When you think of a Catholic nun, what picture comes to your mind? A “penguin outfit” and a strict disciplinarian like from “Blues Brothers?” Or is it something cute but out of place in the modern world like a sister from “Sister Act?”
We had a reception today at Mount Mercy for a complex, intelligent woman who has left her mark on the university. Sister Shari Sutherland is retiring at the end of the year as VP of mission and ministry.
MMU President Laurie Hamen told a little story about Sr. Shari. The then newly minted leader of MMU was to travel with her to Omaha to be presented to a Sisters of Mercy leadership group, and thus got in a car with Sister Shari on a cold winter morning. As they started off, however, they saw someone dressed in scrubs out in the cold. Sister Shari directed Laurie to stop the car and asked, “Where are you going, friend?”
The stranger was headed to HyVee, but didn’t have any money. Sister Shari gave them some of her own, and someone got a ride to the grocery store before a new university president and nun left town.
Of course, when you think of the story, your heart is warmed by the goodness it displays. Then again, it’s also a story of quick decision making, taking risks, facing life with courage and swift action. How typical of a Sister.
I recently read an article that, sadly, as I wrote this I could not find again. But it was a reflection of how the Christian view of Mary, mother of Jesus, is sometimes flawed because we seem to think of her as meek and passive. But in the Gospel, when an angel comes to tell Mary she’ll have a baby, she doesn’t just say, “sure,” she first asks some pointed questions. And when she says “OK, God, we’ll do this,” she says it on her own, without consulting anybody. Sort of like a Sister.
Sisters are doing it for themselves. I’m not sure why Sister Shari’s retirement made me think of Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, but it did. And while I didn’t find the most recent article on Mary that I was thinking of, I did appreciate this similar essay by Father James Martin in Slate.
Sister Shari was an encouraging presence at MMU and also a force to be reckoned with. She has spunk, intelligence, humor and backbone. I felt honored that I rang with her when there was a bell choir and occasionally was blessed by her during Mercy Week ceremonies. She was an early supporter of the idea of a Fall Faculty Series, and one of the hidden movers and shakers that helped that effort take off.
There was another theme at the retirement reception, too. It doesn’t end here. The mission of the Sisters of Mercy is carried on by those of us who attempt to understand the spirit of Mercy, and who work and teach at a Mercy University.
Sister Shari, you were part of the gas in the tank at MMU. Your smile and grace and humor and strength will be sorely missed. On the other hand, if the baton gets passed, the next runner must run. The university, like the dude, abides. And the best way to honor you Sister Shari, I suppose, is to keep the faith, light the fire, work the mission, teach the students and carry on.
Before that, however, let me pause and say thanks for the help you gave me and all of us at MMU in ways big and small.
And, also, a song that makes me think of both Mary and of you, Sister Shari: