Serving with an Attentive Ear and a Courageous Heart
By Sister Joellen Tumas | as told to Judy Williamson
Sister Joellen Tumas was born and raised in the Back of the Yards in Chicago’s southwest side in the 1940s-50s when Chicago was the “hog butcher capital of the world.” It was a community with twelve parishes that had been started by immigrants from many European countries and one Mexican parish.
My maternal grandparents had immigrated from Lithuania in 1910. Our core family consisted of my grandparents, parents and four children. I was the second child, born 13 months after my sister. Our family was very close and were very connected to our extended family of siblings, great-aunts and uncles and cousins. Important days for family members were celebrated together and we always had large numbers for major holidays.
Our Catholic faith was an important part of our lives. My grandma Anna was the greatest influence of my young life. She was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. She shared her days and simple spirituality with me. The Mass and Rosary were important to her. She encouraged me to attend the May Devotions and the Rosary Devotions in October. She died when I was ten and was dressed in a simple brown habit made by the Poor Clare Sisters for her wake. When the sisters from the parish came to the wake, they asked me if I wanted to be a sister someday. I replied, “I will be a sister.”
Growing up with a large extended family helped me develop a strong sense of the importance of family and sharing our lives with each other. Our neighbors expanded our family and there was much sharing and helping each other.
Throughout their lives, my parents and grandparents had a strong work ethic and believed that when you accepted a challenge you had to work at it until it was completed. I served as a teacher, childcare worker, Pastoral Minister, Pastoral Associate, Casa Romero Food Pantry director, advocate for annulments, Casa Catalinas Basic Needs Center Director, Kids Café creator, and much more.
My thirty years as the leader of Casa Romero and Casa Catalina have left me with many beautiful memories and friendships. Besides supplying food, clothing, and basic household needs, we continually worked to assure people that they were good, worthwhile citizens of this earth and more importantly beloved children of God. Over the years there were many immigrant families who came to the centers very soon after coming to the U.S.A.
The volunteers and staff at Casa Catalina became a family united to help others in need. We were white, brown, and black. Some came for a day or a week or month – some as long as 25 years. Somehow everyone became a part of the family sharing their unique talents and making Casa Catalina a safe haven for everyone.
Volunteers started arriving as Confirmation candidates and students needing service hours. Volunteers came doing court- ordered service. Volunteers came from Northern Trust and The Center at Donaldson. Afterward, many of these same volunteers stayed on to help. They were always welcome with the hope that their service enriched them.
Both clients and volunteers would say that they could feel the love and warmth as soon as they entered the building. Sister Joellen feels that is the greatest compliment to her extended ministries. I have always believed that there is a joy center in each of us no matter the circumstances in our lives – Helping others find it gives meaning to our lives. The one word that best describes my life is LOVE. I would like to be remembered as a Sister who has loved God deeply and allowed Him to work through me over the last 59 years in loving deeply, serving joyfully, and allowing me to let others know that they are loved by God – and me – with the intent of providing hope and faith when life is a challenge.
One of the most difficult challenges in life is to be attentive to God’s voice in our hearts and minds and courageously say yes to God’s promptings. Another is to keep a sense of hope and joy in our lives as the world as we know it seems to shatter because of the violence around us, the effects of climate change, floods, heavy snowstorms, hurricanes, political unrest, and changing family issues.
While servicing at St. Augustine, I developed a great devotion to our Lady of Guadalupe. Three of my students’ mothers prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe asking her to give me enough strength to continue to serve her and all her children – and over the years she has done that.
The Immigrants, those experiencing domestic violence, the undocumented, and families in need of food, clothing, and shelter have come to me for help, and with God’s grace I have been able to provide that and more.
I’m thankful for the Holy Spirit leading me together with the wonderful people who have graced my life from aspirant days until now. I recommend reading Penniless Millionaire by Saint Katharina Kasper, while recognizing that God provides always and in all ways to those who serve with an attentive ear and a courageous heart.