Nun celebrates 70th anniversary with Sisters of Mercy
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Ninety-year-old Sister Ludmilla Benda, RSM, stirs sausage gravy on the stove for the breakfast biscuits being served to diners at Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope. It is a chilly Sunday in April, a week before she celebrates her 70th anniversary as a Sister of Mercy on her 91st birthday.
Volunteer Mary Bakeris-Gullion serves the breakfast to hungry diners inside the small apartment house that serves as a meal site, laundry and shower facility for people who don’t have regular access to these basic necessities.
Mary pops her head into the kitchen and says, “I’ve got two more (diners).” Sister moves from the stove to the kitchen counter to slice biscuits, warm them in the microwave oven and cover them with the sausage gravy.
“I’m here before 7; breakfast starts about 7:30,” Sr. Ludmilla tells The Catholic Messenger. She’s anticipating 30-plus diners for breakfast, which ends at 9:30 a.m.
Then it’s time to prepare for lunch, which today features Sloppy Joes, chicken gumbo soup, vegetable casserole and ice cream sundaes. Sister shops for and prepares the food ahead of time, enough to serve 120 to 150 people.
Helpers are plentiful, and assist with serving meals. “She has an army of volunteers,” says Mary, a longtime breakfast helper on Sundays. She and her husband belong to St. Anthony Parish in Davenport, where Sr. Ludmilla served with the late Father James Conroy, the meal site’s namesake.
Years before that, Mary’s mom worked with Sr. Ludmilla at Mercy Hospital in Davenport. Sister served as a nurse and then as Mercy’s administrator. Even then, she was a servant leader. Sr. Ludmilla recalls once helping to assemble a bed during an overflow of patients.
“Sister, the breakfast was great!” a diner named Lonnie tells her. To the reporter, he adds, “She’s a very good lady. She helps people out when they need it.” Sister also lets people know when they’re doing “something they shouldn’t,” Lonnie notes.
Sr. Ludmilla began the meal site in downtown Davenport in July 2005 with money left to her by Fr. Conroy, who died in February 2005. For years they worked as a team in parish ministry and in serving the hungry and homeless.
The meal site, which serves lunch on Sundays and holidays, eventually moved into the small apartment house that businessman Tom Roederer provided for sister’s use. Several years ago, she began serving breakfast to people who showed up at the door hours before lunch. The meal site closes when Sr. Ludmilla is away, as happened April 30 when she traveled to Chicago for the jubilee celebration with her Sisters of Mercy.
“I am so proud of her and so in awe of all she does week after week and every weekend and for so many years,” said Sister June Anselme, RSM, of Chicago. “I am truly proud to call her my sister in mercy because truly she does the work of mercy day after day, and serves those most in need of mercy.”
Sr. Ludmilla admits to a few more aches and pains in her 90s, some of them the result of a serious accident in which she was struck by a car. She’ll continue her ministry as long as she can, but is looking for someone to succeed her. She jokes: “What will I do if I quit? I’d drive everyone crazy!”
As breakfast winds down, a diner named Pete sweeps the lot outside Father Conroy’s, which he sets up for the overflow lunch crowd. He’d never turn down a call for help from her. “She helps us.”
Sister Ludmilla Benda, RSM, is looking for someone to take over her ministry at Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope. People interested in helping out with this ministry, may contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (402) 881-4916.