“Within every difficulty and struggle lies the opportunity for grace and transformation. The sooner we learn to let go and let God be in charge, the happier and wiser we will be.”
Sister Laura Jean Spaeth of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) spent most of her adult life learning to articulate that wisdom and put it ever more deeply into practice.
That effort concluded on Feb. 5 when Sr. Laura Jean, 79, died peacefully at Trinity Woods in Milwaukee.
She had served as director of the Newman Center in Rolla from 2009-2012 and then had given spiritual direction and retreats in this diocese until her election to congregational leadership in 2015.
The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Feb. 20 in Christ King Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
“She struggles no more,” a fellow sister stated before the Mass. “She experiences the transformation we all hope in, and she prays for us and always will.”
Sr. Laura Jean spent years serving as an educator, school administrator, SSND international counselor, local community-builder and one-on-one spiritual director.
“She was attentive to God’s presence and call in her life,” said Sister Kathleen Wegman SSND, who lived in community with Sr. Laura Jean for three years.
“She was a good friend, coworker and community member,” said Sr. Kathleen. “I am grateful for the gift she was to me and to so many.”
Catching a vocation
Sr. Laura Jean was born on Sept. 15, 1943, near West Bend, Wisconsin, the ninth of Isadore and Loraine Spaeth’s 12 children.
She and her siblings grew up on a 90-acre farm and in a family deeply rooted in the Catholic faith and their relationship to God and creation.
“They were convinced that their daily Rosaries — on their knees of course — were essential to the growth of their crops,” said Sister Susan Hetebrueg of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who spoke before Sr. Laura Jean’s funeral.
With plenty of chores to go around, Sr. Laura Jean and her siblings saw going to school as their vacation time.
Sr. Laura Jean often snuck unto church to pray in the silence over recess.
The sisters who taught the Spaeth children were kind and generous, which helped Sr. Laura Jean and her older sister, Sister Gabriel Mary, discover their calling to religious life.
Sr. Laura Jean entered the SSND aspiranture, a high school for girls who were interested in becoming a sister, in Milwaukee.
Her first teaching assignment was in a rural school in northern Wisconsin.
She then was assigned to an inner-city school in Milwaukee, serving during violent Civil Rights clashes of the late 1960s.
While there, she professed final vows and completed her teaching degree.
She then went to Superior, Wisconsin, to serve as a full-time teacher, principal, director of religious education and superior of the local SSND community.
Over the summers, she earned a master’s degree in Scripture and theology at St. John’s University in Minnesota.
She was then summoned to join the staff of the Capuchin Justice and Peace Center in Milwaukee, focusing on the center’s educational aspects of the justice programs.
Three years in, she became the administrator.
She later spent a year participating in the Spiritual Integration Program at Regis College in Toronto, followed by two years directing the RENEW program at a parish in the heart of Milwaukee.
She was then appointed to serve as a resource staff person for the SSND’s worldwide general counsel in Rome.
Three years later, she became the director of a holistic renewal program in Glens Falls, New York, for men and women religious.
She was elected provincial leader of the SSNDs’ former Milwaukee province, helping to oversee the creation of a girls’ school for young Hispanic students in Milwaukee.
She served two five-year terms on the SSND general counsel in Rome, which involved visiting sisters who were ministering in more than 20 different countries.
Sr. Laura Jean was eager to return to local ministry when she got back to the United States.
She found out about an opening for director of the Rolla Newman Center, and applied for it.
She was grateful to be selected for that role, and treasured her time on campus and the friends she met there.
She especially enjoyed helping the students organize retreats and days of recollection.
“I feel I have been given so many opportunities and experiences in my life,” she said. “I feel called to share these gifts as well as my own humanness and weakness in this ministry in the ways God is calling me.”
Three years later, she moved to Jefferson City to help satisfy numerous requests from women and men seeking spiritual direction, as well as leading retreats and workshops.
“It’s guiding people in spirituality,” she stated at that time. “That can be through retreats, prayer days, workshops, discernment — the whole thing of facilitating the growth of people in their hunger for God.”
“My own life’s passion has first and foremost been to grow in personal spirituality, to live an integral life,” she continued. “And it’s been my desire to help facilitate that same growth in other people and help them satisfy their hunger for God.”
She loved the diversity that came with working with many different people.
She emphasized that the foundation of spiritual direction is “holy listening” — “helping people listen to God’s promptings in the joys and difficulties He sets before us in life.”
After three years, she was elected to the leadership team of the SSNDs’ newly created Central Pacific Province, headquartered in St. Louis, which takes in a large part of the United States.
She found out that she had cancer shortly after her term in leadership ended.
Following treatment and a yearlong sabbatical, she moved to an SSND community at a Milwaukee parish, eager to return to teaching and ministry.
“Unfortunately, that dream couldn’t come to fruition,” due to declining health, Sr. Susan noted.
Sister and friend
“Laura Jean was a wonderful beacon of light in so many ways,” said Franciscan Father Ralph Parthie, who presided at her funeral. “She was a woman of faith who taught and encouraged the rest of us to have faith.”
“She showed us every day of her life ... to continue to strive and to work and to be focused on the love that is being given to us,” he said.
“She had a beautiful smile and exuded kindness and grace,” said one of Sr. Laura Jean’s nieces. “She poured her whole heart and soul into everything she did. She encouraged people to enjoy the little things in a loving way.”
“She was like the matriarch of our family,” another niece stated. “She truly listened and never judged.”
Sister Julie Brandt SSND lived in community with Sr. Laura Jean in Jefferson City for two years.
They first met at the SSND General Chapter in Brazil in 2007, where Sr. Julie drafted official summaries in English of each week’s proceedings under the supervision of Sr. Laura Jean.
Striving for precision and perfection, Sr. Laura Jean routinely saturated the first drafts with red ink and called for several more drafts before approving the finished documents.
Albeit leery from that experience, “I quickly found that she was a wonderful community member,” Sr. Julie recalled of their time together in Jefferson City. “She had a delightful, welcoming spirit.”
Later on, they got together once or twice a month in St. Louis, while Sr. Julie was traveling back and forth from Jefferson City to work on her doctorate.
“It was a wonderful gift, really,” Sr. Julie recalled. “She was no longer the exacting supervisor, but a sister and a friend.”