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Profiles of Community Leadership

Posted on March 6, 2019, by Loretto Community

Meet the new team for 2019-2021! Below are brief biographies of our president, vice president, Executive Committee and Community Forum members.

Loretto Forum – From left, first row, are Vice President Mary Margaret Murphy SL, Vicki Schwartz SL, Sonja Earthman Novo CoL and President Barbara Nicholas SL. From left, second row, are Susan Kenney CoL, Catherine Mueller SL, Mary Catherine Rabbitt SL, Sharon Kassing SL, Mary Helen Sandoval CoL, Jane German CoL and Paulette Peterson CoL.

Barbara Nicholas SL, President

Educated at Webster College in St. Louis, Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and Adelphi University in Garden City N.Y., I taught science at Visitation-Holy Ghost Schools in St. Louis for two years. Having become a registered nurse with a master’s in psychiatric nursing, I worked as a nurse and director of nursing at Loretto Motherhouse Infirmary in Nerinx, Ky., and served on the Community Life Development staff in Health and Wellness in the 1970s. From 1980 until retirement in 2018, I enjoyed a third career as an oncology nurse with the Baptist Healthcare System in Louisville, Ky. where I served as nurse manager for the oncology unit, developed 25 annual oncology symposia for multidisciplinary health care professionals and helped open Louisville’s first Cancer Resource Center. I co-facilitated support groups for women with breast cancer and help with other aspects of cancer program development.

In 1994, I was elected to the Executive Committee and served two terms as vice president. In 2015, I was again elected to the Executive Committee and Community Forum. I served three terms on the Motherhouse Coordinating Boar and was appointed to the Advisory Board of the Motherhouse Infirmary. I’ve served on a number of community committees, including the Pakistan Mission Committee, Responsible Planning for the Future, and Election and Search committees.

In all these areas, I have so appreciated the gift of formal education in teaching and in health care, and in the myriad informal ways of learning and applying the values we share in Loretto life. An example is in a treasured memory from my time as nurse manager at the Baptist Hospital when a matter was under discussion about proceeding in a certain direction. A nurse colleague stated: “We cannot make that choice; it is not the Loretto way.” And so we made a choice that was congenial with Loretto values, and those of the Baptist Healthcare system as well.

Mary Margaret Murphy SL, Vice President — Executive Committee, Community Forum

Although I was born in Erie, Pa., I attended six different grade schools and lived in Kentucky, Ohio and Colorado. I met the Sisters of Loretto in Denver at Blessed Sacrament Grade School. Upon graduating in Denver from Machebeuf High School, I entered the Loretto novitiate. I graduated from Loretto Heights College in Denver with a double major in English and education. Later I enrolled in University Without Walls and received a degree in early childhood development.

After graduating from Loretto Heights, I was missioned to Taos, N.M., where I taught first grade at St. Joseph School. This was the beginning of my lifetime service to the Hispanic community. Two years later, I joined Loretto in Rawlins, Wyo., where I assisted with the development of a daycare/Head Start Center. I served as a teacher and Family Outreach Worker. Since this was the only daycare center in Rawlins, it brought all segments of the community together in an early-childhood learning environment in a Hispanic barrio.

I continued my work in early childhood development, when I moved to Pueblo., Colo., and became the director of the newly-formed Eastwood Day Care Center. Five years later I moved to the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, where I lived for more than 26 years. While in the Valley, I did advocacy for the elderly through Christian Community Services; was a case manager for Conejos County Public Health and later for Valleywide Community Health Clinic; and introduced SHARE Colorado, a statewide Catholic Charities program which made a nutritious food package available monthly to anyone who paid a modest fee and did volunteer work in their community.

After living in the Valley for 26 years, I moved to El Paso, Texas. For the past 12 years, I served as the case manager at El Paso Villa Maria, a shelter for women who are homeless. I recently transitioned from Villa Maria to become the coordinator of the Loretto Volunteer Program, which expanded to El Paso August 2018; to also serve in Loretto elected leadership; and to do volunteer work with the immigrants.

Jane German CoL – Community Forum

I grew up in a small town in rural Illinois, one of two children of older parents and grandparents. My father’s family were Catholics. All his family siblings married non-Catholics. I attended public schools and universities.

In high school I spent a year in Beaver Dam, Ky. There I learned a lot about my faith since I was only one of at most 10 Catholic students in the whole school. My Baptist friends would ask questions and I would go home at night to ask my father why Catholics did this or that.

I graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in math and science education, returning in the summers to get my elementary education certification. I taught on the Navajo reservation in Thoreau, N.M., for 30 years. During these years, I earned two master’s degrees in elementary and special education. My favorite teaching position was first grade. In addition, I taught in the Title I programs for reading and math as well as special education programs.

Beginning in about 1982, I met many of the New Mexico Sisters of Loretto while living in Thoreau, N.M., or attending Loretto activities with Angela Bianco. Angela then moved to Denver to begin the Loretto novitiate. Many Loretto sisters and co-members stayed with me when they came to visit or work with Angela Bianco SL after she made vows and returned to Thoreau to begin a non-profit Gathering Place for adult literacy, health services and a store for Navajo art. In 1990, I became a Loretto co-member with a celebration in Taos, N.M. In 2015, I celebrated my silver jubilee.

In 2003, I moved to El Paso, Texas, to become the co-educational pre-kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school principal at Loretto Academy. It continues to be a wonderful educational opportunity, developing future leaders grounded in faith, community, justice and respect. I work with dedicated, caring teachers, staff and parents as well as students excited about learning. It has given me an opportunity to share about the Loretto Community with the extended Loretto Academy community as well as participate in a larger Loretto Community of vowed and co-members.

I have spent more than 40 years of my life as a minority: first in New Mexico among the Navajos and now in El Paso with the Hispanics. They have given me a rich appreciation for different cultures.

I was involved in various Loretto activities in New Mexico, helping with various Loretto celebrations held in Santa Fe. My first leadership role was as a member of the Loretto Education Committee. Since then I have served on the 2009 – 2012 Forum and was part of the 2012 Loretto Jubilee Committee. I am a member of the Loretto Pakistan Mission Committee. During the 2015 Loretto Assembly, I was again elected to the Loretto Community Forum. I was re-elected to the Loretto Community Forum during the 2018 Loretto Assembly.

I enjoy working outside in the yard, reading and playing computer games.

A favorite quote of mine is the following: “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”  

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Sharon Kassing SL  – Executive Committee, Community Forum

I’m a native of St. Louis and have lived here all my life, except for the time I spent in Kentucky in formation. Growing up, we were three kids, and I am the youngest, with all the benefits and disadvantages that place in the line carries. We were lucky to be part of a family that included grandparents near at hand and a parish family that took seriously their responsibility to care for everybody’s kids. I was educated and loved through my elementary years by the Sparkill Dominicans and by the Sisters of Loretto and caring lay faculty at Nerinx Hall through high school.

I entered the novitiate after high school. My undergraduate focus was on the sciences and art. I graduated with a degree in chemistry, but I quickly discovered that my heart was in elementary school where I could teach both. I taught for just short of 30 years at Visitation-Holy Ghost and St. Pius V in St. Louis, loving every minute of it. In summers during that time I earned a master’s degree in earth science education from the University of Oklahoma and another in liturgical studies from St. John’s in Collegeville, Minn.

When I had expended all my energy in formal education, I answered an ad in the St. Louis paper for a position as an instructor naturalist at the Saint Louis Zoo. Having grown up within walking distance of the zoo and having explored its wonders my whole life long, it seemed a natural fit. I was hired and quickly became the oldest member of the staff. My classes addressed individuals from preschool to senior citizens and challenged my abilities to keep the material fresh and engaging, in spite of the draw of live animals which we used in every presentation.

The last eight years I was at the zoo, I worked with area teachers, developing curriculum and helping them strengthen their science pedagogy. These years in informal education were an especially fulfilling capstone to my education career. Teachers are remarkable people!

In my “retirement” I have increased the amount of Loretto committee work I had been doing, finding the Discernment Steering Committee, the Motherhouse Coordinating Board and the Farm & Land Committee to be especially engaging, although I wouldn’t quickly step down from any of the others on which I have worked.

I find this a very exciting time to be in a religious community, especially the Loretto Community, because I see us at the very edge of what is to come. I am confident that we, as a community, have the courage and strength to be a part of a future that has yet to show itself completely.

Susan Kenney CoL – Community Forum

I am blessed to have grown up in a small Wisconsin town surrounded by a loving family and neighbors. I attended Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, and upon graduating began two years as an extension volunteer in Pueblo, Colo. It was at this time that I met the Sisters of Loretto, who established a mission parish in our neighborhood, and Bishop Charles Buswell, who was attending Vatican II. These persons were a great influence in my plans for the rest of my life.

