When Sr. Catherine Georgine Portner celebrated her 70th jubilee in 2006, she wrote about her wonderful celebration and about the family and friends who joined her for this memorable occasion: “The closure of my “special” day was the showing of a video—my life from birth as a “coal cracker” and after 70 years turned “diamond. Coal does eventually become a diamond!” Her “coal cracker” background is very special to Sr. Catherine—and to her vocation. She traces her connection with the Sisters of St. Francis back to her early education at St. Fidelis School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, and her first grade teacher Sr. Fernanda. “She was so tall,” Sr. Catherine recalled. “I thought she was a saint!” As a child Catherine spent a lot of time at the parish convent helping the sisters—ironing handkerchiefs, helping to make root beer, carrying buckets of coal, and running errands. “That’s how I got my vocation,” she laughed.
During most of her years in the congregation, Sr. Catherine was a teacher—a ministry that took her to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Trenton, Lancaster, and York. She also ministered for a number of years as a caregiver for a family member. Sr. Catherine recalled particularly her first two teaching positions in Philadelphia. She was particularly enthralled with her first teaching experience at St. Alphonsus School. “It was only half a block from the early motherhouse,” she explained. It was such a privilege to live that close to our early history.” Sr. Catherine smiled as she described her second mission—St. Benedict School where she taught music. “I spent most of my time pushing a portable organ around the school to 16 different classrooms,” she said.
In 2000 Sr. Catherine moved to Queen of Peace Convent, the independent living residence attached to Assisi House. “It was like a regular convent there,” she explained. “You were free to be yourself.” She laughed when she recalled that when she arrived at Queen of Peace, someone asked if she wanted to work. Her immediate response was, “No!” However, she was soon invited to volunteer in the finance office in the motherhouse—a service she continued until she became a resident at Assisi House—and for a short time actually continued to travel over to the office periodically
Of her life in Assisi House, Sr. Catherine has only the highest praise. “I’m well cared for and there are no demands on me,” she said. She enjoys straightening and arranging her room and finds time to check out the computer. Sr. Catherine delights in having time to enjoy two of her favorite pastimes—reading and listening to music. Her reading preferences tend toward autobiographies, newspapers, and spiritual books. After lunch each day she goes back to Clare Hall to visit with the sisters there. Her ever-present smile and joyful manner always manage to elicit a smiling response as she stops to chat with each sister. Like all of the sisters in our retirement residences, Sr. Catherine is very conscious that she has been called to prayer ministry and each day remembers the needs of her sisters, the world, and her former students—many of whom still keep in touch.
As she approaches her 97th birthday and her 78th year as a Sister of St. Francis, Sr. Catherine surveys her life with a positive eye and a sense of peace—finding joy both in what has been and what is. That, to me, seems to capture the essence of wisdom!
– Ann Marie Slavin, OSF