This year, an aunt and her niece will observe the anniversary of their profession of vows as members of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis. Sister Leola Brown, OSF, will observe 80 years of profession while Sister Ritamary Brown, OSF, her niece, will observe 60 years of profession.
“Sister Leola, my aunt, and I are the products of faith-filled Irish Catholics,” Sister Ritamary said. “Throughout our lives, we were melded by strong traditions: May altars, family rosary during Lent, prayers before meals and bed time, and intercessory prayers for people in need. Having shared family experiences has given us deep pillars for our faith and strengthened our journey.”
“As a young sister, I often heard the phrase ‘ora et labora’ which means ‘prayer and work,’” Sister Leola said in 2008 (at 99 years old she was unable to participate in an interview with Catholic Times). “This has been my inspiration throughout my life. So, the people who work for and with us in the ministries we founded should continue to carry on where we sisters left off. While it may be overwhelming at times, it is important to remember that the patient is the priority. Have faith and trust in God who will take care of things.”
Sister Leola was born in 1921, with her family attending St. Raymond Church in Raymond. At age 14, she left her family of nine to enroll in St. Francis Convent High School in Springfield. After two years of being inspired by the sisters’ example, she entered religious life with the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis in 1937 and one year later was given the name Sister Leola (a name she submitted in honor of her sister, Lela). During her life in ministry as a sister, she worked selflessly in several hospitals including 29 years at HSHS St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield. Her talent of crocheting led her to create 950 baby afghans and baby caps for the Pregnancy Care Center of Springfield and an additional 930 baby afghans and caps for the Pregnancy Care Center in Belleville.
Sister Ritamary was born in Farmersville in 1939, where her family belonged to St. Mary Parish. The Brown girls knew that Sister Leola had a desire for one of them to join the Hospital Sisters. Each girl often told friends and relatives that one or the other was thinking of entering the community and Sister Ritamary also participated by denying her intentions. However, she recognized that something was different.
“I felt drawn to religious life from early childhood,” Sister Ritamary explained. “My early memories of Sister Leola, my aunt, were of my family’s annual visit to the motherhouse. Ever since I can remember as a child, we would do this, and the motherhouse seemed so large and overwhelming to me. I remember how the bells would chime Holy God, We Praise Thy Name at 3 p.m., which meant that we would be served cookies and juice and then go to the church for Benediction.”
Following graduation from high school in 1957, Sister Ritamary entered the Hospital Sisters’ community and professed her religious vows in 1960. She later earned a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and worked as a dietitian in several of the sisters’ hospitals including St. Mary’s in Decatur and St. John’s in Springfield. She also holds a master’s degree in dietetics as well as a master’s degree in health administration. She presently serves as a healthcare advocate at HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital, Decatur.
“We have loved and lived the deep faith of our ancestors which has propelled us into life in significant ways,” Sister Ritamary said. “Our parents’ example of faith in God and love for our neighbor have taught us the need and joy of caring for others and being of service to them. Sister Leola has always been supportive of me and interested in my life and having an aunt in this community is a blessing because it strengthens me for my ministry.”