Sr. Marian Patrice Leaf

Sr. Marian Patrice Leaf is a Franciscan from birth. Her parents, Dorothy and Edward, were secular Franciscans throughout their married life. Marian is the third of six children—four girls and two boys. The close-knit family lived in Upper Darby, near Philadelphia; her father co-owned a flooring business, and her mother was a busy stay-at-home parent. As a sociology student at Neumann University— then Our Lady of Angels College—Marian came to know the Sisters of St. Francis well. As she relates, “I noticed how approachable, down-to-earth, and joyful they were. Over the four years, I recognized something in their spirit that resembled something in my own: I felt an ‘at home-ness’ with them.” Understanding that she had found a spiritual home, Sr. Marian entered the congregation in January 1978, six months after her college graduation.

Sr. Marian with seminarians who are Rwandan refugees

Sr. Marian’s early ministry as a sister of St. Francis included such contributions as coordinating the Stepping Stones Program in Immokalee, Florida, an educational program for pregnant teens and teen mothers; serving as a medical social worker at St. Joseph Hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; becoming assistant director of childcare for St. Mary’s Home for Children in New Bedford, Massachusetts; and teaching special-needs students at the Sister Georgine Learning Center near Trenton, New Jersey. Also further advancing her experience and expertise, Sr. Marian earned a Master of Social Work from Marywood University, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Pounding maize with her adopted Zambian family

For nearly three decades, Sr. Marian served far from home. From 1992-2004, she lived in Zambia. Among her many contributions there, she ministered in a rural health clinic, where she not only distributed medications and helped with wound care and other treatment but also drove an ambulance as needed. She likewise served in such capacities as assisting with formation for Zambian seminarians and teaching English to seminarians who were Rwandan refugees. For several years, she served as the coordinator of Zambia Open Community Schools, a program of 20 community-initiated schools for children who could not access the public school requirements and fees due to extreme poverty. Sr. Marian carries with her lifelong memories of the Zambian people she came to know as her neighbors and friends.

Sr. Marian Leaf traveled all winter by snow machine. The temps at times drop to -30 degrees.

In 2006, she moved to the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, where she served in the remote Y-K Region of western Alaska until 2020. There she was responsible for five outlying parishes, including supporting and encouraging the parishes’ Native Alaskan staff. She traveled between the villages by bush plane, snowmobile, or boat. As part of her ministry, she oversaw building and property issues; purchases, finances, and fundraising; and parish vehicles. She held responsibility for ongoing faith development for the parishes and provided pastoral care for the parish ministers and parishioners and the wider village communities.

After returning to the East Coast, Sr. Marian became part of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia charism team. In this ministry, her gifts to the community included creating and participating in podcasts for the Brewing Faith series, presenting a retreat for companions, and providing outreach—also including a retreat—to the young adults who have been part of the Franciscan Volunteer Program. Currently, since the 2021 Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia Congregational Chapter, Sr. Marian serves as a member of the congregational council.

The scene in front of Sr. Marian’s Alaskan home along the Kuskokwim River.

She describes reaching the decision to serve with the community’s leadership team: “I, to my surprise, was elected during our Congregational Chapter in May 2021, and God’s grace and love enabled my yes to this way of service. I committed myself to be open to the Holy Spirit and cooperate with whatever would unfold.” Her embrace of a ministry of service through leadership followed an in-depth period of discernment that began in January 2020 and included recognizing what she calls God’s fingerprints. As she shared with the assembled chapter participants, “One day at prayer, I was reminding God of all my ministries with the poor and vulnerable. Leadership? Wasn’t too sure! And a question came: Because it’s not your comfort zone? Can’t you do something new? God’s fingerprint about surrendering! Francis embraced what he feared most, a leper, and was transformed. I read recently, ‘When one decides to serve others, the least important thing is fear!’ God’s fingerprint about courage!”

