By Barb Arland-Fye
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)