I entered the Sisters of Loretto in 1968 and also worked at Denver Catholic Charities. After completing my novitiate year I returned to Denver, where I have been working in the field of social work. I obtained a master’s in social work from Denver University and returned to Catholic Charities as team leader on an Outreach Team in Northwest Denver. I followed this with time on the Loretto staff.

At the time of welfare reform in the 1990s, I worked for systemic change at the Denver Department of Social Services to empower women moving from welfare to work with increased opportunities for education, mental health services and job training. This experience gave way to forming a small non-profit with Loretto Co-Member Jean East called Project WISE (originally funded through the Mission Fund of the Sisters of Loretto). The goal of Project WISE was the empowerment of women with low incomes through opportunities for individual change and using one’s voice for community leadership and advocacy. At this juncture of my life I transferred to Co-Membership.

Most recently I worked with the Denver University Graduate School of Social Work as a liaison with graduate students completing their internships in various agencies in Denver. I now am spending time on the Forum of the Loretto Community, participating in continuing to build community in the Denver area and offering periodic child care for the children of young friends. I look forward to new mission opportunities and am continually blessed with family and the Loretto Community. (1-9-19)

Sonja Earthman Novo CoL – Community Forum

I look back on my life and know that You were with me all the way. When the time came for my birth, daddy did not have money to pay the hospital bill. Sonja Henie came to town with The Ice Capades, and daddy, a violinist, played in the orchestra for her performance. Sonja got us out of the hospital and I got a name.

Entering parochial school in the fourth grade, a young 19-year-old Dominican sister would tell stories of the saints to her elementary students. Therese of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua and other friends of God became my heroes and inspired me; I, too, wished to be a friend of God.

Bob and I married in 1963 and were blessed with five beautiful children. My vocation was to be a stay-at-home mom and raise our children. His position as a funeral director gave me the opportunity to attend a five-day, life-changing workshop with Elisabeth Kubler Ross. Her shared experience with dying patients was a memorable one.

Our marriage of 25 years ended in divorce. After the divorce, I began deep inner work. It was work of not simply looking at the limbs of a tree but having the courage to go to the roots. I owe much to Dale Goldstein, the founder of the Heartwork Institute. I also have done work with Judy Smith of the Hellinger Family Systems. We know that we inherit our physical DNA, but are not aware of also inheriting our emotional DNA. Both mentors have contributed immensely to my own personal discovery and growth.

I took clinical pastoral education at Hermann Hospital in Houston. In 1988 I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44, with a recurrence in 1991. Later I was offered a job as chaplain at the hospice of the Texas Medical Center. My own experience of cancer was my greatest gift to dying patients.

During that time, I saved money and went to Plum Village in Bordeaux, Francem to make a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hahn. He led several hundred people from around the world on walking meditations and gathered us for talks and practice on mindful living.

Ten years after our divorce, I married Charles Novo, an English teacher at St. Agnes Academy for 35 years. He was my daughter, Amy’s, favorite teacher. We have been married 19 years.

Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan iconographer, gathered a small group for an interfaith trip to Turkey. We experienced love and generosity from Muslims who did not appear as terrorists at all. We sat around the dinner table each evening and everyone shared his or her faith. Neither conversion nor debate took place; we simply listened and learned about another path. Believing such dialogue as one way to peace, I helped organize an interfaith group at our parish of All Saints.

My beloved daughter, Amy, committed suicide Oct. 16, 2015. She had suffered from depression for years. There are times in life when we die before we die. Her death and my divorce were death for me. In time, like the silkworm wrapped in his cocoon, the butterfly emerges. While I will never be the same after her death, I now welcome a new experience of working with you for peace and justice.

My hobbies include music, games and reading. I look back on my life and know that He has been with me all the way.

Paulette Peterson CoL – Community Forum

I grew up in a small town outside Chicago: Lemont, Ill. My mother was Roman Catholic and my father was Protestant. My sister, Elaine, is 10 years younger. I attended Catholic grade school and high school and was introduced to the Sisters of Loretto when I attended Webster College.

My experience at Webster was important because it was a time of change in the Church, society and in myself. New notions of faith and action, the exploration of scripture and Vatican II were compelling to a young girl just out of a conventional high school. I was involved in work in the inner city, civil rights and actions against the war in Vietnam. Loretto was an important influence in my life. The Sisters had an enthusiasm for learning and questioning the status quo in society and the Church. My time at Webster was the beginning of my lifelong experience with and love of the Loretto Community.

At Webster I studied young childhood education. For 10 years I worked developing preschools in underserved areas for children who did not have opportunities for equal education. I enjoyed that work and learned about the structure of poverty and racism and its devastating impact on communities. I also witnessed the resilience of people to make their communities better and to work for justice in their neighborhood.

