Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lebanon Parish Celebrates Vocation of Sister Margaret Bender, the Last Religious Sister in the Community

Sister Margaret Bender is currently the last religious Sister in Lebanon County, one of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, who have served in the Diocese of Harrisburg for over 100 years. With Sister Margaret’s retirement at the end of May, her longstanding presence in the Lebanon community is being celebrated, along with the fruits of her ministry.

Sister Margaret was born and raised in Lebanon, attending St. Gertrude’s Parish – now St. Cecilia’s – with her loving family. “One of my most beautiful memories is, we lived so close to my grandparents,” she said. “So we got to know – which I felt was very important – our story. My grandparents came from Europe, and my grandfather even wrote a journal about his life in Europe, and how they came to America and settled in Lebanon.”

The Sisters of St. Francis were the teachers at her school, which became her first glimpse into religious life. “We always had a very wonderful and close relationship with them,” she recalled. “So part of my vocation, I think, came from that. Between my family then, and living in this parish, and having the Sisters as teachers was always very beautiful.”

Most of the people in the community were also members at St. Gertrude’s, which turned the neighborhood into a close-knit Catholic family.

Eventually, Sister Margaret realized God was calling her to religious life. “I had no problem knowing which congregation I wanted to serve in,” she said. “It’s as simple as that, and as providential as that.”

For those considering religious life, Sister Margaret had some straightforward advice. “We all have a vocation in life – married life, religious life,” she said. “First of all, prayer. Pray that you’re open to where you’re called to be, where God is drawing you to. They should pray about that, and get to know themselves, and what their gifts are, what their strong points are.”

The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, which included Sister Margaret’s own aunt among the congregation, serve in a variety of ministries, including in schools, hospitals and orphanages. The orphanages, located in New Jersey and Massachusetts, were of special meaning for Sister Margaret specifically, as that is where her aunt served. As those children grew up, they still remembered her aunt and kept in touch, sending her cards and letters as they moved throughout their lives. It was a clear sign of how much of a positive impact she had on those children, just as Sister Margaret has had a positive impact on the Lebanon community.

St. Cecilia Parish hosted a farewell Mass and luncheon on the feast of Pentecost for Sister Margaret, whom Father Michael Laicha, pastor, said would be hard to envision the parish without. In addition to those who attended the Mass in person, nearly 1,000 people tuned in to the livestream of the Mass on the parish’s Facebook page as well. Sister Margaret said the event was emotional and overwhelming. It was honoring Sister Margaret that Father Laicha said brought so many people together.

“I truly believe it was that same spirit [of the Pentecost] that nearly 50 years ago, a much younger Sister Margaret Bender was sent then to St. Gertrude’s,” Father Laicha said, saying she was a young, energetic and vibrant Sister who served with enthusiasm and vigor. She helped build their religious education program, and has been a steadfast presence in the parish. She frequently visited parishioners in the hospital and those who were homebound, ensuring no one was ever left alone, sang at weddings and funerals, and planned First Communion and Confirmation Masses.

“One could say it’s a sad day for the city of Lebanon. Sister Margaret represents the last religious Sister in the entire county. When Sister came here, back in the 1970s, there were other communities of Sisters, and we’re grateful for them,” Father Laicha said, adding, “When we think about it, so many Sisters resided here in the community of Lebanon, and we are better for them. And so it is sad to see our dear Sister leave us. We should take pause hearing this. I believe it’s an important opportunity for all of us to pray for vocations for our Diocese, and yes, my friends, for the whole Church. Nothing would make me prouder to see, once again, a young girl in our parish enter religious life.”

Father Laicha said that Sister Margaret’s simple life, dedicated to the Church, was one to emulate. He concluded, “This parish is indeed very proud of you, and yes, all that you have accomplished and represent as a religious Sister of St. Francis. St. Cecilia’s is going to be very different, Sister Margaret, without your presence.”

Also present at the Mass was one of Sister Margaret’s brothers, Jim, who joked that she took over his spot as the apple of their parents’ eyes when she became a Sister of St. Francis. “I don’t know if anyone will know me after this, because I’ve been known as Sister Margaret’s brother,” he laughed, and then, through tears, added, “Margaret, I am so proud to be known as ‘Sister Margaret’s brother.’”

Finally, Sister Margaret herself addressed the congregation, and sang a hymn in Latin, which was a favorite of her grandmother’s; she shared that they would sing it together underneath their family’s pear tree.

“I just have so many beautiful memories of my life in community, and the schools I was able to teach in or supervise,” she said, concluding, “My heart is just filled with joy because of the long history our community has with this parish.”

(Casandra Chesser is a freelancer writer for The Witness. Photos by Carl Minieri, freelance photographer for The Witness.)

By Casandra Chesser, The Catholic Witness

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