CHARLESTON—As Sister Deanna Bartolomei enters her golden jubilee year with the sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, she finds herself at a crossroads.
She has been at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist for 16 years and is leaving her spot as pastoral associate once they find a replacement, although Msgr. Stephen Brovey, pastor, said that will be difficult to do.
“I see in her a great wisdom and I’ve always gone to her seeking guidance,” he said.
Sister Deanna has worked in schools and parishes since she first professed her vows in 1964, and has made an impact on many lives along the way.
When one of her former students, Matt Piotrowsky, was named Student Teacher of the Year, he was praised for teaching from the heart. Piotrowsky credited his favorite teacher for his success —none other than Sister Deanna.
“I learned more in the nine months I spent in her classroom than I did in all my other years of school,” he said at the time.
Sister Deanna downplays her own contributions. Sitting at her tidy desk, she smiles and speaks softly, but with obvious authority and sharp intelligence. She deflects the conversation from herself, talking instead about the courage of other sisters, especially those on the front lines of prominent issues.
Her love and respect for her community is obvious as she applauds their willingness to follow Jesus and do whatever it takes to serve others.
Those who know Sister Deanna said she is right up there at the top of that list.
“She’s amazing,” said Marie Donnelly, who works in senior ministry at Christ Our King Church and has known Sister Deanna for 13 years. “She has such a sense of justice and fairness, and she’s able to apply it to all her ministry.”
Fairness and justice are essential in her role as a counselor to engaged couples or those seeking annulments, or even during Bible study.
Sister Deanna speaks passionately about the Gospels and trying to follow Christ’s example, noting in particular how inclusive and humble He was.
“You have to be able to love unconditionally and that’s very hard because you have to accept people as is,” she said.
That was a quality she saw in the Franciscans who taught her in school, and it pulled her even at an early age.
“I witnessed how happy they were. They were just very joyful, and always willing to help,” she said. “I think I knew from grade school that I was going to join those sisters.”
Although she has spent most of her life in the Diocese of Charleston— opting to come here for the challenge of mission work in the ’60s — she grew up in New Jersey with her brother John and parents Otileo and Yolanda, who emigrated from Italy.
After graduating from Catholic high school, she worked very briefly as a bank teller, but said she knew right away that life wasn’t for her. She wanted to be a Franciscan, but was not enthused about either of the associated career options: nursing or teaching.
“God calls us sometimes to do things we don’t want to do. God doesn’t let go. It can be very irritating at times,” she said, smiling. “So you do, and you enjoy, and your learn from those around you.”
Her sense of humor, along with a lot of prayer, has guided her through the good times and bad, and made her a favorite among friends and coworkers.
Linda Lyons, Cathedral secretary, has worked with “Sister D” all 16 years. The first thing she comments on is the Franciscan’s sense of humor and her ability to comfort those who are hurting.
“Sister Deanna has been one of my favorite people since the moment I met her, from when she first walked in the door,” Lyons said, adding that she will be missed terribly when she leaves.
The Franciscan said her decision took a lot of prayer, but she feels her rheumatoid arthritis is preventing her from giving the 100-plus percent that people deserve. Walking is painful, but one thing she will not give up is visiting the sick and homebound and taking them Communion.
“She’s a very good person,” said Esther Tecklenberg, Cathedral member. “She’s very brave and has a good outlook on life to visit sick people, because it isn’t easy.”
Sister Deanna said there won’t be a lot of fanfare at her farewell, nor for her 50th jubilee. It will be quiet and simple, like her life.
“I’ve had a great time as a Sister of St. Francis,” she said, noting that her vocation opened many doors to meet people and travel, including Rome, England, France and Ireland.
One thing she has never done in her ministry is work with the poor, marginalized or oppressed, she said. But now she’s moving to new adventures and plans to volunteer at Neighborhood House with her dear friend and fellow Franciscan, Sister Noreen Buttimer.
“I think God’s calling me now to go in that direction,” she said.
As Donnelly said, “Our loss, wherever she lands, is going to be someone else’s gain.”
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