I also taught religion at Loretto in Kansas City, Mo., for several years. During that time, I became a co-member and then a vowed member.

I went to Vietnam in 1975 and worked at the orphanage with Mary Nelle Gage and Susan Carol McDonald. Although I was there for only five months, it was a transforming experience. It influenced my choices for further study and my work with trauma.

After graduate school in psychology and receiving my Ph.D. I worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs with war veterans. I did individual, group and family therapy with these traumatized veterans. Most of my clients were Vietnam veterans; however, I worked with veterans from World War II, Korea, Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. Some of my clients experienced sexual trauma. It was a privilege to work with veterans for 29 years. It was difficult and rewarding work, and I miss it in retirement.

During my time at the Vet Center I transferred to co-membership.

I want my life to reflect a search for the Spirit within and without, knowing that this Mystery is within each person and in the world. I am excited about Loretto and the future of what we may create together.

Cathy Mueller SL – Executive Committee, Community Forum

My life has been filled with amazing experiences that have led me to be who I am now. I have taught high school, done pastoral work in multicultural parishes, led retreats, facilitated workshops and meetings, directed volunteers in a hospice, co-founded and co-directed EarthLinks, a non-profit in Denver serving persons who are homeless or economically poor, served Loretto on the staff, on LEN Coordinating group, various committees and in elected leadership. I was able to travel to Ghana three times to offer workshops with Marie Ego. I went to Pakistan three times as we established a mission there. The thread that weaves through all these experiences is building community, a space where all people are respected, valued and encouraged to become their own unique selves.

Sisters of Loretto taught me in elementary and high school. I was part of the first postulant class at Loretto Center in Denver.

I began to experience a significant shift in my life in the novitiate where we were encouraged to work in situations new to me — with migrant farmworkers, the Crusade for Justice and even participating in the Poor People’s March on Washington. I began to learn the difference between charity and justice, which has changed my life. I also began to appreciate silence, contemplation, the richness of Scripture and the reality of the Holy Spirit active in my life and in the lives of others.

I have experienced the wondrous evolution of Loretto during these many years. I am committed to exploring how this Creative Spirit continues to move and shape us as we live into our unknown future.

Through study, experience and quiet reflection, I have come to appreciate the connectedness of all creation that has shifted many of my perceptions, giving meaning to the Great Work of my life. I have been loved and challenged. I am forever grateful.

Mary Catherine Rabbitt SL – Executive Committee, Community Forum

I was born in St. Louis in 1946, the third of four children born to Dan and Charlotte Rabbitt – and the only girl. I attended Immaculate Conception Grade School (“Lafayette”) from kindergarten to eighth grade where I was taught by the Sisters of Loretto. When it came time for me to choose a high school, I chose Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves. This involved a long trek each day (4 buses); in fact, my father remarked that I was the only one of his children who went away for high school (my three brothers attended St. Louis University High). I graduated from Nerinx in 1964.

I entered the Loretto Novitiate in Kentucky in the fall of 1964 and moved to the House of Studies in St. Louis in the fall of 1966. I graduated from Webster College in May 1969, with a double major in theology and history. I spent that summer (and the following summer) volunteering at the Catholic Worker House in the Bowery in New York City. I began teaching at Loretto in Kansas City, Mo., in the fall of 1969. In 1970, I moved to Fairfield, Iowa, to work in pastoral ministry and campus ministry and worked there for four years. In the fall of 1974, I began graduate studies in theology at the School of Applied Theology in Berkeley, Calif., (part of the Graduate Theological Union) and received a master’s in theology in 1976.

In the fall of 1975, Helen Sanders asked me to serve as Loretto’s Social Advocate, a position I held for five years. I then attended law school at the University of Denver College of Law and received my J.D. in 1984. I began working as a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver in the fall of 1984, after passing the Colorado Bar Exam and becoming a licensed attorney. I spent the next 16 years there as a staff attorney, specializing in health and elder law. While there, I was a litigator in class action lawsuits affecting low-income clients receiving Medicaid and other public benefits. I worked there until November of 2000.

I was first elected to the Loretto Executive Committee in 1982 and served for four years, then was elected again in 1992 and in 1996. In the summer of 2000, I was elected President of the Sisters of Loretto/Loretto Community and served in that position from 2001-2006. During those years, I also served on the Hilton Fund for Sisters Board and on the LCWR Board of Directors and Executive Committee.

