GREENVILLE — Franciscan Sister Catherine Noecker got an early start on her vocation.
As a first-grader in CCD in Buffalo, N.Y., she won a prize for knowing a few extra answers in class because her parents had instructed her well at home, she says modestly.
That prize was a missal.
“I fell in love with it,” she remembered. And it was that missal that guided her life.
Buffalo didn’t have a Catholic grammar school. But the young Catherine, one of 15 children, attended a Catholic high school.
“My mother signed me up much to my chagrin because it was all girls,” she said.
It wasn’t until a senior retreat that the young woman was given a focus on her direction.
“A priest came and showed us a film of Franciscan missions in Japan,” she explained. “He showed a missionary who was sick and said they needed someone to take his place. I thought, ‘I could do this,'” she said.
She went to the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph teaching at her school. It was a Polish community, however, and she didn’t know a word of Polish. Her pastor connected her with the Williamsville Franciscans.
As well as being taught by them, the young woman was attracted to the Franciscans because she had seen the Third Order Franciscans, a group of lay people who help the poor and follow the Gospel teachings, at work in her parish.
Right after her graduation in 1958, at the age of 17, Catherine entered the Sisters of St. Francis of New York in Williamsville.
Though they did not have a mission in Japan, Sister Catherine did work in their mission in Puerto Rico.
Her ministry was also spent working at schools in city parishes in Buffalo and finally Greenville. The Franciscans were focused on health care and only in the past six years gave up sponsoring hospitals. They are also a teaching order.
Sister Catherine, the principal of St. Anthony School, lives in community with Sister Juliana Whitefield, director of religious education at St. Anthony Church; Sister Mary Schifferle, who teaches second grade at the school; and Sister Carmelita Rodriguez, who teaches Spanish.
This is the principal’s 15th year at St. Anthony.
Though her ministry is focused on the poor, Sister Catherine said one of her greatest challenges was seeing a lot of their friends leave the community in the 1970s.
“Because of the fewer numbers it means we have difficulty being able to staff different places and knowing somebody’s going to be available to take your place so you can move on,” she said. “When you see all your friends getting grayer and grayer, it’s a wake up call. The common feeling among women religious is there was Sara and Elizabeth and God calls people to do things at an age that’s up to him. The challenge is being alerted to what God might ask us to do at any age.”
Only 25 women belong to her order. The community is in the process of merging with three other groups, the Missionary Sisters of the Divine Child, the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, and the Sisters of St. Francis of Hastings. All were founded initially in Philadelphia and sent as missions to other dioceses and eventually separated.
With the diminishing vocations today, the presence of a religious at a school is a precious gift. When given the opportunity to answer questions about a vocation, Sister Catherine has a simple answer.
“I would encourage a young person to be faithful to the sacraments, staying close to the church, and find a spiritual director,” she said. “And depending on their age I’d say, ‘come and see.'”
Anyone would see devotion and dedication on behalf of all the Franciscans at St. Anthony parish and school.
“The best part of my life is being able to work at St. Anthony’s and really being able to serve the poor within a Franciscan parish. Plain and simple,” she said. “That is the Franciscan vocation. It’s the gift of the Franciscans to the church to be able to be part of that ministry. It is a privilege.”