The Called: Sister Jeanne Ambre, SS.C.M.
Hometown: Gary, Indiana
Education: Holy Angels Cathedral School in Gary, Indiana, and Andrean High School in Merrillville, Indiana
Current Assignment: General Secretary for the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Danville
Tell me about your childhood and your family.
I was the oldest of five living children and was followed by three brothers and a sister. We were raised Catholic. My mother and father met at church; my father had joined the choir so he could meet girls. My mother wrote to him when he was in the Army during World War II. He had asked five girls to write to him so he could get mail, and my mom was the last one who persevered. She considered herself a mail order bride!
We would attend Mass every Sunday with my father or my mother. They went to different Masses because he was an usher, and she was a member of the choir.
My siblings and I went to Catholic school, and we were taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Early on, I was curious about them, and then I went on to Andrean High School, where I was taught by the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius.
I taught CCD when I was in high school, and I remember telling the principal, who was a School Sister of Notre Dame, that I was going to enter the convent. She gasped and said, “Oh!” Then I told her it would be with the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius, and she seemed disappointed.
What drew you to a religious vocation?
I think God drew me to the congregation because I wanted to be a teacher for a long time. I remember trying to teach things to my brothers when we would play “school.” When I got to high school, I was a good math student so I thought I could be a math teacher. As a freshman, I was asked to write down what I pictured myself doing in ten years, and I wrote that I would be a math teacher. Twelve years later, I was in my Alma Mater doing just that.
So, in addition to being called by God, I believe it was my attraction to teaching that God used to get me into religious life. And, I was fascinated by these women who could all live together and yet somehow get along. They were all very different, one from the other. Their individuality was very apparent, despite the fact that they were in a community.
I had been a Girl Scout from Brownie all the way through Senior Scout, and I understood the kind of power that women can have, especially together. They can accomplish goals, they can do good, they can change the world. Becoming a woman religious was not all that far a leap.
You were introduced to two religious communities throughout elementary school and high school. What attracted you to the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius?
It think it was the fact that they were themselves—and all different. I graduated eighth grade in 1961 and high school in 1965, so I had been in school through the time of the Second Vatican Council. The School Sisters of Notre Dame still seemed, to me, to be very much like each other. I suspect it was more the way I was seeing them than who they actually were; my high school girl impression of the SS.C.M.’s was different.
You entered the congregation right out of high school. What do you remember about the day you came to the Motherhouse in Danville?
I had never been to Pennsylvania before coming to the Motherhouse. When I arrived, my father was driving the car up the road along the grounds here, and he said, “My goodness, I wonder who cuts all this grass!” I didn’t know that raking, not mowing, was in my future!
When I think about it now, it was a leap of faith that this was something God had planned for my future. At that time, people did make their life choices right after high school. I had classmates who signed up for the Army and went from high school straight to Vietnam. Others got married right away. Those decisions weren’t unheard of in those days.
What was instrumental in your discernment? Were there challenges or doubts?
I remember when I was a sophomore in high school, we had a class retreat (all 450 of us) and I went to the chapel. I told God, “Ok, I’ll do this, but just leave me alone until I’m out of high school.” (Negotiating with God is an important life skill!) During my senior year, I told my parents that I wanted to enter religious life, and there wasn’t any resistance on my parents’ part; they were happy for me. One of my cousins, on the other hand, was not convinced. He said, “I think you’ll make it a couple weeks and then you’ll be out.”
There were Sisters I’d had in school who were helpful to me. One gave me my entrance papers, and when she handed them to me, she said, “You know, you can’t just go to college with our order; you have to become a Sister.” I said, “Yes, I understand.” I don’t think they were very confident either, but my vocation was for real.
During the course of formation, I was here in Pennsylvania and my family was back in Indiana, so the monthly family visits were a time for me to walk alone around the grounds. I had a mantra I recited which reminded me of who I was, where I was from and who I was related to, because the separation was difficult.
I didn’t get homesick until after the third month because I was used to spending three summer months at Girl Scout camp. After that third month, I started to feel homesick but I soon got over that. I remember an older Sister saying “This, too, will pass,” and she was right.
