December 2, 2015 // Local

Making pink lemonade: Meet Darlene Sweeney

Darlene Sweeney, right, with volunteers stock shelves at the St. Vincent de Paul Society in South Bend.

By Jennifer Miller

GRANGER — Lemonade is such a refreshing drink. Precisely because it blends a hint of tartness with the finish of sweetness, a glass of lemonade is much like the life and testimony of Darlene Sweeney. Bitter and sour events have been transformed by grace, mixed with trust and faith in God’s will to bear beautiful fruit. Along with a passion for life, humility and choosing joy each day, Sweeney is a remarkable senior woman in the diocese.

Joining the Catholic Church in her 20s, she is now an active member of St. Pius X Parish in Granger. Her real, alive relationship with God guides her every day and clearly animates her very being. Each day she chooses joy, even when it was difficult to get out of bed.

Raised in Chicago, in a house where religion was a personal but not spoken topic, Sweeney and her sister (but not brothers) were encouraged to attend church. Her gift of faith continued to blossom when as a young adult Sweeney and her best friend explored various church communities to answer their questions. One day, they went to lunch with some nuns and priests, changing the way she understood Catholics. Later at St. Mary’s Parish, she met with the priest for instruction. Soon, she found a home in the Roman Catholic Church and real people in the religious ordained, both humble and human. Today Sweeney continues to see the humanity in each person she serves at St. Vincent de Paul headquarters.

A loving mother, widow, grandmother, active Catholic parishioner, great-grandmother, volunteer, Sweeney also has a fulltime job. For the past three years, she has been the volunteer recruiter for St. Vincent de Paul Society, combining her professional work with her faith. Most recently, they signed up over 600 families for the Christmas season, which were shared and adopted by 19 local Catholic parishes. She accomplished the goal for the year, coordinating everyone before November. They also work in collaboration with the Marine’s Toys for Tots program. Sweeney’s ability to connect people to build the kingdom of God is evident.

Her rich business background informed her work, improving the way volunteers served. When they came in teams to sort, tag or hang clothes, or re-stock the food pantry, Sweeney noticed a lack of connection between people, the volunteers and clients. So she used her past work experience and figured how many clients would be served with each pound of food donated. There was a data-driven volunteer program. There were spreadsheets and goals. There were competitive parish teams, from the St. Vincent de Paul conferences, to see who could help the most. And there was Sweeney. She put faces and families on to unknown strangers.

Her friendly manner of being and style of speaking built bridges between the groups. “I am fearless.” Sweeney explains, when it comes to recruiting volunteers for St. Vincent. “If you don’t ask, people don’t know.” As an NGO, the marketing budget is small, allowing peer-to-peer interactions to be key.

But how does such a dynamo sustain this type of service? Her personal, real relationship with God lights the way. Through daily prayer, meditation with Christian music and Scripture, Sweeney listens and speaks with God. She always has been part of a faith-sharing group. Even from a simple conversation, one can tell that she knows and loves God. And it was from this real, personal relationship that she came to South Bend.

After her husband, Michael, died suddenly, Sweeney was busy raising her three young children. Her immediate grief was put to the side in exchange for the everyday duties of motherhood. Meanwhile, she also ran a management company in Chicago.

Years later with children grown, she had a business opportunity in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  Never living outside of Illinois, there was an offer to own and operate a hospitality company. She trusted God’s will to lead her to this new place and to grow and flourish. And it was God’s will; she attuned her ear to when her son asked her to move to South Bend to be closer to her grandchildren. She observed God’s hand moving through these choices. Still to this day, she asks the Holy Spirit to be aware and open her to these types of choices, both large and small.

Impressively, Sweeney too transformed the hardships of her widowhood. She is also one of the co-founders and co-leader of Surviving Hearts at St. Pius X Parish. For widows and widowers, she describes the gathering as “a group of people with a common bond, that is that they have lost their spouses and were ready to begin again to find joy in their lives.” Begun two years ago with other widowed friends, they felt a need in their community, prayed and responded to that need.

Now with 45 members, they focus on four main pillars of the group: education, spiritual, service and social. Their education programs range from speakers on the stages of grief to senior self-defense courses. Socially they attend a wide range of events, from wine tastings and theatre shows, to lectures and baseball games together as well as a yearly retreat and Mass. Each member is responsible for an activity, a delegation tool Sweeney employed from her thriving businesses. There is also a sense of healthy self-care for the group, noticing when people might not be ready to join or who is new in their parish might be interested.

Not only is the group well balanced but it is also flourishing. One member described the seniors as “21 (year olds) with 52 years of experience.”

Sweeney also is an active member of her parish. She didn’t feel worthy at first to serve as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, but her pastor at the time, reminded her “none of us are worthy.”

Sweeney also serves as a lector and played in St. Pius X’s hand bell choir, a “bucket list” item for her. She has enjoyed these ministries as well as knowing when to quit them “to let someone else enjoy being a lector or bell ringer.”  Sweeney has learned when to close, when to open doors, wise from her life experiences.

With all of the life, the depth of flavor that Sweeney brings to her lemonade, it is her humility that colors it best. When speaking about her service work, she always first highlighted others, spoke most simply about herself when asked, and engaged everyone around her with empathic listening skills. Her integrity, humor, and sparkle all compliment her humility of being a beloved daughter of God.

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