Sr. Cecelia approaches 100th birthday with grace and gratitude

By Barb Arland-Fye
Editor

Our interview in a cozy sitting room began with Sister Cecelia Vandeberg, CHM, who will celebrate her 100th birthday June 26, asking me the first question. Could I move directly in front of her? Physically, her eyesight and hearing have faded, so conversations need to be close up. But she maintains a delightful sense of humor, a rock-solid faith and a sense of gratitude that appears to be second nature. I can’t recall a more enjoyable interview.

Contributed
Sister Cecelia Vandeberg, CHM, will celebrate her 100th birthday next month. Posing for a photo with Sr. Cecelia is Father Ross Epping.

So there we sat, practically knee to knee, as I asked questions. Sr. Cecelia, who entered the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in 1936 in Montana, now lives at her religious community’s motherhouse in Davenport. She ministered many years in Montana as an educator and admits to a bit of homesickness. “But the sisters here have been wonderful to me and I feel at home now. I still get lonesome for Montana.”

I asked about her family, her childhood and the roots of her vocation. The memories surfaced easily. Sr. Cecelia grew up in Epping, N.D. “That’s how Father Ross Epping spells his name,” I remarked. “I prayed for him when he was a seminarian just because his name is Epping,” she responded with a smile. Fr. Epping later showed me a picture of Sister and himself that he saved on his smartphone.

Sr. Cecelia grew up on a farm, the youngest of three children of Leona (Benoit) and John Godfrey Vandeberg. She attended public schools in this mostly Lutheran community with “good families.” When the drought came, her family moved to Great Falls, Mont., where she attended St. Mary High School for one year.

That’s where Sr. Cecelia became acquainted with the Sisters of Humility. “I’d never met a sister before in my life,” she said. Sr. Mathias Linehan, CHM, inspired Sr. Cecelia, and invited her to come to the religious community. “I just remember her as very dignified as she walked. She had a devotion to the Sacred Heart.”

Although Sr. Cecelia hadn’t contemplated religious life earlier, her parents’ faith made a deep impression. “My parents used to drive us 13 miles every Sunday to go to church. They were very faithful.” Sister also remembered as a little girl attending a retreat with her family at which a priest cautioned: “The devil goes around the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

Sr. Cecelia made her first Communion at age 5 and was confirmed at age 7 because the bishop came to the area just once every four years. After graduating from high school, she worked for a year before entering the Congregation of the Humility of Mary. “They found out I could play piano, so they sent me to Siena Heights College in Adrian, Mich.” After receiving her music degree, she returned to Great Falls and taught private piano lessons — as many as 60 a week! She also taught music and other subjects at the school. One day, while heading home, she carefully walked around some puddles while two young boys plowed right through. They said to her, “Chicken!” She smiled at the memory. One of those boys sent her a letter, some 75 years after the incident!

Teaching was her passion. While she taught in elementary and high schools, “I just loved teaching the fifth grade. I even wrote a constitution for the fifth-grade class.”

During the time she taught at a Catholic school in Rock Island, Ill., President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on her saint’s feast day. “The sisters had prepared a lovely feast for me, but nobody felt like eating,” Sr. Cecelia recalled. The pastor asked her to get a choir together that night at the church.

In later years, she took care of her mother, distributed Communion at hospitals, played the piano at Masses for the nursing home and visited residents there. She especially enjoyed her ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Great Falls and keeps in touch with the former pastor.

Prayer holds a prominent place in her day. “I make a holy hour every afternoon in the chapel and (pray) a lot of prayers in between.” She attends Legion of Mary meetings at Holy Family Parish in Davenport, brings Communion to Catholics in a nursing home on Fridays and listens to EWTN. Her biggest concern is the “lack of morality in the world.”

Reading books, which she always enjoyed, is now impossible. “That’s a real penance for me.” Her fingers have also grown numb, requiring her to type letters on the computer with the eraser tip of a pencil, one key at a time. “But I keep trying and I pray to the Lord to increase my faith.”