In the spring of 2008, I began working at The Legal Center in Denver, serving as the Colorado Legal Services Developer for Elders. I held that position until I retired in December of 2016. In that position, I provided training and technical assistance to legal providers across Colorado and to local nursing home ombudsmen and served as the legal adviser to the Colorado Long-Term Care Ombudsman.

Since retiring, I have devoted my energies to serving Loretto on various committees, including the Pakistan Mission Committee and the Motherhouse Coordinating Board and its Farm and Land Committee. After being elected to the Executive Committee and Forum in 2018, I was also appointed to the Motherhouse Land Preservation Working Group.

Mary Helen Sandoval CoL – Community Forum

I was born in 1943 in Brainerd, Minn., the youngest of six children. In 1961, I went to Loretto Heights College. After graduating with a degree in math, with minors in education and physics, I entered the Loretto novitiate in Denver. At that time I was a very conservative Republican and was concerned that the readings at breakfast were extremely slanted with a liberal perspective. I talked with Sister Cecily about this and she encouraged me to bring any readings I thought appropriate. Her openness made a huge impact and enabled me to listen with new ears and an open heart.

During my years in the novitiate I was given the opportunity to interact and get to know people living in poverty. Slowly, I learned the meaning of social justice. As time went on I came to recognize this fit with my own values much more than the principles of the Republican Party. The commitment to peace and justice has been central in my life ever since. I am grateful to Loretto for the gift of dramatically altering my life.

After three and a half years, I left the order and taught in inner city Catholic schools in Denver. I married Paul Sandoval and nine months later we left for Honduras to volunteer for two years with the Jesuits in El Progreso. Although our time there was cut short, it was long enough to witness extreme poverty, gross injustice and horrific living conditions. The memories are forever imprinted in my being and radically changed my worldview. Paul and I had four wonderful daughters. Now I have six grandchildren, ranging in age from 6 to 19.

Professionally, Paul and I started a tamale business, which became very successful. Later, I directed a non-profit organization whose mission was building community and revitalizing inner city neighborhoods. I also developed affordable housing throughout the State of Colorado working with Mercy Housing.

I longed to re-establish a deeper connection to Loretto and became a Co-member 17 years ago. Since then, I have been active on several committees, including the Loretto Land Use Committee, Pakistan Committee, Papal Bull Rescission Committee and Retreat Planning Committee for young people connected to Loretto.

Today, my days are filled with my work as a realtor, volunteering with some local non-profits as well as Loretto committees and happily assisting with care for my grandchildren. I am blessed to have a large vegetable garden, which keeps me connected to the earth.

Vicki Schwartz SL – Executive Committee, Community Forum 

St. Louis is my hometown, and I frequently return there to spend time with my nieces and their families. After attending elementary school at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and high school at Nerinx Hall, I left home, at age 18, to join the Sisters of Loretto. I frequently tell my friends that was the smartest decision of my life! In 1958, when I left St. Louis, there were not many career options available for women. Through Loretto, I’ve been blessed with many opportunities.

My academic accomplishments include a bachelor’s degree from Webster University, a master’s from St. Louis University in English, a master’s in theological studies from the Franciscan School of Theology, part of the graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and Texas State certification as a secondary school administrator.

My “first career” was in education, and my earliest assignments included teaching fourth and fifth grade at Loretto Academy in El Paso, Texas, followed by working at Loretto in Kansas City, Mo., first in the “Lower Pod” (grades 1-4), and later teaching freshmen English. In 1969, I returned to El Paso where I taught English and theology for five years. I then became the high school principal for 11 years – some of the happiest days of my life.

In 1987 I felt called to especially focus on my own spiritual journey, and that’s what drew me to Berkeley. After finishing there, I returned to the workforce. While I loved my days at Loretto Academy, I felt it was time to explore avenues other than education. Thus, I began my 23-year mission at Huckleberry Youth Programs, a non-profit agency serving the needs of at-risk youth in San Francisco and Marin County. During the early years there I was director of administration and human resources. In 2000 I became director of development and continued in that capacity until 2012.

In 2006 I was elected to be a member Loretto’s Executive Committee and Forum, serving on Cathy Mueller’s team through 2012. In 2013-2015 I served as Vice President, as part of Pearl McGivney’s team. I was elected to Barbara Nicholas’s leadership team in 2018.

In 2016-17 I returned to my earlier passion for education by serving as interim president at St. Mary’s Academy in Denver, and in 2018-19 serving in that capacity at Escuela de Guadalupe, also in Denver.

I have been blessed with some deep and abiding friendship in Loretto which I will always carry in my heart.


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