In 1955, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s, the Vietnam War began, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. And two friends — Loretta Leucke and Joan Oberle — professed their first vows as Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in St. Louis, Missouri.
This month, Sisters Leucke, 80, and Oberle, 79, celebrate 60 years of religious life — the last 25 spent in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. On Aug. 10, Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz will celebrate a special Mass at Holy Cross Church in Anchorage to mark their six-decade milestone.
Since 1955 the sisters’ world, their congregation’s work and their religious habits have changed. But according to Sisters Leucke and Oberle, their religious vocations haven’t. In Holy Cross’s quiet library in July, they spoke to the Catholic Anchor about their lives as religious sisters — paths they began as teens. “God gets you where you need to be,” Sister Oberle observed.
TEACHERS AT HEART
As grade-schoolers, Sisters Leucke and Oberle became interested in religious life, specifically, as Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Missouri. The congregation was founded in Steinerberg, Switzerland in 1845, as a contemplative community. When the Swiss government prohibited all strictly contemplative orders, the congregation’s sisters began working in a parish school. The congregation later moved into the United State.
The focus on teaching appealed to Sister Leucke. As a child, “I played school all the time,” she recalled. But the sisters’ habit was perhaps the biggest draw.
“The habit was important to me,” Sister Leucke recalled. “I really liked the way they looked and how they taught.”
The first sisters who came to teach at her school so impressed her that in fifth grade, Sister Leucke had made up her mind.
It was first grade for Sister Oberle. She credits a teacher — Sister Annette — who didn’t countenance snitching. Plus, “I wanted to have a long dress and a (black and white) polka dot apron” — Sister Annette’s charming habit for the classroom. As a little girl, Sister Oberle also learned to love the sisters’ prayer life. Each day, they prayed the Divine Office — the official prayer of the Catholic Church.
“I couldn’t imagine living without it,” said Sister Oberle, looking back.
In 1952, as 12th graders at St. Elizabeth Academy in St. Louis, the two entered the congregation. They finished their schooling at the congregation’s mother house in O’Fallon.
“I never worried about leaving, just about getting sent home,” Sister Oberle recounted with a smile.
They began teaching children — kindergarteners through eighth-graders — at Catholic schools across Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota and Colorado. Sister Leucke’s specialty was language arts; Sister Oberle’s was math. Across time, Sisters Leucke and Oberle were administrators. For a few years, Sister Oberle was principal in a school where Sister Leucke taught. And Sister Oberle helped oversee all the teaching sisters throughout their religious community.
“I was very glad to get back into teaching,” she noted.
In 1990, there was an opening for a sister in Alaska (the congregation previously had a contingent here in the 1980s).
“Neither one of us wanted to be up here by ourselves,” Sister Leucke noted.
With the help of Father Ernest Muellerleile, who had known the sisters since the novitiate, and Father Stan Allie, then at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in South Anchorage, both sisters came to Anchorage.
“Father Stan always said we came as a package,” Sister Leucke recalled as she and her high school friend Sister Oberle laughed.
Meanwhile, the congregation was changing; its sisters started working in areas outside parochial schools. From 1990 to 2002 — including the three years before Holy Cross Church in Anchorage had its own building and still met at a storefront on Dowling Road — Sister Oberle was pastoral associate. Sister Leucke served as faith formation coordinator and director of parish life at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. In 2002, she moved to Holy Cross. Sister Oberle became a case manager in the archdiocesan tribunal office, which mostly considers applications for marriage annulments.
Both sisters look back most fondly on their time as teachers.
“My teaching years would be number one,” Sister Leucke maintained.
Sister Oberle concurred: “I really enjoyed being in the classroom.”
Although their work has changed through the decades, the sisters still have hearts for nurturing. Administrative meetings at Holy Cross are more like mini-retreats. Sister Leucke asks church staff members to spend in-between weeks reflecting on a virtue or quality — like patience — and also to look for people who act in a Christ-like manner. Her point is to “strengthen how we can be.” And with motherly care, Sister Oberle spoke of annulment-bound couples at the tribunal: “You need to help them through the struggles they’re going through … you spend a lot of time listening.”
Sisters Leucke and Oberle have witnessed some trying times in the church at large — especially the years following the Second Vatican Council. The ecumenical council, held from 1962 to 1965, was called by now Saint Pope John XXIII, to help the church more effectively communicate the Gospel to the modern world — a world increasingly besieged by secularism and moral relativism.
The council produced documents ranging from how to engage those of different faiths to how Catholics should participate at Mass.
But most learned about the council from poorly informed media reports, which gave rise to some drastic changes made in the “spirit of Vatican II.” As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained in 2013, “[T]here was a Council of the fathers — the true Council — but there was also the Council of the media… this was the dominant, more efficient one and has created so much calamity, so many problems, really so much misery — seminaries closed; convents closed; liturgy trivialized.”
“It was great to have the ‘windows’ opened and feel a little different about the church — I really liked that,” Sister Leucke observed, “but I thought that in some areas we moved kind of fast, and people misinterpreted.”
She added, “I think we’ve lost something.”
For instance, in children’s religion books. Sister Oberle noted how they changed — omitting basic principles of the faith. So she and Sister Leucke decided that one day a week, they would teach those missing main points.
“There are some basic things that you need to know,” Sister Oberle said.
Sister Leucke added: “Today, I still know all that stuff because I learned it in school. But you ask the modern child today, they don’t.” Ever the teacher, Sister Leucke noted: “That’s how I was brought up, what I taught all my life. I wanted the children to know what their religion was.”
Sisters Leucke and Oberle saw their religious congregation change, too. Habits disappeared (though Sisters Leucke and Oberle still wear their veils on Sundays), vocations to the congregation slowed, and their mission morphed. “Now we have sisters doing jobs outside of teaching…earning money for the community,” Sister Leucke explained.
But the Precious Blood congregation in O’Fallon is finding ways to maintain its existence and identity — by partnering with the local government, a nearby parish and lay supporters.
“We’ve always been blessed,” Sister Oberle said, “We’ve never had empty buildings. We’ve always had something that the Lord has sent our way and he’s doing that now.”
The sisters still own their mother house property, but sold its college and novitiate there to the City of O’Fallon — for a city hall and police station. The city now also owns the sisters’ water tower, but the sisters will have free water and no tower maintenance ever after. In another joint city-sisters project, there’s now a retirement center — Villa Theresa — on campus where about 60 low-income seniors live among the sisters. The Catholic parish across the street joined the sisters to install on campus a garden for the poor.
Although the congregation doesn’t look or do things as it did in the 1950s, according to Sister Oberle, “We still hold together as a community.”
“I think that the diversified callings that we have are a wonderful thing,” Sister Leucke said. If women are interested in joining the religious life, “they have opportunities to do what they want to do.”
Sister Oberle noted that religious communities have their own, distinct “charism” — for the Precious Blood sisters, it is “reconciliation.” With that in mind, she urged young people to “search and discern what they feel their gift is…they have to take a look at where they fit.”
Amid all the changes they’ve witnessed across the years, Sisters Leucke and Oberle see their religious vocations as constant blessings. As Sister Oberle observed: “I’ve never regretted it.”
In honor of the 60th anniversary since Sisters Joan Oberle and Loretta Leucke entered religious life, Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz will celebrate a Mass followed by a potluck on Aug. 10 at 6 p.m. at Holy Cross Church in Anchorage. The public is welcome to attend.