Sr. Marian’s return to the Philadelphia area and her new ministries have brought both challenges and great rewards. Living in Zambia and Alaska meant that Sr. Marian was unable to take part in many of the shared experiences of religious life, such as jubilees, funerals, retreats, and feast days. As she explains, “There are sometimes gaps in my knowing things that have happened in the past, and many situations that are familiar to the other sisters are new to me. Also, the work on leadership is very different from the other types of ministries in which I’ve been involved. But I’m glad for the challenges and struggles as they can be the seeds for transformation and growth. I have already come to know more about myself and who I want to be going forward through the yes I made to God and our community.”

Sr. Marian wearing a traditional Native Alaskan kuspuk, signifying an important event.

With the congregational council, Sr. Marian holds a wide range of responsibilities. She notes some of the special rewards of her work: “One area that I find the most rewarding is being part of the missioning team. This ministry involves journeying with individual sisters who are considering some transition in their life, such as a change in residence, ministry, retirement, or health. To be a part of their life at such a critical, vulnerable juncture is indeed sacred ground, a privilege.” Another highly gratifying aspect of her ministry is helping to develop the regional chapters, now the congregation’s second level of governance: “I work with all the reps and assistant reps in a collaborative relationship of envisioning and building up this new structure in our congregation. I learn so much from the wisdom and experience of this group and am proud of the headway we have made so far.”

Among the other especially notable rewards of her ministry, Sr. Marian speaks of working with the congregation’s Corporate Social Responsibility team, led by Sr. Nora Nash, and of “the tremendous amount of work Sr. Nora’s department does in confronting big corporations on various social justice issues, including climate, diversity, and the rights of the poor.” Another area, the Mission Fund, also has the benefit of her leadership. Working with Srs. Joanne Clavel and Ann Forest and their team, Sr. Marian has, as she expresses, “been humbled by the deep generosity and commitment of our congregation to ensure our sisters working with those most in need are enabled to carry on our mission in situations with inadequate resources.”

Sr. Marian takes a turn at the Craps
table during Franciscan Night.

Additional great satisfaction for Sr. Marian is being part of a highly collaborative, well-functioning group: “The five of us on the leadership team work very well together. It is a true honor and gift to be one of the team. We are responsive to each other’s needs, respect the gifts that each one brings, and manage to laugh a lot in the midst of it all.” Illustrating the council’s closeness and effectiveness, Sr. Marian adds, “One of the things we have committed ourselves to is spending 90 minutes together each week in contemplative prayer and faith sharing.”

Sr. Marian’s approach to leadership is reflected in a presentation she gave during a career day at The Catholic High School of Baltimore. She explained to the young women in the audience that her observations on leadership would be about a lifestyle—a way of life—not about a career. She shared that for her, as for many, life takes unexpected turns and that while education is an important foundation, much of life also calls for more. She told her audience, “In my 43 years in mission, I wasn’t prepared for most of my ministries but had to learn on the job by doing!” She also spoke to the students about her “sense of what we call servant leadership: it’s not about a position or status I couldn’t care less about that. It’s about serving others by putting their welfare before my own.”

Continuing to reflect on the deep rewards of her leadership ministry, Sr. Marian observes, “I enjoy learning new things. I wouldn’t say I enjoy that these are uncertain times, but I have a sense of the profound mystery in the changes we are experiencing in religious life and all around us. A new way is unfolding as we live into the future, and through our ministry and collaboration with other congregations, we are paving something new in these historic times for religious life.” While spare time is scarce for Sr. Marian, she seeks opportunities to absorb the beauty of creation,
“even in the simplest of things: I try to take care of the birds in our backyard. Even on the coldest day, my window is open in the morning to hear them sing, joining me as I offer my morning prayer.” Sr. Marian also loves visiting her family, talking to friends, and reading. And she’s “always up for a road trip anywhere, especially if it includes DQ [Dairy Queen]!”

Thank you, Sr. Marian, for your wise Franciscan leadership and all your many gifts of ministry and devoted service. Blessings to you on those road trips you so much enjoy and on every path you take along your life journey!

Winnie Hayek