Sister Donna Eggering could never have dreamed of all the things she would do as a Franciscan Sister of Oldenburg, Indiana.
Now, after 60 years of religious life, including 27 in the Jefferson City diocese, she dreams about it all the time.
“It was such a privilege to serve among the people in Missouri, and I really miss it,” she said. “I still dream of the people. I dream of all the things that we did and that can still be done.”
She grew up in a large Catholic family in Old Monroe, near the juncture of the St. Louis archdiocese and the Jefferson City diocese.
Her teachers at Immaculate Conception School in Old Monroe were Oldenburg Franciscans.
Thinking young Donna might be called to religious life, her eighth-grade teacher told her about the juniorate, a program allowing girls to go to high school at the Motherhouse while seeing how the sisters lived.
“I asked my mom and dad,” Sr. Donna recalled. “They said, ‘Sure.’ So at age 14, I came to live here in 1957 without ever having seen it before.”
Sr. Donna officially entered religious life on Feb. 2, 1961, although some of her classmates entered the previous September.
“We’re all considered part of the 1960 class,” she said.
“You run the place!”
Sr. Donna earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in learning disabilities.
She taught for 17 years in Catholic schools in Indiana, Missouri and Ohio.
By 1980, she had given everything she had to teaching and was burning out.
She asked the leadership council if she could put her gifts to a different kind of use.
“They discussed it and wound up telling me that I could do something different if I found my own job,” she said.
Her network of sisters, friends and fellow educators helped her find an opening for a parish director of religious education (DRE) at an inner-city parish in St. Louis.
“It was my first foray into African American culture, and I loved it!” she said.
A year later, she moved to another part of the city to help combine two neighboring parishes into one.
She helped plan the ceremony to mark the closing of one of the parish churches, culminating with the planting of a tree that her father had brought from Old Monroe.
For nine years, Sr. Donna worked closely with parishioners, visiting people who were homebound and preparing children and adults to receive the sacraments.
She worked with Oldenburg Franciscan Sister Mildred Ann Reckamp, who walked the streets of the parish, wearing her religious habit and talking to people, showing them God’s love.
“She did wonderful work there,” Sr. Donna recalled. “The Lord was with us all the time. ”
Missionary Servant Sisters of the Holy Spirit, known as “Blue Sisters,” also canvassed the neighborhoods and invited people with no church home to become Catholic.
Sr. Donna would then help the people prepare to enter the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
She would also drive people to doctor’s appointments and other errands.
When the time came for her to move on, a custodian told her, “You can’t leave! You run the place!”
“To give spiritual gladness”
From there, she left for a sabbatical and to pursue a master’s degree in pastoral studies at Loyola University of Chicago.
That’s what opened the door to her work in this diocese.
Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe of Jefferson City, now deceased, hired her to serve as pastoral administrator of St. Michael parish in Russellville.
That position is now referred to as parish life collaborator.
The parish had no resident pastor, so she was responsible for carrying-out the administrative functions.
She also oversaw the spiritual outreach and day-to-day life of the parish.
“I relied heavily on the people,” she said. “I told them, ‘This is your parish. I’m here to help.’”
She made St. Francis of Assisi’s motto her own: “to lead people to spiritual gladness.”
She visited people who were sick and homebound, often giving them Holy Communion, and helped children and families prepare for sacraments.
“And just being with them in sickness and health,” she said. “They allowed me to do that.”
The people were gathering in the parish hall and using folding chairs for Mass each Sunday. And they were running out of room.
“We needed to build a church,” she said. “We needed a holy space.”
Through years of planning, information-gathering, consulting with professionals, soliciting input from parishioners, fundraising and praying, she and the parishioners kept moving toward that goal.
The theme for their capital campaign was: “St. Michael Parish: Messengers for the Next Century.”
The result was a 7,200-square-foot, 350-seat, church of brick, concrete and heavy timber.
Bishop John R. Gaydos of Jefferson City, now retired, dedicated the completed church in June of 2002.
Sr. Donna designed an art-glass window for the church, depicting God’s Word and hymns of praise.
For years, she served as president of the Russellville Ministerial Alliance, made up of ministers and representatives of the city’s nine churches.
“God did that”
After 13 years in Russellville, Sr. Donna moved to Immaculate Conception parish in Brookfield to serve in a similar capacity.
She would remain there for 14 years.
“The list was long of things that needed to be done, and we did them together,” she said.
They painted and re-carpeted the inside of the 1894-vintage church, replaced eight deteriorating stained-glass windows and repaired the rest of them.
Sr. Donna designed the new windows with an artist from Art Unlimited.
“We never had to borrow any money,” she said. “We did them one by one. We’d pay for one, then we’d start another.”
Her favorite memories are of the times she got to lead people to Christ.
“The highlights for me were the years of attending family gatherings and just being with people,” she said.
On Thursdays and Fridays, she would take Holy Communion to people who were elderly or homebound.
“That was a real privilege,” she said.
On Sundays, she would welcome people to Mass and serve in some liturgical function.
One man who she helped bring back to the sacraments cried when she gave him Holy Communion one Sunday.
“He said, ‘You gave my Church back to me,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘It was God Who did that.’”
“Everybody has something”
Sr. Donna started dealing with cyclical bursts of back pain in 2010 but continued to work through them.
“I didn’t want to retire,” she said. “I had a major surgery in 2018 and I wasn’t recovering as well as when I had surgery in 2012.”
She returned to Indiana two years ago and now helps in ministry at the Motherhouse.
It took a while to get used to living in such a large place with so many other people.
“There are 125 sisters living here at the Motherhouse,” she said, “including our care center for our sisters who are sick.”
She continues working to regain her health.
“I’m still fighting back pain,” she said. “But it’s okay, because everybody has something. You just get up and deal with it and move on like everybody else.”
The sisters began sheltering in place in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have not had any visitors except for people who work there.
“We have not had a case here at all, but we’re all vulnerable,” she said. “I don’t think anybody here is in their 60s anymore, and we have some in their 90s. So if it gets in here, it could spread like wildfire.”
Sisters who are still out on mission have not been able to visit the Motherhouse for months.
“It’s given us all a lot of time to think, to pray,” said Sr. Donna. “We’re praying for the whole world that’s suffering in any way and asking God to have mercy on His world.”
They especially offer prayers for people affected by the pandemic, for migrants and immigrants and people detained at the border.
“Good things are happening”
The Oldenburg Franciscans plan to honor Sr. Donna and 10 other jubilarians at a July 26 celebration at the Motherhouse.
Morning Prayer, dinner, the Jubilee Mass and a reception are planned for the celebration.
In the meantime, Sr. Donna asks for prayers for better health and inner peace.
She noted that there were about 900 Oldenburg Franciscans when she entered the congregation.
“We have 161 sisters now,” she said. “We do have a few prospects, so pray that we as a community can continue to serve, wherever we are.”
She stays in touch with her friends in the Brookfield and Russellville parishes.
“Good things are happening in both places,” she said.
She enjoys reading about a renewed emphasis on service and charitable outreach in the diocese.
She treasures the memories of her time here.
“The most wonderful part,” she stated, “was the people and the privilege — and I want to stress the privilege — of being with them in all circumstances and helping to lift them up and have them know that the Church was there for them always, and they could count on the Church, even if I had to go out on a limb.
“I never in my life dreamed of what I would be able to do as a sister,” she said. “Never in my entire life!”