Pay a visit to Assisi House and you’re likely to meet Sr. Sheila Mary Byrne in any number of roles, among them serving as a lector during liturgy, taking residents shopping, visiting with one of sisters, helping Sr. Angela Francis in setting up for chapel—in short, meeting the needs of the residents in a variety of ways. Two nights a week she is on call for emergency trips to the ER. Should the sister needs to be admitted, Sheila stays with her until a room is available. She also coordinates the lottery ticket sales between the Assisi House residents and the foundation. This year she also serves as a liaison between Assisi House and the jubilee committee at the Glen.
Sheila began her ministry as a volunteer at Assisi House in 2014. She had ministered for many years in education and parish ministry—most of it in Wilmington, Baltimore, and the deep south. Prior to her move to Pennsylvania, Sheila ministered for 26 years on St. Helena Island in South Carolina, working with folks who were very poor. Recognizing that it was time to move on, she came north to Portiuncula Convent and spent sabbatical time discerning to what ministry God might be calling her. She often visited the sisters at Assisi House—frequently joining them for meals and eating with a different group each time. As her sabbatical time drew to a close, Sheila chose to volunteer at Assisi House. “I felt the experience would stretch me,” she explained, “and I knew I could be of assistance.”
Sheila first met the Franciscan sisters at St. Patrick Hospital in Mallow, Ireland. She lived in the area and her mother had been a patient at the hospital. Her older sister, Sheila (her birth name) eventually entered the congregation and received the name Sr. Gratiana. Sheila Mary also felt called to religious life but initially wanted to go to Africa. When she met the Franciscans, however, she was impressed by their reputation for being “lovely sisters” and “full of life.” She was particularly impressed by Sr. Marie Bride and Sr. Angela Patrice. A talk with Sr. Marie Bride convinced Sheila that she did, indeed, belong with the Franciscans.
Looking at what she considered the challenges of her current ministry, Sheila acknowledged that some of them come from her own experience of getting to know people after having been so long in the south—meeting people she hadn’t seen for a long time and meeting many new faces as well. She explained that a big challenge was being with sisters in pain and assisting with sisters who were dying. However, as she became more involved in her ministry, Sheila realized that what she initially deemed challenges were also blessings. She recalled siting with sisters during the dying process and finding it a peaceful place—a place where God wanted her to be. “I’m learning new things daily,” she said. “I’m learning about the aging process and that suffering brings joy. I’m learning this because I’ve witnessed it in these sisters.”
And what of Sheila’s initial reason for choosing ministry at Assisi House—that she could be of assistance and that she would be stretched? Her interaction with the sisters and the services she renders to them clearly indicate that she is being of assistance. And that stretching? Sheila acknowledged that rather succinctly when, in describing her challenges and blessings, she said, “I realized that one of my biggest challenges was facing my own fear. I’m learning not to worry—learning to let God be God.”
—Ann Marie Slavin, OSF