Asked about plans for her 100th birthday, Sr. Cecelia responded, “If I’m still around? No, I don’t have any plans.” She considers each day a gift, and as she walked me to the door after our interview, I realized what a gift God had just blessed me with.

(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org.)

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9 thoughts on “Sr. Cecelia approaches 100th birthday with grace and gratitude

  1. Very interesting. I remember Sr. Cecelia playing the piano for Mass when on a CHM bus trip in 1995 in Great Falls. I want to wish her a Happy Birthday a bit early. Reaching 100 is quite a milestone!

  2. Thank you, Barb, for the great article about Sister Cecelia. I work at the CHM Center and get to see S. Cecelia every day. She is a hard one to keep up with. It is very humbling to see her going about her day with a smile and a great attitude at the age of 99. I can’t imagine losing most of my sight and hearing and still being so cheerful. She has her special staff helpers that she goes to to check to see if her collar is straight and her necklace is hanging correctly before she proceeds to prayers and mass. That always includes a hug, a thank you and her great little chuckle. What a great lady.

  3. What a wonderful article! I hope you can share some of my wonderful memories of her with Sister Cecelia, because she surely changed the course of both my life and that of my twin brother Keith. I first knew her in 3rd grade at St. Mary’s when I started taking violin lessons from her. I was horrible, but she managed to keep trying to teach me until the start of 7th grade, when she gently suggested that I try another instrument…like snare drums!

    Then in high school I was in the chorus and in the smaller group called the Cantores. Sister Cecelia always knew what was going on with me, including the challenges of having an alcoholic mother and a father who committed suicide when I was 16. She made it clear that she cared about me and I always knew she was there for me. I know that without her interest, gentle guidance, and love, I could easily have taken a different path that would have turned out badly.

    As it is, having Sister Cecelia and the other wonderful Sisters of Humility (Sister Mathias, Sister Adrian Marie, to name just a few) on my side and rooting for me, I managed to first become a nurse, then went on to become a doctor. I have 3 wonderful children (none of whom can carry a tune in a basket) and a very good life.

    I am sending a bucket full of love to Sister Cecelia, along with Congratulations on her 100th birthday!

    With great fondness,

    Karen Fahey
    Class of 1962
    Great Falls Central High School, Montana

    1. Karen,
      Thanks for the absolutely beautiful tribute to Sister Cecilia. Seeing your name brought back lots of memories of CCHS. It is inspiring to read about your life – praise be to God, and thanks to Him for having Sister Cecelia be part of our lives.
      Mary Ellen Konecny Hennig (also class of 1962 and a former Cantores member)

  4. Wishing you a Happy Birthday from Montana! Thank you for all the years you played at Our Lady of Lourdes. I was a Parishioner there. Wonderful article, prayers and well wishes from all of us here at Ursuline Centre in Great Falls, Montana!

  5. It was my great fortune to live with Sr. Cecelia in Lewistown, MT, 1966-68, just as radical changes in women’s religious orders — and in Society as well as The Church — were evolving. As Local Superior of the house, Sr. Cecelia was caught between the younger sisters eager for adaptations and the elders who were initially frightened by contemporary dress, mixing in society, participating in decision-making skills. Neither “shy nor retiring” Sr. Cecelia rose to the occasion with honesty, dignity, and sometimes exuberance as we explored new avenues for the Humility Spirit and Goals of “Search and Service.” Humor and joy still characterize her, who can be elated by the antics of a helium-filled balloon, who eschews the elevator for the central stairway, whose Music and Ministries of loving care has immeasurably enriched us.

  6. Such a beautiful tribute to a marvelous person – Sister Cecelia! I was delighted to watch the video where she describes her life and ministry, and noticed that she still has the same sweet, resonant voice she had when I took piano lessons from her at Sacred Heart Convent in Great Falls in the 1950’s as a middle-schooler! Thank God for her fruitful life, and I thank God that she was part of my life.

    Mary Ellen Konecny Hennig
    Parishioner at St. Joseph’s on the West Side in Great Falls
    Graduate of Central Catholic High School in Great Falls 1962
    Member of the Sisters of Humility from 1962-1973

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