By Barb Arland-Fye
Seated at folding tables in the cramped dining room, the dinner guests, some of them wearing thick, well-worn jackets, bowed in prayer for the noon meal led by Sister Ludmilla Benda, RSM. That image remains from one of my visits to Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope in Davenport. Sister Ludmilla and her volunteers served hearty meals with warm hearts as they responded to the call of the Gospel.
One of those loyal volunteers, a friend, emailed last week with the sad news that Sister Ludmilla, a Sister of Mercy for 73 years, had died at age 93. Her motto was, “My Jesus, I love you,” and she meant it. Sister Ludmilla didn’t preach the Gospel; she lived it day by day. Her life revolved around organizing, grocery shopping, preparing and serving meals to people who were hungry and in need of a shower and a washing machine.
I don’t remember when we met, perhaps at Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire when she served with Father James Conroy, the pastor at the time. She asked me, a newlywed and parish newcomer, to volunteer as an assistant catechist. Sister Ludmilla convinced so many of us to say “yes” to her requests to serve others. She never asked anyone to do anything she was not willing to do.
Later, when she and Father Conroy served St. Anthony Parish in Davenport, they began McAnthony Window, a walk-up, outdoor meal site at the church where people in need could get something to eat. Sister Ludmilla’s organizational skills helped Father Conroy’s dreams become reality.
After Father Conroy died in 2005, he left money in his estate that provided an opportunity to continue feeding people in need. Sister Ludmilla set up an outdoor meal site across the street from the Scott County Courthouse in downtown Davenport. One Sunday, I observed a guest having a difficult time and lashing out verbally.
Serving others in desperate need can be challenging. Sister took these challenges in stride because she knew her guests; they became like family, warts and all.
Eventually, Sister Ludmilla moved the meal site, which served lunch on Sundays and holidays, into a small apartment house that businessman Tom Roederer provided for sister’s use. Later, she offered breakfast, and on a more limited basis, laundry and showers to her guests.
Another one of my favorite Sister Ludmilla stories involved a blessing of a Marian grotto at Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope, in 2012. Longtime volunteer George Meister built the five-foot-tall grotto. Father Joe Wolf, a longtime friend of Sister Ludmilla, led the blessing service. Sister Ludmilla knew that some people she served at Father Conroy’s Vineyard of Hope were unfamiliar with the Blessed Mother, but “I thought if they have respect for Jesus, then they’d know that he had to have a mother,” Sister told me.
She was a take-charge person. At age 86, she temporarily closed the Vineyard while undergoing physical and occupational therapy following a car-pedestrian accident not long after the blessing of the grotto.
The recuperation and rehabilitation nearly drove the octogenarian crazy, but she expressed gratitude at being able to resume ministry to the poorest of the poor. Sister admitted to me at the time, “The main thing is that I get tired, but I’m very fortunate.”
The Vineyard closed its doors Sept. 15, 2019, ending a 14-year ministry that Sister Ludmilla started in memory of Father Conroy and that served 100 to 150 people each week. Health challenges required her return to Chicago to be with members of her religious community.
Former Messenger Editor Frank Wessling once described Sister Ludmilla as a church leader who “calls people into works of charity and justice … The deeper call she makes to people is an echo of the Gospel calling us to see and be with the poor among us.”
Sister Ludmilla proclaimed the Gospel to all of us who walked with her on this earth.
(Contact Barb Arland-Fye at email@example.com)
Read Sr. Benda’s obituary HERE.