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Sister Anne Boessen of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) had a clear vision of what her golden years of religious life would be like.
The St. Thomas native dreamed of gazing at the Mississippi River from her favorite porch swing at the SSNDs’ old Villa Jesu retirement home north of St. Louis.
“I cried the day we closed the Villa,” she recently recalled from her room in the Sarah Community in Bridgeton.
“But you know, this is better,” she said.
After spending many of the happiest years of her religious life in her home diocese, Sr. Anne moved to the community for retired SSNDs and other religious sisters on Oct. 1.
“I knew it was time,” she said.
The Sarah Community is located on the grounds of DePaul Hospital.
Sr. Anne’s neighbors are all fellow SSNDs, many of whom she served with in past assignments.
“It’s fun getting to know them again,” she said.
Her room on the second floor of the Veronica House is sparingly decorated with mementos of her years of teaching and serving in parish ministry.
A painted winter landscape is from a friend from her days of serving in the Alaska tundra.
A small, glass statue of Our Lady of Lourdes near her window was a gift from Monsignor Francis Gilgannon, now deceased, who was pastor while she was serving as a pastoral minister at Annunciation Parish in California.
An SSND classmate from Nicaragua gave Sr. Anne and each of her classmates a simple, hand-carved wooden fish when they reached their 25th year in religious life.
It now sits on a table next to a bust of a “feisty little nun” in a habit, a gift from a friend in Wardsville.
Sr. Anne tried to give it back to him before she moved to St. Louis.
“He said I needed to keep it, so whenever I see it, I remember to pray for him,” she said.
She smiled upon catching sight of a photo of her younger self in a frame next to her bed.
Tucked into the frame is a black-and-white photo of her in full habit, the customary garb for her congregation when she entered religious life some seven decades ago.
“It doesn’t seem that long ago,” she said with a laugh.
In good time
Sr. Anne was living in an apartment near St. Stanislaus Church in Wardsville when her energy started to fade in February of this year.
She talked to her doctor. He did some bloodwork.
Her cancer was back.
Actually, this was a different kind of cancer.
She held up four fingers.
“I’ve had it four times. All different,” she said with a mixture of awe and resignation.
Aware that she could no longer live at the pace she had been living, she called one of her fellow SSNDs in St. Louis who helps the sisters on mission.
“I think it’s time for me to move up there,” she said.
There was a room available in the Sarah Community.
Sr. Anne’s religious superiors were pleased that she made the decision for herself.
Some of her family drove her to the Sarah Community in June to look around and sign some papers. Her nephew was amazed at how clean and well-kept the building and rooms are.
The hard part would be leaving her massive extended family in and around Cole and Miller counties.
Then there were the fellow SSNDs who were on mission with her in the Jefferson City area, whose company she loved keeping.
She thought of her brother, David Boessen, who died on May 14 of this year after a short battle with cancer.
She remembered the group photo his family hastily arranged to have taken in St. Thomas, with the family farm in the background.
His neighbors — some of whom he had grown up with, others who had married into the family — all lined up to shake his hand or give him a hug.
“It was hard,” Sr. Anne noted. “But you know, it was really good.”
The management of the retirement home where she was living suggested that she could have her own gathering with a few members of her family.
“What about 300?” she asked, referring to just the tip of the Boessen iceberg.
Not during the COVID pandemic, they told her.
“I really wanted to say goodbye to everyone, but I just didn’t have the energy,” she said. “I was so very tired when I left.”
This is home now
Sr. Anne gave almost everything away before moving.
While clearing out a cabinet, she found a handful of travelers’ checks from a trip she had taken many years ago.
They had no expiration date. A friend in the banking business helped her redeem them.
“The first bank teller I talked to, I don’t think he had ever seen a traveler’s check before!” she said with a laugh.
Moving day finally came.
Sr. Anne cried when she left Wardsville, as did friends and family members, many of whom have known her all their life.
“I really miss them,” she said. “I love it when they come to visit. I love when they send photos.
