Ursuline Sister shares her ‘adventure’ as the Church celebrates National Vocations Week Nov. 7-13
By ANDREW HANSEN
Aug. 26, 1959 is a date that will forever be in the mind of Sister Mary Ellen Backes, OSU.
“When Janet (her identical twin sister) and I were 14 years of age, a car accident took the lives of our parents and left Janet and myself with serious injuries,” Sister Mary Ellen recalls. “A tragic event such as this changes the course of one’s history. The feeling of helplessness, not being able to awake from a bad dream, ironically became a source of blessing. Amidst the tragedy, I came to know God’s nearness and presence in the human family, in the strangers who appeared to help mend our brokenness. I believe the sudden loss of my parents, the suffering of me and my twin, of my entire family, became the seed that nourished my faith.”
Fast forward to today, and that seed of faith has blossomed into a life-giving tree. Sister Mary Ellen has been ministering at St. Joseph Parish and previously the school before it closed for 27 years, but that is only half her life as a sister. She made her first profession as an Ursuline of Belleville in 1965. She has been an Ursuline Sister now for 60 years come 2023 (since 2005, she has been an Ursuline of Mt. St. Joseph Maple Mount, Kentucky, when the order merged).
“I thought religious life would provide a straight highway to Heaven with no conflicts or distractions,” Sister Mary Ellen said with a laugh. “Eventually I came to understand that it is God who does the choosing, that religious life is one of service, of carrying God’s presence into the lives of others. God chose me first and opened my life to learning what it is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to be a servant, to carry the light of God’s love, goodness, joy, and peace to others.”
Born in 1944 in North Dakota, Sister Mary Ellen says her parents and grandparents deeply influenced her faith life.
“They always attended church, never missed Mass, and lived their faith,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “They worked long and hard to cultivate crops of wheat, barley, mustard, and corn, and trusted in a higher power to produce the fruits of their labors. I remember well an often-repeated story that on Sunday mornings, at the exact time most ripe for harvesting the crop, the German pastor would remind them that Sunday ‘is the day of rest.’ Their prayer was unspoken as they walked into the crops to check the health of the wheat and to check to see if insects were present that might destroy the crops. They often looked into the North Dakota skyline for possible coming storms or damaging winds.”
In high school Sister Mary Ellen met the Ursulines, saying that she found them to be welcoming, relational, fun, humorous, and joyful.
“They shared their humanity,” she said. “I found this to be much more appealing. They invited us into their lives and their stories.
Sister Mary Ellen ended up choosing the name “Ellen,” as that was her mother’s name. Over the decades, she has lived in several places in Illinois and for nearly the last 30 years, in Springfield. Saying that she wanted to minister to children and adults in parish life, she received a master’s degree in theology along her journey to today.
“In 1995, I was offered a pastoral associate and director of religious education position at St. Joseph in Springfield,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “I was interviewed for this position by Father Pat Render, CSV, and remember telling him during the interview that I’m a long-time employee and would remain in this parish for years to come. I have loved the parish since the very beginning.”
At St. Joseph, Sister Mary Ellen has touched the lives of so many people, from children to older adults. With her vast knowledge of the faith and joy-filled spirit, her ministry has been a true witness of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. She was responsible for sacramental preparation when the school existed and continued that into the PSR program. Currently, she facilitates faith formation from birth to death, directs the Catholic Faith Formation program for children and those in RCIA, facilitates Scripture classes, and is involved in some way in several other ministries at the parish.
“Sister is incredibly inspirational to me,” said Amy Voils, executive director at Mercy Communities, which is next door to the parish. “We share a wall, so I see her almost on a daily basis. She is incredibly kind. Everything she does, I see her do it through Christ, and it’s very inspirational to me and my faith.
“When she does a program, she completes it, and she does it very good,” said Gary Schmidt, a parishioner at St. Joseph. “You name it, and she is doing it. She spends a lot of her time on building her classes on all these stages people go through to join the Church. I think people appreciate it, and they remember her.”
“It has been a joy to know and journey in faith, life, and death with so many sisters,” Sister Mary Ellen said as she looks back over the decades. “And, it has been a privilege to meet and accompany so many wonderful people who have come into my life through the Church, through my ministry, to struggle with them in their pain, and celebrate with them in their joys.”
Sister Mary Ellen describes her life as a sister as “an adventure.” With National Vocations Week Nov. 7-13, she offers this advice for parents and grandparents who see a vocation to the religious life in their daughter or granddaughter.
“I think the first thing parents and grandparents must do is practice and cultivate their own relationship with God so they themselves can begin to understand what a religious vocation is all about. In this way parents and grandparents can take a more realistic look at religious life.
“Religious life at this time is being transformed into something new and different. We, religious and laity alike, must remain open to the power and movement of the Holy Spirit.”
After her decades of experience being there for others, teaching others, and witnessing so much, she says that she has learned that “it’s more about what God is doing in my life than what I’m accomplishing or experiencing.”
“I would encourage young people to take Jesus as their model first and foremost, to be true to themselves, to live their lives with purpose,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “I’d tell them to give the best of themselves in all that they do, and to trust that life has meaning. I would advise them to be authentic and open to God’s presence and the action of the Holy Spirit in their lives. If they do, they will experience joy! I’ll close by saying I believe this is what it means to be religious.”
Who is God calling you to be? Go to dio.org/vocations.