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Featured here are Presentation Sisters who celebrate 10, 25, 50, 60 and 75 years in religious life.

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25th Jubilee: Sisters Julie Marsh, Mary Lou Specha and Joetta Venneman

September 3, 2011

“Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and with all your strength.” Mark 12:30. Taking inspiration from Jesus’ reply to the question: “What is the greatest commandment?” Presentation Sisters Julie Marie Marsh, Mary Lou Specha and Joetta Venneman celebrated 25 years of religious life on September 3 with family, friends and Presentation sisters and associates.

Sister Julie Marie Marsh
Sister Julie Marie Marsh, grew up in rural Greene, Iowa, the daughter of Roger and Theresa Marsh who nurtured her in a deep faith and love for people. After high school Sister Julie attended Loras College in Dubuque and earned a Bachelor of Music degree with an emphasis in music therapy from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa.

“When I was in college, I was very active in campus ministry,” states Sister Julie. “I remember the day when I decided that more young adults needed to experience God in the way my life had been touched through service with others, yet unsure at that time, how I was going to make that happen.” After entering the Sisters of the Presentation in 1986, Sister Julie served as a music therapist, associate director of diocesan catechetical services/special services and as a team member in the wellness program at Mount Loretto. In 1998 she earned a Master of Arts degree in pastoral studies in the area of liturgy from the University of St. Louis in Missouri. She served as pastoral minister and liturgist at Immaculate Conception Parish in Sioux City, Iowa, and following that as campus minister and director of liturgy and music at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

“I have been so very blessed,” states Sister Julie. “My journey to the Presentation sisters is too incredible to think that I arrived in this lifestyle by accident. I don’t believe in coincidences. God has certainly guided me every step of the way. As I reflect over my 25 years of commitment to religious life, it has not always been easy. There have been times of doubt, times of loneliness, and many times of questioning, ‘What does the future hold for religious life?’ Somehow, the Holy Spirit sends people into my life to reassure me that I am exactly where I need to be. I have met so many interesting, talented and inspiring people that I would never have met if I had not chosen this path. They have helped me to become the person I am today.”

Earning a certification in spiritual direction, Sister Julie then served as director of formation and coordinator of immersion and service opportunities for the Sisters of the Presentation. Currently she is director of campus ministry at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Sister Julie admits that it is exciting to discuss God with students. 
“When reflecting with them on life’s choices or their own purpose in life, the possibility of a ‘higher being’ always surfaces for them,” she says. “Religion or spirituality is a quest for many students. They simply need the right tools to uncover the Truth.”

Striving to fulfill her promise to live religious life in today’s world, Sister Julie keeps her eyes on her main goal – “to be faithful to the Gospel, the teachings of Jesus. I am very grateful for my opportunities to serve those in need with young adults just beginning the journey. Our trips to the poor in Appalachia, inner city Kansas City, New Orleans and the prisons in Leavenworth keep me in touch with the real work of Nano Nagle.”

As the director of campus ministry at the University of Saint Mary, Sister Julie finds herself being stretched. “Not only do the liturgical changes in the Catholic Church provide hours of discussion among the Catholic students, but I am challenged in working with students of other faith traditions. I want to learn how to better serve their needs. I think that my desire to be faithful to the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus – to serve, to allow myself to be served, to love and allow myself to be loved is the greatest witness I can share on how I live religious life today. Students watch and hear everything. They help me to live my life authentically as a woman religious today. Their questions demand my recommitment every day.”

Sister Mary Lou Specha
Sister Mary Lou Specha, grew up in Oak Lawn, Illinois, the daughter of Lorraine and the late William Specha. Inheriting her parents’ values – a mother who always serves and whose dad expressed genuine hospitality to all – Sister Mary Lou has journeyed into varied phases of living the Gospel of Matthew 25.

Earning a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in physical education at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois, Sister Mary Lou became the PE teacher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in south Chicago. After entering the Presentation sisters in 1986, she then served as youth coordinator in Dubuque. After earning a Master of Divinity degree at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, Sister Mary Lou continued in ministry to young adults as the director of campus ministry at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Sister always wanted her co-workers at UNI to “walk with the poor.” They organized mission trips to Appalachia and Mexico and advocacy for justice issues as part of their campus ministry actions. Sister Mary Lou kept hearing a voice that spoke through a young person on her staff at the UNI campus ministry: “We need to go to New Orleans.”

The voice haunted Sister and by December 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast, she connected through Catholic Charities and took a group of UNI students to New Orleans, Louisiana. “The destruction and devastation were overwhelming. But I kept looking for the Catholics on the street. The Salvation Army was there. And, Catholic sisters were there,” she recalls.

The Presentation sisters who now staff the collaborative ministry, Lantern Light, Inc., were scheduled to begin the week Katrina hit. So, instead of working from a building, they worked from the trunk of a car and carried on a mobile mission to those affected by Katrina.

“By their witness, the Presentation sisters at Lantern Light helped me recapture the spirit of why I came to religious life,” states Sister Mary Lou. “I was always drawn to Nano’s charism of service to the poor when I first saw the sisters at Guadalupe school in Chicago where I taught. They had an important presence in that poor community. They taught me to know the people, walk with, serve them and not judge them.”

Sister Mary Lou’s formative years on the south side of Chicago were eye-opening. She remembers that when she was 9 or 10 Martin Luther King Jr. marched in South Park; there were riots and turmoil. “I couldn’t understand the racism and what it was about. Now, since moving to New Orleans, I understand a little more about the riots, anger and frustration because of the color of skin,” she comments. In her present ministry, she encourages others by her example that “people need to walk shoulder-to-shoulder/black and white, white and black and to address racism together.”

