After her freshman year of high school at St. Augustine in Chicago, the teaching sisters of the school invited Marie Heppeler and some friends to work in a migrant camp in Plymouth, Indiana. She doesn’t remember much about what they did, but the young Heppeler was deeply moved by the joyful sense of community among the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. “I was taken with the spirit that emanated from the sisters. They had so much fun being together!”
She had always wanted to be a teacher and a nun, like her aunt, a Holy Cross sister; but this experience clarified Heppeler’s vocation. She entered the order and finished her high school education in Donaldson.
“I love being a Poor Handmaid. It gives me the freedom to roll up my sleeves and get in there to meet others’ needs,” she said. “The order embodies the charism of humility, putting others first.” That has been her calling for 50 years.
Ministry assignments had her working with individuals with special needs as well as teaching elementary school. Her most diverse experience was at St. Henry Parish near Misericordia in Chicago. In her fourth-grade classroom, she and only one other student had been born in the United States. Students from other cultures — “None of us were a minority!” she said — made Friday “show and tell” the highlight of every week.
Back in Indiana now, Sister Marie shares a home with another PHJC sister who is the vocation director and head of their volunteer program. It takes the two less than an hour to get to their motherhouse in Donaldson, which has hosted many special events this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their coming from Germany to this area at the invitation of Bishop John Henry Luers.
Sister Marie was thrilled to teach second grade — her favorite — in a brand-new school, St. Pius X in Granger. But by 2016 it was clearly time to embark on her “best year ever” before pulling back to become a teaching assistant. In that role, she could still interact with students without having to keep up with lesson plans, record-keeping and technological changes.
It also enabled her to take a sabbatical last fall that included long retreats in Colorado Springs and North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, the latter focused on Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si.” This year she’s been able to take time off on a regular basis to care for an ailing friend with whom she worked at Misericordia.
She also joined a pilgrimage to Rome and Germany for the Oct. 14 canonization of Blessed Catherine Kasper, foundress of the Poor Handmaids. This was even more meaningful to Sister Marie because she also was in Rome 40 years ago when Pope Paul VI beatified Mother Mary Catherine. Now, that pope is being canonized along with her. “Our foundress had such a total reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit!” said Sister Marie.
As long as she enjoys good health and energy, she plans to remain active at St. Pius X School. “I have so much more to learn from these kids,” Sister Marie beamed. “It’s life-giving for me.”
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