“But this is where I need to be now,” she stated.
“You never know”
Three large trees in the Veronica House courtyard were still covered with leaves when Sr. Anne arrived.
She gazed out into the landscaped courtyard and smiled.
Before long, the trees were filled with autumn colors before ultimately giving them up until spring.
“I’m not fooling myself,” she said with characteristic candor. “I know I came here to die.”
She pointed out how the Veronica House is for sisters whose health allows them to be more independent.
The other side, known as Anna House, is for sisters in weaker health.
“I’ll start on this side and eventually go to the other side,” she said, “and that will be okay.”
It doesn’t sound like anything she plans on doing soon.
“But you never know,” she stated.
Open heart and hands
Sr. Anne, a daughter of the late Anton and Alma (Lueckenotto) Boessen, grew up on a farm near St. Thomas.
From her days at St. Thomas the Apostle School and at St. Peter High School in Jefferson City, she had wonderful experiences with the School Sisters of Notre Dame who taught her.
She felt called to join them and eventually did so.
When she and her classmates professed final vows, the priest in the pulpit shed light on the day’s significance:
“Today, you give your gifts to God; tomorrow, you’ll use those gifts.”
Almost 65 years of tomorrows have elapsed since then, but Sr. Anne continues to ponder what God needs from her, this day, for His work to be accomplished.
“God calls us and gives us talents, enables us to do things, and we don’t always know what they’re going to be,” she said. “But we can stand with open heart and open hands and let God move in and take what He wants from us.
“It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s a peaceful way to live,” she said. “We try to do what He wants us to do and be what He wants us to be.”
Her work in the field ranged from teaching high school, to pro-life advocacy, parish ministry, and outreach to people who are grieving.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, she occasionally filled in for the receptionist at the Alphonse J. Schwartze Memorial Catholic Center in Jefferson City.
Her present apostolate is a daily mix of prayer, presence and empathy with people who are facing illness and infirmity.
Sr. Anne can’t get back to Jefferson City anymore. The car ride is too hard on her.
“Not that I don’t love having visitors!” she said. “And I love talking to people on the phone.”
She has some relatives in the St. Charles area. They had her over on Thanksgiving Day and plan to do the same on Christmas.
Not having to keep house, do laundry or prepare her meals anymore leaves her more energy for praying, socializing and making sure her affairs are in order.
She doesn’t have to drive anywhere. All of her doctor’s appointments are taken care of. She doesn’t have to fill out her Medicaid papers.
“That’s all done by someone who knows what they’re doing,” she said.
The Most Blessed Sacrament is reposed in a chapel on her floor. She enjoys stopping there to pray each day before breakfast.
She also likes heading down to the big chapel for daily Mass on most days, when her health permits.
Her days are filled with activities whenever she has the energy.
There are doctor’s appointments and occasional shopping trips and pilgrimages to nearby churches.
She hopes to be able to see the Christmas light display this year at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois.
“We’ll see how that goes,” she said.
Her voice-activated internet porthole helps her remember to take her medication on time.
It also plays show tunes from her favorite Broadway musicals.
A niece came to the community Christmas party on Dec. 13 and helped decorate her room in seasonal fashion.
The way to pray
Sr. Anne perked up while recalling the priests and parishioners she had gotten to know through her years as a pastoral minister, first in California, then in St. Thomas.
She laughed out loud while sharing stories of some of the lovable but always human priests whose ministries she had been sent to help bolster.
She noted that time seems to go by a lot more quickly while she’s visiting, and she has a lot more energy when people are there.
She’s confident that people won’t stop praying for her, especially as she faces future ambiguities of health.
She remembers a sign that hung on her hospital room wall when she was in St. Louis for treatment back in 2005: “Don’t pray for what you want or what you don’t want. Pray that you can endure what God gives you.”
“That’s pretty much what I need right now,” she said.
Then she headed down the hall for a meal and fellowship with her fellow School Sisters of Notre Dame.