By Barb Arland-Fye
Hugs, laughter and stories were dished out in equal serving sizes during the “surprise” retirement party Aug. 25 for Sister Ruth E. Westmoreland, OSF, at Café on Vine in Davenport. Dan Ebener, who chairs the café’s board of directors, joked that Sr. Ruth E. wanted to organize the surprise party herself. So, he had all of us, about 80 people crammed into a café that seats 50, shout “Surprise!” on the count of three. The retiring café coordinator grinned where she stood in the back of the dining area.
Current and former board members, staff, volunteers and other supporters told stories that were spot-on in their portrait of the short, energetic nun with a passion for serving people on the margins. But Sr. Ruth E. has been especially impacted by the staff and volunteers who assisted her these past eight years, they noted.
Waunita Sullivan said that within the first two days of training as Sr. Ruth E.’s successor, “I realized that passion she has for her work and the love she has for the staff, the volunteers and the community.”
Passion for people in need
The tremendous passion and leadership that Sr. Ruth E. brought to the café helps make possible “our ability to serve so many people,” Dan said. “The celebration is really about us saying thank you in all the ways she has helped Café on Vine operate and carry out our mission to end hunger.”
Dan referred to the parable of the talents in Matthew’s Gospel in which the Master commends the faithful servant who made good use of his five talents. Dan turned to Sr. Ruth E. and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Sister Bea Snyder, CHM, who preceded Sr. Ruth E. as the café coordinator and made a place for her on staff, remarked, “She has more energy than the Energizer Bunny!”
Jim Tiedje, the café’s former board chair, recalled a presentation that Sr. Ruth E. gave at a United Way rally for John Deere Harvester employees in East Moline, Ill. “This loving, ornery little woman … told about herself and how she relates to the people who come here.”
Among the daily diners are people struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness and/or poverty. Sr. Ruth E. has walked in their shoes. “I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict (prescription pills) about 27 years in recovery,” she told me in an interview after the party. “I go to AA, that’s where I came to know the 12 steps (of Alcoholics Anonymous). I’ve stayed clean and sober, but I have to work at it.”
She entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Clinton on her 20th birthday, 53 years ago and worked as a teacher and then in college administration before embarking on a fundraising career for troubled children. She felt called to raise money for troubled children because of her own troubled childhood. But she didn’t think she could work with them directly because she feared she might feel sorry for them.
While helping take care of two young great-nephews when their mother was dying of cancer, Sr. Ruth E. discovered she could work with children. That led to the next leg of her journey — caring for children in a homeless shelter.
“I’d rock the babies,” she reminisced. And she worked with homeless adults, helping them to get into a recovery program. “That’s how I got involved in working with the homeless.” Desiring to be closer to her religious community in Clinton, she sought to work at Café on Vine. There she engaged in another way to work with people on the margins of society.
“I don’t even know how to cook,” she confessed at her retirement party. “I took leftovers home for eight years,” she added, laughing. It seems appropriate that one of her retirement gifts was a crisp white apron signed by her supporters!
“It takes a lot of work to put out a meal every day,” Sr. Ruth E. told the packed house at Café on Vine. It’s the staff, volunteers and community that bring God’s work to fruition. “In the earlier years we had five volunteers, now we have 30-40 regular weekly volunteers and on the weekends we are blessed with at least two dozen church-affiliated groups supporting our mission.”
Always forthright, she acknowledged some “troubling times” at the café when a guest, on occasion, acted out. “But I can count on my fingers how many disturbances we’ve had, and we’ve served over 400,000 meals.” Her comment prompted applause, as did her observation that “Everybody deserves to be able to eat. Everybody deserves to be able to eat with dignity.”
She holds dear a quote from soon-to-be St. Teresa about recognizing Christ even in the distressing disguise of the poor. “I don’t forget that,” Sr. Ruth E. said.
What the future holds
Her plans for retirement are exhausting: volunteering at Café on Vine, doing mission work in the U.S. and Haiti, assisting her religious community, and creating a peace-making program “to address violence in our lives.” The peace program, which would use the 12-step AA program as a framework, honors the Clinton Franciscans’ mission of active nonviolence and peacemaking.
Her inspiration for volunteering, though, comes from her interaction with volunteers at Café on Vine, and the unique ways in which they did so. “I think that’s the thing I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.)