Sister Mary Emma Jochum, OSB shares her story. Her congregation, the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Indiana, received a grant this year for an HVAC system.
I was born at home on July 13, 1940, to Otto and Emma Jochum. I was the first of thirteen siblings, born and raised on a farm. As a farmer’s daughter, I was always working outside helping dad on the farm, including driving the tractor. This is where I first learned the responsibility of work. I also became very involved in sports at school and square dancing at wedding receptions.
I attended grades one through eight at St. Mary’s School at St. Mary Parish in Huntingburg, Indiana. On each grade level, I became acquainted with the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana. The sisters were in front of our classrooms every day, teaching with clarity and care. Watching them planted a seed within me to serve with them some day as a teaching sister.
Mom and Dad often would take the sisters garden produce and fresh meat after butchering. One day, I asked Mom if I could go with her to deliver the donated food and see the sisters’ house. To this day, I remember their hospitality as they answered the doorbell to welcome us. My parents never wanted to be paid, but the sister would give me a holy card for my prayer book, and I liked the attention they gave me.
After completing grade eight, I attended the Academy boarding school owned and taught by the sisters for grades nine through eleven, entering the convent during my senior year in September 1957 at age 17. After two years as candidate and novice (with full habit and white veil), I professed three years of temporary vows.
During temporary vow years, I attended St. Benedict College, also owned and taught by our sisters, attaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education. With this degree I was assigned by our mother superior as a first time teacher for grade one at Washington, Indiana, for three years, followed by three years at Vincennes, Indiana, and then six years as teacher and principal at Fort Branch, Indiana.
The rainy day of October 8, 1970, changed my life forever. I had a near-fatal car accident at a one-lane bridge while delivering IQ test material to a neighboring school with a sister principal in her first year as principal. I had promised her that I would deliver the tests only three miles down the road. Braking suddenly to avoid a head-on collision, my car flipped into a 27-foot ditch, landing back on its wheels. I was taken to the hospital for immediate broken neck surgery to remove the broken fifth, sixth, and seventh vertebrae debris from the spinal cord by the neurosurgeon in a surgery lasting five hours. The surgeon stated to my loved ones that it was unlikely that I would make it through surgery, and if I did, I would never walk again and rely on the use of a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
Two weeks later, a miracle happened! My left foot began moving and the movement traveled up the whole left side of my body (luckily, I was always left-handed). The doctors were baffled, but proud of themselves. The right side did not completely return, leaving me with 50% paralysis. By spring of 1971, I returned to the school from the hospital to close out the school year, walking with a walker.
I later moved into two forearm crutches, then just one, then to a mobilized cart for long-distance walking such as sidewalks to other buildings, pharmacy trips, grocery store errands, etc. However, in small houses or in my bedroom, I only required the use of a forearm crutch.
I read books by authors who experienced worse paralysis than myself. One of them that motivated me was Joni Erickson, a quadriplegic. As a quad, she painted beautiful portraits with the paintbrush in her mouth. Another source of encouragement was the movie A Day in the life of Bonnie Consolo. In it, Bonnie said: “It is not what is lost, but what is left that counts.” This quote carries me to this day! Bonnie was born with no arms, but was able to do most things for herself. She dressed herself with her feet, shopped with her feet, and drove a car, steering with her feet. Thus, I looked at myself and saw that I had most things going for me. “What am I fussing about?” I asked myself.
During the 1970s, Vatican II made many changes in the Catholic Church. One of those changes was the creation of a new position called “Director of Religious Education” (DRE). This new position required a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies. The dean of our of St. Benedict College asked me to consider undertaking this study due to my past experience as a school principal. I attended six summers at Mundelein College in Chicago, Illinois, attaining the degree in summer 1981. With this degree, I was a DRE in parishes where Catholic schools unfortunately had to close due to financial struggles. I also was a Diocesan-level DRE for five years before returning to serve at the parish level.
To stay current in my role as DRE, I would attend the annual national conferences offered in different states. While at the conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was shocked when they announced I was a chosen winner for the Annual National Conference of Catechetical Leadership. Still in shock, I was called forth to the stage to receive the award from the bishop of Milwaukee. A ramp had been built for me to use to appear on stage, but I hadn’t even noticed it as I entered the conference room!
From 1993 through 2017, I served as Director at St. Paul Church in Tell City, Indiana. In this role, I was responsible for everything from “womb to tomb,” so to speak. I had a secretary and volunteer help from the parish. My office was given the responsibility for grades one through twelve, first Communion and Confirmation preparations, baptism for parents seeking baptism for their child, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults for adults wanting to join the Catholic Church, program preparation for adults, Special Religious Education program for children/adults with disabilities, and annual mission trips for high school students. All of these departments required catechist training. Each year, more than 150 volunteers from the parish felt prepared to spread the Word in a large parish serving 1,100 members.
In 2015, I was blessed with a brand new blue mobilized scooter from a grant provided to me by SOAR!. The scooter is bigger, more comfortable, stronger, and reliable. Again, I felt like I could go again. I couldn’t find anything better to suit my needs. SOAR! for me is my BIGGEST BLESSING. God showed me again and again to “TRUST ME” throughout my 50-year disability challenge.
At the age of 77, I retired from parish ministry to return home to the monastery at Ferdinand. However, before I left Tell City, I was invited to a Chamber of Commerce dinner to honor distinguished persons who dedicated their lives to make Tell City a better place to live. I was tied with another nominee for recipient of the honor because the committee could not make a decision, so both of us were named Citizen of the Year.
As I adjusted to monastery life again with the daily routine of prayer and work, I was asked to consider some tasks. I make “thank you” phone calls to the donors who support us with their generous contributions. I also volunteered to take my turn reading scripture during our prayer time together as community. I found myself showing up to help with tours for visitors who come to see the monastery for the first time, a return to “people contact” like I experienced in my parish work, and a way of living Chapter 4 in the Holy Rule written by St Benedict: “Receive each as Christ.”
As I adjusted to monastery life on the assisted living floor, we needed to install an accessible shower for me, as well as other sisters in the future with mobility problems. Again, SOAR came to my rescue through a grant to make this possible.
As I look back on my life experiences, I am most grateful to my community of sisters who have enabled me and ushered me with prayers, encouragement, and praise. On July 26, 2019, I celebrated my 60-year anniversary as a Sister of St. Benedict with four classmates during a Mass. We renewed our vows professed 60 years ago and then enjoyed a festive dinner. Due to my community, I loved my teaching ministry for 56 years. My family always stayed in touch with me and was also most supportive and proud.
It is difficult for me to single out one supreme moment of joy during my many years in ministry, but one initiative stands out for its broadness and scope of impact. With lots of openness and participation from other churches, I helped to found a weeklong Ecumenical Summer Vacation Bible School. The program brought together Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Catholic churches. We worked together to serve children from age four through grade five. The reality of this impressed the two towns involved, showing them that churches can work together. Most importantly, this program continues its impact, continuing to take place each summer even though I am no longer involved.