When asked what Sister Eileen Flavin means to her family, Paulette Brester answers, “Everything.”
She remembered the time she was laid up after hip surgery and couldn’t make it to Mass. Sister brought communion to her — even after Brester called and told her not to.
There was a big storm blowing in that night, and she was concerned for Sister’s safety. But Sister appeared on their doorstep anyway; the wind nearly blew her inside, Brester said.
Sister asked if they had a shed. The Bresters didn’t. Well, something that looked like one was blowing down the highway, Sister said.
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It was the roof of Dr. Jim Brester’s animal clinic, Paulette chuckled.
But that’s Sister: Still doing what needs to be done, tending to her parish in their time of need, no matter what.
She was there through Jim’s heart surgery. She’s shared a lot of meals at the Bresters’ table. Their adult son at home, Joe, calls Flavin “my sister,” Paulette said.
“Each one of you, think back on all the things she has done for you over the years, the funerals she’s gone to, the weddings, whatever kind of blessings; whenever you were sick, she was always concerned,” Parish Council Chairman Jim Pugh told a packed sanctuary, fighting tears himself.
“She was a part of your family, a part of your life. And today is a perfect day to tell her how much you care.”
One June 12, hundreds of church members and friends gathered at St. Agnes Catholic Church for a celebration that was part prayer service, part party, part celebrity roast of Flavin, who’s been parish life coordinator for nearly 11 years.
After June 24, she’ll be retiring and moving to Anderson, where she’ll rejoin the board of trustees of St. Vincent Hospital and its mission council.
She’ll also become a student in a spiritual direction program at a monastery in Beech Grove — and she’ll probably do some volunteering at the hospital or other places once she figures out the new flow of daily life, she said.
That choice of ministry makes sense for her, said Fr. Eric Johnson, the priest at St. Agnes from 2007-12.
The basis of love is perseverance, committing to be present, he said. And that’s Sister.
“She’s sat at hospitals for countless hours with families. That friendship and fidelity defines her ministry,” he said.
“She’s just there — she’s always there. And I think that played into her decision to retire, because she couldn’t continue being there the way she wanted to be there.”
Flavin, 73, celebrated her 50th year as a professed Sister of the Holy Cross in August 2014.
She said she’s looking forward to moving away from the daily administrative work: serving on community task forces, managing an emergency assistance fund, aiding the St. Vincent de Paul society’s charity work, and coordinating 51 baptisms, 119 first communions, 83 confirmations, 63 weddings, 89 funerals and thousands of regular Masses.
“Perhaps it is just stopping to greet the lawn mowing crew … or welcoming visitors at Mass, but it requires her to stay continuously alert to dozens of activities concurrently evolving while insuring, too, that the liturgical year unfolds seamlessly and reverently,” wrote Shirley Boardman in a summary of parish life over the past 11 years.
That’s not to say Flavin hasn’t had time for a little fun.
After Sister Mildred Wannemuehler retired in 2005, Msgr. Bill Stumpf said he knew right away that Flavin “was the right fit because of her kindness, her warmth and her care.
“But I also knew she’d be the right fit to work with me, because she liked SoCo Manhattans … and to make therapeutic visits to the casino,” said Stumpf, parish priest from 1997 to 2006.
“Truth be told, I think the reason for that is that it’s just a little bit naughty,” Johnson said.
Once, when she went to a retreat, she didn’t talk about the great spiritual insights she had, Johnson said. “She talked about the fact that there was a sign that said, ‘Please don’t walk on the grass,’ and she walked on it.”
When Johnson took her off-road driving in her car, she “giggled like a little schoolgirl” because the car was not where it was supposed to be, he said.
“I hate that she’s going to Anderson, because it’s too far,” Johnson said, his voice breaking.
Surrounded by her children, Adrianne Spahr said the same. All but a couple months of her 11 years leading youth ministry have been served with Sister.
In that time, Spahr has grown from a 20-something newlywed into a mother of four. “I’ve met with her once a month, with the kids running around, and she never minded — she enjoyed it,” Spahr said.
“She’s been a spiritual leader for me, not just my boss. She really cares. She’s always asked about how I’m doing in my life, not just about the youth group.
“She’s just a solid person. … She’s always there.”
Sister was Mary Cheek’s rock, too. They worked together in the parish office from day one.
“At first I thought, ‘She’s a really tall lady. How am I going to work with her?’” said Cheek, who’s less than 5 feet tall; Flavin stands close to 6.
But they soon saw eye to eye. “As soon as she came here, I could just feel God’s love coming through her,” Cheek said.
When a relative of Cheek’s died suddenly, Sister was there. “I’m not sure I could have gotten through it without her. She was there through one of the hardest times in my life — and the good times, too,” Cheek said.
“She is Sister, but I also call her my sister,” she said.
“The reason why Sister Eileen is such a great part of this community is because the community is her life,” said Fr. Eric Augenstein, current priest at St. Agnes.
Augenstein and Msgr. Fred Easton noted her habit of “ministering by walking around,” chatting to the point that few services started on time. Easton joked about having to “get the hook” to pull her into her seat.
It can be hard to believe that being a nun wasn’t what Flavin had ever really wanted to do.
“I wanted to be a teacher, a mother and a wife, but I really felt that God was calling me to something else,” she said in an interview. “And I knew that I could not live with myself if I didn’t try to figure out what that was.”
“When anybody asks me what is the important thing to me from my time here, I have said it is the relationships I have had with so many of you,” Flavin told the gathered crowd.
“You’ve allowed me into your lives and allowed me to share with you your thoughts and your fears and our sorrows and joys. All of those have been very precious to me,” she said.
Stumpf joked about the congregation’s gift to Flavin — a new shower for her home in Anderson — being one of the weirdest going-away gifts he’d ever heard of, but Sister said she was thrilled.
“Every time I use the shower, I’ll say a special prayer for you all. And not only when I’m in the bathroom will I be praying for you, but I will also pray for you outside of the bathroom,” she told her parish, to roars of laughter.
“And I hope you will pray for me, too.”
The next parish life coordinator at St. Agnes Catholic Church may arrive as early as July 6, but as of June 15, Sr. Eileen Flavin didn’t yet know who would be replacing her.
The parish life coordinator is appointed by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
That person could be another nun, or could be a layperson, she said.