I think the fact that I was not in this alone was helpful. A group of 12 of us entered at the same time and we became good friends. Many of the girls knew each other coming in because they had gone to our Academy together in Danville, and three of us came from Andrean. By the time of my final profession in 1973, I was the only one left in my “band.” Many of the girls in my band did come to my final profession, since it was the day after another girl from our group got married in Gary. They came to her wedding and then to my final profession!
Tell me about the day of your final profession.
It was at Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary, and it was the first time a final profession happened someplace other than the Motherhouse. Because I was the only one from my group, and I was teaching at Andrean just before my final vows, one of the Sisters I was living with suggested to the General Superior that I be allowed to make my final profession in my home parish, so that my whole family wouldn’t have to come to Pennsylvania.
We knew the bishop at the time, because he had lived around the corner from my family home. My brothers John and Mark were in the seminary for the diocese at the time. My sister Marie and brother Mark played the guitar for the Mass, and another brother Leo was the photographer. It was definitely a family affair.
At the ceremony, one of the Basilian Fathers from Andrean was a concelebrant with the bishop. When it came time for the bishop to bless my ring, the priest handed the bishop the microphone, and the bishop wound up trying to “bless” my ring with the microphone instead of the aspergillum (the vessel used to sprinkle holy water). I thought that was kind of funny.
I still remember the one line the General Superior said: “We now recognize you as a full member of the congregation.” That really hit home for me at the time. I had certainly felt like one already, but it really struck me to hear it.
It was so special to have my final profession at my home parish that at our next Community Chapter, I wrote a proposal that any Sister making final profession should be allowed to do it in her parish church, and it was accepted. I felt good about that, that other Sisters would be able to do the same. I think it was probably a boon for vocations too, because it allowed other people to witness someone making a commitment to live her life for God.
In what ministries have you served?
This will sound like a game of pinball, but: I was a grade-school teacher for three years; two in Pennsylvania and one in Chicago. Then I was asked to teach high school. My first degree was in math and my second was in Theology, so I taught math and Theology, first at Andrean, (my Alma Mater) for eight years. Then I taught math in Pottstown for a year before I was assigned to our Academy here in Danville, where I taught math, Theology, art and music for ten years.
I then went to St. Louis to study to be a novice director, and I was in that position for six years while also teaching at the Academy. That was followed by another six years at Andrean and after that, I was elected to community leadership. I was on our council for eight years, and then the General Superior asked me to be General Secretary, which I’ve been for the last ten years.
Since 2012, I have worked two days a week at Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Elysburg as a parish visitor. It’s a great job, and I love the people that I visit.
For nine years, I was the spiritual advisor for the Diocesan Catholic Committee for Girl Scouts and Camp Fire, but I retired from that a little over a year ago. I enjoyed that ministry very much.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I’m a graphic artist, so I like to do some design work. I also play guitar for three Masses during the week at Maria Hall in Danville. I have a membership at the Danville Community Center, and I try to swim three times a week. It’s good exercise and a great stress reliever. For me, there’s something about being in the water that can be so rejuvenating.
What advice would you give a woman who is discerning a religious vocation today?
The first thing I would say is, “Be not afraid.” It’s something Jesus tells his disciples, and it’s true also in the sense that discerning a religious vocation is nothing to be afraid of. When Jesus calls, YES is a good answer. The blessings of community life are unequaled. You can be alone, but never lonely as a member of a religious community.
I would encourage a woman to see what Jesus is calling her to and to find out what community life is all about, then explore the various communities available to her.
What have you enjoyed most about being a religious Sister and your service?
When I was entering, I remember writing down in a journal that I wanted to make a difference. Over the years, you occasionally get feedback from the people you minister to. I’ve been told a couple times that I have made a difference, and that’s very rewarding to hear. It’s not about me, but rather about who I am doing this work for, but I have appreciated hearing that I made a difference in somebody’s life.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I told the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts when I spoke at the Adult Scout Awards event in June that being a Girl Scout helped prepare me for being a religious. It was the community, the singing, the teaching, the service – all of these things as a Girl Scout made me feel good and gave me a feeling of familiarity entering religious life. We really do need young people to enter, and to keep this lifestyle going, because we do add something to the life of the Church.
(Interview conducted by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)