Sister Mary Ellen Hanson celebrates her 50th Jubilee in 2016. We are honored to share the story of the journey that led her to the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.
As the firstborn in a Catholic family with three children I experienced love, stability and early formation in the faith. My mother was of a lifelong Catholic family while my father celebrated five Sacraments at the time of their marriage at St. Francis Mission, South Dakota. I was born in Valentine, Nebraska, and baptized three weeks later at St. Bridget Church on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, Rosebud, South Dakota.
At the age of three I made my first move of many when we moved from Rosebud to Warm Springs, Oregon. My convert father taught me catechism through the Baker Diocese in Oregon via a home study program developed by Franciscan Sisters from Pennsylvania at the time. We drove 45 miles to Redmond Mass each Sunday while living in Warm Springs. Sometimes Mass was in our home for the few Catholics in the area thanks to the Irish Capuchins from Bend. In the summer I attended Religious Vacation School run by the Holy Names Sisters from Bend and made my First Holy Communion in Prineville. I experienced a strong interest in religious life for the first time then. I also met the experience of the accidental death of a friend who sat behind me in school. In a year we moved to an eastern Montana Indian reservation where we could walk to Mass. I was confirmed there.
In my freshman year and with my siblings, we enrolled at St. Labre Indian Mission when after three months we as family moved to another reservation near the Canadian border in N.E. Montana. There my mother resumed her nursing practice in a small hospital and my father changed from being a forester fighting wildfires to directing land management affairs for the tribe. In general I felt my high school experience positive and appreciated the parish youth group. In summer the Sisters of St. Agnes came for religious vacation school and I taught preschoolers. Attendance at a summer CYO conference in Billings was a highlight. As a senior, I applied to enter the Victory Knoll community as I was also attracted to their ‘social service’ ministry and received a letter of denial. Awareness of living my own life became apparent. Within a few weeks my application to Columbus School of Nursing run by the Sisters of Providence in Great Falls was accepted.
Following graduation I enrolled at Seattle University upon advice of one of the Sisters in order to earn a BSN. During this time I became active in Catholic Nurses organization (where a nursing Sister of Notre Dame asked if I had ever thought of becoming a Sister) and the Chancellor Club. The latter was a group for young adults sponsored by the archdiocese. I read the story of St. Vincent de Paul and the Sisters of Charity and knew when religious life became like that I’d try again. Each Advent I made an annual retreat in a center run by the Visitation Sisters. Discovery of finding a work I truly loved, public health nursing, drew my whole attention for a few years. Moving to Aberdeen, WA, to assume position of PHN Supervisor, I met the Dominican Sisters and helped with CCD in the parish. My sister came to work as a nurse in the hospital and relieved some of the social isolation I was feeling with lack of peers near my own age. During an Advent retreat the director inquired as to whether I had ever thought of being a Sister. With my ready affirmation we arrived at a plan for discernment which included my visiting 4-5 religious communities within a day’s drive. The Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon were at the end of the list. There were a few ‘older’ new Sisters. But what I really felt was the love which existed there, the fact the new Maryville might be a ministry site, and a certain “German/Irish” atmosphere which reminded me of my mother’s gifts. I was accepted!