Sister Mary Jo Leifker
Blessed with God's Love
Growing up in Galena, Illinois, Sister Mary Jo Leifker had many teachers in school and at home; she was the 11th child in a family of 13. Before finishing high school, Sister Mary Jo followed the lead of some of her older siblings and moved to Chicago, Illinois. She learned to navigate her way around the “windy city” and she learned about working in retail, both as a personal shopper and as an elevator stewardess in a large department store. “I always wanted to be a nurse,” comments Sister Mary Jo, “so I enrolled in a home-study nursing program after work. In academics I struggled but I loved taking the classes and they helped me so much with my volunteering. I did nurse’s aide work for the Red Cross during the war at Cook County Hospital,” Sister continues. “They were so short of help but I loved it.”
“A woman I worked with in Chicago, inspired me to try religious life,” adds Sister Mary Jo. “I just felt there was something else. Contemplative life attracted me, so I entered the Poor Clare’s Monastery in Chicago. It was wonderful, but then my mother became ill and I moved back home.” Later, the pastor in Galena told her about a group of Presentation Sisters from Staten Island, New York, who were setting up a school and day care in Oregon, Illinois. “I was invited there to see if I was interested in joining their community. They were a great group of women and I was charmed by their New York accents. I entered their community in 1945, for a total of 16 years before we merged with the Dubuque Presentation Sisters in 1962. Vocations were dropping and we had only five sisters left in Oregon. The Presentation Sisters from Dubuque would visit us often and always invited us to their summer retreats so it was a natural fit.”
Sister Mary Jo had the opportunity to work in food service for the sisters at the motherhouse. She worked with Sister Carmelle Westemeier for 16 years. “It was a good time. I took cooking classes that were offered from the County Extension Office and I just learned by doing.” Sister Mary Jo recalls, “One time, Sister Carmelle told me to make the gravy. I didn’t know how to make it and I didn’t know about cooking large amounts either.” Laughing, Sister Mary Jo says, “We were in a dither! With God’s help, our senior sisters and novices, Sister Carmelle and I could put the show on the road!” Sister Mary Jo has always been an advocate for healthy eating/living and a proponent of regular exercising.
Sister Dolores Zieser shares, “Before we got into recycling here at Mount Loretto, Sister Mary Jo was vigilant in making sure items got recycled and encouraged others to do the same.”
Sister Mary Jo comments, “I’m very passionate about recycling. I guess I have a reputation for it! I’m very proud of our community for taking part in Dubuque’s composting and recycling programs.”
Sister Dolores Zieser also adds, “Sister Mary Jo would probably be too humble to tell you how she helps others here. She is a member of Sister Marie Barth’s Friday watercolor class. When Sister Catherine Wingert was unable to come downstairs for the class, Sister Mary Jo would help her do the painting that she missed. Sister Mary Jo and her friend, Kay Hosch, go to Sister Carmelle’s room in Nagle Center to share Scripture with her because she has limited vision.”
Sister Joan Lickteig concurs, “Sister Mary Jo keeps and maintains connections with people. She does a lot of spiritual companioning and she has a big heart for the handicapped.” When Hospice of Dubuque was started, Sister Mary Jo became a volunteer, serving for 14 years.
Sister Mary Jo concludes, “In retirement, my ministry is community prayer and service. Prayer accompanies me throughout the day, while service offers me many opportunities each day. I try to promote good stewardship in our home while being more aware of the Earth Charter’s concern for our world’s carbon footprint as I seek more ways to jump on the “Green Wagon.” I continue to work for peace in the world. Four of us stand on a busy street corner holding peace signs each week during good weather; otherwise we pray for peace in the Chapel. I am blessed with God’s love to be able to live with great religious women who inspire me.”
Left photo: Sisters Leanne Welch, Mary Jo Leifker, Julia Wingert and Lynn Marie Fangman
Right photo: Sister Mary Jo Leifker enjoys her paint class at the motherhouse.