed, and I got to know so many people. People would call on me when they needed it. I felt very trusted.
What must we understand about grief and loss?
When tragedy happens, whether it’s the loss of a person or the loss of finances, we go through sadness and anger. We’re sad because of the loss, but we’re angry because our life has to change. My job was to try to help people separate our feelings, recognize them, honor them and then let them go. That doesn’t mean you let it go all at once. Grief is a process, and it takes time. That’s the message I want to get across: We need to deal with our feelings. We need to honor them and then we need to let them go. We can’t bury them.
Whether it’s the loss of loved ones or of less tangible things, like time, many of us have experienced grief during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who or what are you grieving?
I live at Clement Manor, and the only place we can go is down to get our mail. We used to have gatherings, and we don’t do any of that anymore. We did a lot of hugs around here, but we don’t touch anymore. We’re really missing that. I think it’s taking a toll more than we realize.
I would like to have my family come from Iowa. I haven’t seen anybody for over a year now. I’d like to see people and be able to welcome people into my apartment. I’m a people person!
Editor’s note: As of the spring, Sister Arlene was fully vaccinated and enjoying the chance to see old friends!
Where do you find joy?
When I go down for the mail, I usually see two or three people and say hi and a few words. I’m on the phone a lot with my friends and family. I meet two friends from Santa Fe on the phone once a week. The three of us are like sisters, and talking to them is always a joy.
This article appears in the spring/summer 2021 issue of Alverno Magazine.