Mercy Sister Jeanne Marie Kienast retires after 60 years of faithful service
Founding principal of St. Gabriel School, first diocesan DRE, St. Matthew pastoral associate
CHARLOTTE — Teacher of the faith. Advocate for the poor. Compassionate listener.
These are just a few phrases that describe Mercy Sister Jeanne Marie Kienast, who at 85 retired last month after more than 60 years of service. She left St. Matthew Church, where she's been an integral part of the faith community for more than 20 years, and returned to Sacred Heart Convent in Belmont where her journey began.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the daughter of a U.S. Marine, Sister Jeanne Marie spent the first part of her life moving from one place to another. She first considered entering religious life while a student at Sacred Heart Boarding School. "The thing that struck me about the sisters was a closeness among them ... they had a joyful spirit and would spend time together and laugh," Sister Jeanne Marie said with a smile. "I had no thought about being a nun at that time ... but the Lord just kept knocking."
Sister Jeanne Marie answered the call and joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1945 and made her final vows in 1951. With a degree in education, she was first assigned as a teacher at a newly formed school run the by the order in Guam. This would be the first teaching post of many that included positions as principal of Sacred Heart Grade School, the founding principal of St. Gabriel School and Dean of Students at Sacred Heart College.
When the newly formed Diocese of Charlotte was looking for a director of religious education in the early 1970s, Sister Jeanne Marie was a natural choice. She became the diocese's first DRE and developed its original training programs for both faith formation coordinators and catechists at parishes throughout western North Carolina. She even created training videos which, she recalls, was progressive in those days.
When talk of building a new parish in south Charlotte began, the Holy Spirit led Sister Jeanne Marie to be a part of it.
"It was time for some new blood at the diocese, and I wanted to be available to listen to and be a presence for people ... to help them to pray and draw closer to God," she says. That desire manifested in her position as the first pastoral associate at St. Matthew, a role she has had for more than two decades.
Under Sister Jeanne Marie's leadership, pastoral care at the parish – which is the largest in the diocese and thought to be the largest in the U.S. at more than 8,000 families – has expanded to include bereavement and counseling services, support groups, outreach to the homebound, nursing homes and the sick, as well as Family Assist – a program she helped develop that provides support services for parishioners in need. She's also been active in various other ministries, including the Women's Guild, Seniors That Are Retired and Ministry of Mothers Sharing, and has led many adult Bible studies over the years.
"We can't take for granted what we have here in Charlotte. It did not come simply," said Monsignor John McSweeney, pastor of St. Matthew Church. "It is because of the fine work of Sister Jeanne Marie and others like her that we now have the opportunity to continue building the Body of Christ."
To her credit most recently is the successful Supportive Housing Innovative Partnership (SHIP), a collaborative effort of St. Matthew and St. Gabriel churches, The Salvation Army and the Charlotte Housing Authority. The program has moved some 70 women and 130 children from homelessness into independent living.
Sister Jeanne Marie recalls, "The (Charlotte) Observer had been running stories on homelessness. Sister Therese (Galligan) and I were reading them and said, 'Let's do something'." With the support of their pastors, the two sisters spearheaded a community effort to create the program that provides fully-furnished apartments and support services to help homeless women and children move out of shelters and into their own homes and lives of self-sufficiency.
"We didn't want to just provide a shelter ... It's not about doing for people but helping them reach a place where they can do for themselves," she says. "It's God's work."
As she returns to the motherhouse this summer, Sister Jeanne Marie says she sees retirement as "a new beginning." She plans to continue to serve where needed and looks forward to having time to write about a subject near to her heart: "I'm a storyteller, and I plan to write the story behind the story about our special sisters."
— Jenny Cox, correspondent
Mercy Sister Jeanne Marie Kienast: What I've learned on my faith journey
"God wants to be close to us. He wants us to allow Him to be close to us. He's present to us constantly, but we lose our awareness of Him. He walks with us daily and is always there. He cares so much, and we just need to turn our minds to Him."
"It amazes me how many people are looking for God ... and they may not even know they are looking for Him. They feel this emptiness, and they yearn to have that closeness to God; as He longs to be close to us. All we need to do is be willing."
"More and more our media and entertainment leads us into negativity ... just turn on the evening news. It makes us negative people. We become more and more critical of each other. We're supposed to be Gospel people, and we have another take on life." How do we guard ourselves against negativity? "We choose to."
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