Sister Susan Renner was walking down the middle of the street in a snowstorm one night.
There were no cars. Nothing but quiet.
“The snow looked like diamonds everywhere,” she recalled.
She was blessed to be part of a large, devout Catholic family that weathered life’s storms with prayer, humor and camaraderie.
All of her teachers had been School Sisters of Notre Dame. She had spent time with a few and become acquainted with their humanness.
“I was drawn to them because of who they were and how much they cared,” she said. “Part of me wanted to be like them.”
Then came that moment of snow-ful silence.
“I just had this sense of God’s presence,” she said. “It was probably the first time I felt that presence in a way that was so real.”
From then on, the call would be more intense.
“It’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s what God does,” she said. “God plants something deep within you, the calling He has for you, and He slowly reveals it to you.”
Sr. Susan professed first vows as a School Sister of Notre Dame (SSND) 50 years ago.
She ministered in and near St. Louis before moving to Jefferson City in 2018 to become founding director of the St. Nicholas Academy.
“The idea of creating a program, creating a place for kids who don’t have many options in their life to get a good, quality education — that’s what drew me to say ‘yes’ to this new adventure,” she said.
“It felt right, in the sense that I could do this, like this is what I’m meant to be doing now,” she stated.
Matty the teacher
God gave Sr. Susan a compassionate heart, especially when it comes to people with disabilities and people who don’t have a lot of money.
She doesn’t see herself as being courageous by nature, “but by God’s grace, I’ve been able to do things that I never thought I’d be able to do,” she said.
“Initially, it takes courage to say yes,” she stated, “and it has been through God’s grace that I did say yes, and through His grace that I have wound up loving it.”
She grew up in Belleville, Illinois, the first of seven children in her family.
The fourth, Matthew, had Down syndrome.
“He was born when I was 8,” Sr. Susan recalled. “I remember how difficult it was for my parents.”
“They loved him immediately — we all did,” she said. “But there wasn’t much help back then for parents of children with Down syndrome. They worried about what kind of future he’d face.”
Their faith helped them embrace the difficulties.
Sr. Susan and “Matty” quickly became buddies.
“He was very, very special to me,” she said.
He had difficulty speaking clearly but found other, creative ways to communicate — playing charades and giving high-fives whenever the message hit its mark.
“He ended up teaching our family so much,” said Sr. Susan, “and I think a big part of it was how to be more compassionate.”
He also taught them how to live, radiating joy and showing kindness even to people who were ruthlessly unkind to him.
“He was one of the most joy-filled, funny, loving people I will ever meet,” she said. “He taught his big sister a lot.”
One night a week, their dad would give their mom the night off, pin the curtains together and organize “hide and seek” games in the dark.
“We had so much fun!” Sr. Susan recalled.
Years later, her father developed a debilitating mental illness.
“He suffered with that for like 20 years,” she recalled. “It made such a huge impact on my life, because I loved him so much.”
She “prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed” for him to be healed before eventually turning away from God altogether.
It turned out that losing God hurt even more.
“I really had to give up a lot of my immature faith,” she recalled. “I finally got to an image of God Who is loving, and that there are times when prayers are being answered but not the way I want them to be answered.
“I finally came to know that God stands with us in the midst of everything,” she said. “He was standing with my dad in his pain and anguish. And He was standing with each member of our family who was suffering with him.”
One call away
As youngsters, Sr. Susan and several grade-school classmates would help clean their parish church on Saturdays.
Two sisters worked with them.
“That’s how we really got to know them as individuals,” she recalled. “We had great talks. The sisters were a lot of fun outside of the school situation.”
The idea of having a husband and children and raising a family still appealed to her.
But during her senior year, she realized that she wouldn’t have any peace unless she gave religious life a try.
She became an SSND postulant at the motherhouse overlooking the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis.
Homesickness set in right away.
She got one home visit that year and tried to hide her tears when it was time to go back.
Her dad told her, “Know that the door swings both ways. It will only take one phone call and I’ll be there in an hour.”
But she knew that the call from God would not go away.
“In the end, my peace came from saying, ‘Okay, God, I’m going to quit fighting this,’” she said.
“And I’ve never regretted it.”
“The best community”
During her postulancy, Sr. Susan spent time helping at St. Mary’s Special School.
She bonded with the children, some of whom reminded her of her brother.
She remembers praying, “God, get me to St. Mary’s someday! I really want to teach there!”
It wound up becoming her first assignment.
“I was ecstatic!” she recalled.
