Sister Mary Vandergeest

In 2000, after many years in education as both teacher and principal, Sr. Mary Vandergeest had just completed a term as principal of Cardinal Sheehan School in Baltimore. The school had grown and was stable in enrollment, faculty, and finances and Sr. Mary felt that it was a good time for her to move on to something new. “I had nothing definite in mind and was just considering my options—none of which was development,” she laughed. And then came an unexpected call from Sr. Madonna Marie Cunningham inviting Sr. Mary to meet with her to discuss the foundation and the needs of the congregation. After further discussion and much prayer, Sr. Mary agreed to accept the position of development director. “I had been successful in school with fundraising, keeping the school budget in the black, and even establishing an endowment,” she said, “But selling M&Ms and doing pizza sales is much different from raising millions!”

Life in the foundation office is busy and varied. In addition to the usual “nitty gritty” of phone calls, emails, appointments, and meetings, Sr. Mary oversees plans for fundraisers, communicates with trustees, meets with donors who wish to partner with us in ministry, organizes plans for board meetings, and—she adds—“takes time to read and dream!” As in any ministry, development has both its challenges and its blessings. No two donors are alike and Sr. Mary has learned that methods of both appealing and responding must be personalized—and personalization requires both creativity and time. In addition, the needs of our ministries—including retirement—are many and the needs often outweigh the resources. “I have to remind myself,” Sr. Mary added, “that the goal is not money—but rather our mission.”

The blessings, however, definitely outweigh the challenges. Sr. Mary is quick to acknowledge that she has been blessed with both a paid staff and with volunteers—both sisters and laity, including former members—all of whom are committed to the Sisters of St. Francis and the ministry of the foundation. She adds to these a dedicated board of trustees—both past and current. “Past chairs and trustees have paved the way to grow the foundation while present trustees are keenly aware of the need for change that faces us in the world of fundraising,” she explained. Another aspect of her ministry that Sr. Mary considers a blessing lies in the people she has met and the stories they’ve shared. Many of these people are at a point in life when they’re able to say “thank you” in recalling what our sisters have given them, whether that be an education, medical care, a listening ear, a smile, a prayer, an encouraging word that made someone feel valued. “I have often been brought to tears as people share their story,” Sr. Mary recalled. “They are so grateful and their stories have helped me come to a greater appreciation of our sisters and the ways in which they have affected lives too numerous to count.”

Sr. Mary’s own connection with our sisters began when she was a sophomore at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia and reflects something of this same experience. Although she was taught by women religious of various congregations, the Franciscans who taught her seemed to have a “certain something” that made a lasting impression. “They were women who showed respect and concern for us,” she recalled, “a group of happy women educating young women to take their place in society.” That impression has followed Sr. Mary through the years in education and the years in development. And it is perhaps through her experience in the foundation—as she listens to and takes to heart the stories of our sisters’ impact on the lives of others—that she has come to understand that “fundraising is a ministry that is needed to build the kingdom.”

Ann Marie Slavin, OSF