For three years Sister Mary Lou has been ministering in New Orleans, as the executive director of Reconcile New Orleans, a community of concerned people committed to addressing the system of generational poverty, violence and neglect in the New Orleans area. She oversees all operations including life skills training, the business of Café Reconcile as the full-time staff trains students seeking to acquire skills in the food service industry and connecting the students to health services and to the churches of the area. “We work with the whole person,” states Sister Mary Lou. “The mission of Reconcile New Orleans, Inc., is to reconcile over poverty, prejudice and fear,” states Sister. The 12-week program includes orientation interviewing to discern readiness and barriers to success; job training, advocacy and connection to help the youth with housing, child care and education.

“This ministry provides a great opportunity for me as a woman religious. I know the players in town – mayor, police chief and others. They have a respect for me and for what we at Reconcile New Orleans do. They want to hear what’s going on and how we engage young people as ‘grass-roots’ agents and as mentors.”

Hospitality and care are core in Sister Mary Lou’s life in New Orleans. “I see young people’s potential to use God’s gifts. I’m so appreciative for having experienced hospitality at the very core of what it means when someone says, ‘Miss Mary Lou, come on in, share what we have, come be with us.’” She knows care and protection from her neighbors when she hears of shootings in the neighborhood. “I know that my neighbors ‘have my back.’ I feel called to do this,” comments Sister Mary Lou.

As she and her staff work together to help others overcome poverty, prejudice and fear, they collaborate with many individuals and groups to address the issues that stand in the way of young people in New Orleans being able to fulfill their potential. They give them skills for life and listen to them. “When looking into the eyes of a young person who comes to us with despair and hopelessness, I pray that we can provide a little love and support so that each can realize that there are other possibilities,”states Sister. “We give them opportunities.”

“I understand how I was drawn to the charism of Nano Nagle in service to the poor,” she states. “I realize that in my 25 years as a Presentation sister I recaptured the spirit of why I came to religious life. As I reflect on the future of religious life, while it is sometimes bleak, I find hope. I love people and I love meeting them where they are. I feel that I am doing what God wants me to do by being present to the poor and by helping change a little the structures that keep them there.”

Sister Joetta Venneman
Sister Joetta Venneman grew up in rural Luzerne, Iowa, the daughter of Janet and the late Francis Venneman. Through her family she received a love and respect for the land and for learning. After high school she attended Mount Mercy College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree. When entering the Sisters of the Presentation in 1986, Sister Joetta began a journey of learning about Nano Nagle’s dedication to the education of the poor children and of the connection between those who are made poor and the exploitation of Earth.

“As I reflect upon my 25 years of living within religious life, I realize that God has embraced my surrender and blessed not only the many with whom I have ministered but also has blessed and transformed my life in this process,” remarks Sister Joetta who taught at Catholic schools in Peosta, Iowa, and in South Chicago.

“As a teacher I learned to broaden my vision of the world and to accept opportunities for becoming more inclusive and to share and integrate Catholic social teaching into my classroom,” she continues. “It was in this ministry where I shared and integrated into students’ projects the church’s ‘best kept secret’ of Catholic social teaching.”

It was while teaching in Catholic schools that Sister Joetta built relationships with those of other economic, religious, emotional and psychological status, those whom society often thrusts to the margins. Working with a team of educators, she experienced a variety of leadership styles that generated experiential opportunities for the youth.

“During these years, I learned to broaden my perspectives, hold my assumptions lightly and allow other cultures to speak to me about their struggles of being in and changing systems,” reflects Sister Joetta. “Love for those at the margins called me to deeper surrender and creativity as God’s Spirit took charge through me and I engaged with these students and their needs.”

Working to maintain her passions for life-long learning, personal and spiritual growth, Sister Joetta earned a Master of Arts degree in cultural anthropology and social transformation from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. “The skills used to examine systems within this program of study and within my experiences since are currently used to analyze personal, organizational, governmental, religious and cultural systems.” Currently Sister Joetta is the director of the Office of Global Ministries and serves as an educator and systemic justice advocate for the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky. She is also the Presentation community’s justice contact person for the International Presentation Association.

“For both the Sisters of Charity and the International Presentation Association, I engage with the United Nations and several coalitions on the local, state, national and international levels. Within these experiences, my global citizenship is identified and affirmed,” states Sister Joetta.

“Here I see that love is again the value to which the global community is called – to deepen and enlarge perspectives and to analyze unfair systems. By traveling for the wider Charity and Presentation organizations to Australia, Bolivia, Canada, India, Mexico and Peru, my heart responds to stand in greater solidarity with sisters and brothers the world over in their struggles to liberate themselves from oppressive systems.” Thus, Sister Joetta works with Catholic sisters and their associates to express solidarity with those made poor using education, legislative advocacy, vigils, marches, protests and prayer as catalysts and means.

“In my present ministry I am compelled to love not only my sister and brother in my neighborhood but to expand my neighborhood to include my sister and brother anywhere in the world and on Earth,” concludes Sister Joetta. “To engage with the dance of religious life is to embrace a vision of the kin-dom as extensively as Jesus did. It is to be committed to the liberation of others from oppressive systems and to proclaim that Jesus is liberator of his own people. It is to engage with all beyond self, my religious community of sisters and family. I am able to come home to these persons and re-center amidst the world in which we live.”

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