It was the beginning of what she referred to as “my happiest, most fulfilling and most challenging years in ministry.”
“We sisters love being with and working together with the children,” she said. “They bring out the best in each of us.”
She served as a teacher by day and a “dorm parent” by night.
She and another sister had 18 boys in their care for nine months each year. They fed them, helped them get ready for school, took care of them when they were sick, bathed them and helped them get ready for bed.
“It was very much like having your own kids,” she said. “And I always thought that was a real gift God gave me.”
The sisters at St. Mary’s enjoyed great camaraderie.
“We worked hard, we prayed hard and we played hard!” she said.
Communal prayer and fellowship would commence at about 10 p.m., after all the children were in bed.
“We loved being together,” she recalled. “We enjoyed being in community so much.”
While there, she completed a master’s degree in special education from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.
She then became the principal of St. Mary’s, also serving for seven years as a houseparent at Mount Carmel Group Home for students between 16 and 21 who had special needs.
Previous principals mentored her, and she began dispensing her own hard-fought wisdom.
She discovered that there would always be children who are harder to love at the beginning.
“One thing I came to learn was if I find this child difficult, I am being called to spend more time with him or her until I find something absolutely lovable,” she said.
That’s a lesson she’s worked to apply to all aspects of her life.
Sr. Susan later took up a new area of ministry, as assistant director of The Family Center in East St. Louis, Illinois, working with mothers and their children who lived in a nearby housing project.
“I was passionate about that!” she said. “I felt like we were making a difference.”
She found herself immersed in a new culture and helping the mothers form a community.
“These were women who had lived in poverty all their lives,” she said. “The Family Center was a safe place where they could come and experience each other’s support.
“We who were staff could help them find resources, and they could help each other,” she said.
In those 10 years, she and the staff helped the women finish their GEDs, get jobs, learn to budget and save money, improve their parenting skills and tutor their children.
“We helped them grow into a support network for each other,” she said. “They got to be friends, and life got to be easier for them.”
She helped start a program called East Side Heart & Home, on the model of Habitat for Humanity.
“We started buying up vacant properties around the family center,” she said. “Any mother who was faithful to the program could work into becoming the recipient of one of those homes and eventually become a homeowner.”
The two blocks around the center gradually grew into a vibrant neighborhood.
It must be St. Nick!
Sr. Susan was working in St. Louis when Sister Kathleen Wegman, who was the Jefferson City diocese’s chancellor, invited her to spend Thanksgiving weekend with the SSND community Jefferson City.
Sr. Kathleen showed her a newspaper article. It told of how Elizabeth Huber was working with local educators to develop a boarding school that would offer the opportunity of an excellent Catholic education to families who could use the help.
It would be known as St. Nicholas Academy, in honor of the patron saint of children.
“The idea of creating a program, creating a place that gives options to kids who don’t otherwise have many — that drew me to say yes,” she said.
St. Nicholas Academy is a three-way partnership among the child’s family, the St. Nicholas staff and St. Peter Interparish School in Jefferson City.
“St. Nicholas offers boarding during the week in order for the kids to get a quality education and reach their full potential,” she said. “And St. Peter’s is really a great school for that.”
House parents Funtez and Unique Robinson provide a loving and safe and nurturing boarding and learning experience at St. Nicholas.
The local community has been overwhelmingly generous, fully renovating and furnishing the building, which St. Nicholas Academy is renting for $1 a year from Capital Region Medical Center.
Sr. Susan looks forward to filling all of the beds.
“Everything happens in God’s time,” she stated. “And that is the best time.”
Each day, Sr. Susan reflects on “How am I being called today?”
“And I keep saying, ‘God, I’m not really sure what You’re doing. But I know you’ll get me to where You want me.’”
She is abundantly grateful to be a School Sister of Notre Dame.
“I love what I do, I love that I’m a sister, I love my vocation, and I’m just happy!” she said.
“I’m grateful for the gift of community — the community of my sisters, the community of my family, and the community of people who have been key players in the various ministries I’ve been involved in,” she said.
She believes the Holy Spirit is still filling young people with a longing for community, service and spirituality.
“It’s not exactly clear to me what it’s going to look like in the future, but I know they are being called,” she said.
She encourages anyone who’s searching for their calling to “keep praying and being aware of where God is acting in their life.”
“Take time to sit with it and not deal with it as a problem to be solved but as an invitation emerging within you,” she said.
“And look at life as a journey, with God always part of it,” she said. “You don’t always know where you’re going to end up!”