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Sunday Evening Prayer Vigil for Sister Thomas Welder by Sister Janet Zander
June 28, 2020
On this North Dakota late June evening, the Church’s 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time with invitation to follow Jesus and extend hospitality to the least, to all, and the eve of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, we are here because we knew Sister Thomas Welder.
Some of us knew her as “our Benedictine sister” at Annunciation Monastery, and were privileged to walk with her to the edge of eternity. Knowing Sister Thomas were the community, Oblates, employees, and, in turn, our families and associates…
Some of us knew Sister Thomas as daughter of Mary Ann (who followed her into community as a Benedictine sister) and Sebastian (who died when she was 11 years old), as sister to George (who preceded her in death) and sister to Judy, as sister-in-law to Marcia and Steve, aunt of Michelle, Ali, Scott, Sara, Tommy, and Joseph, their spouses and children, as her aunt, uncle, cousin and Welder family acquaintance…
Some of us knew Sister Thomas as a consecrated woman of the Church, her association with our bishops, the many priests, sisters—including her Notre Dame aunts, her Franciscan cousin, deacons, and the many Christian sisters and brothers and others she came to know…
Some of us knew Sister Thomas as a University of Mary student, (perhaps as “Sister T”), as a student’s family, alum, as colleague in her service as teacher, in development, as President for 31 years, and subsequently named “president-emerita” by successor, Monsignor James Shea (regarding “president-emerita?”– she would quip, that means ‘old’”)…
Some of us knew Sister Thomas as audience members at her many talks, including for Benedictine higher education, and in her dedication to fostering servant-leadership development, as musician or as her kidney donor or facilitator…
Some of us knew Sister Thomas as a Bismarck-Mandan and North Dakota citizen and perhaps in your own calling as community leader or public servant, as Rough Rider, as collaborator in such groups as the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber, and Development Association, Higher Education Roundtable, United Way, as colleague on committees such as North Dakota’s Vision 2000 back in the 1980’s, or board colleague for CHI St. Alexius Medical Health, MDU Resources, The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, and Light of Christ Catholic Schools…
BUT…all of us knew Sister Thomas as friend - friend who was so present and vitally interested in you, friend who listened with “the ear of her heart” and held, for herself, confidences and sorrows, as did Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and took them to her heart and up in prayer; but who eagerly shared stories told her by others delighting in life, in family, children and grandchildren; friend with a great sense of humor, friend who imparted her insights into current events and easily shared what she’d read as she was as interested in your insights and discoveries, friend who delighted in being a citizen of North Dakota with its fields, prairie, and Badlands and wandering about and discovering new wildflowers, friend in her gladness in the incredible gift of life, friend who went to the fullness of life just into this new season of summer.
When she and I visited briefly about this time and about related scripture passages, she responded “John 14 and 15,”…”there’s a place prepared for you.” It’s Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and as he converses with them using various images, he then says “I chose you. I have called you friends.”
For Sister Thomas, friendship with God and friendship with us had that kind of fullness of life, that fullness that harkens us, with Jesus, back to the Father, the God who is love.
Years ago when our community of Annunciation Priory celebrated the “burning of the mortgage” of the building now called the University of Mary’s Benedictine Center, small stones with our names on them served as dinner place cards. Stones are very much a part of our buildings, stones each uniquely shaped, variously colored (when not painted as they are here), and fitted together as “community” to shelter and to provide places of worship—such as in this chapel in which Sister Thomas played the organ and directed the Sisters’ Choir. She did this last on May 30, Pentecost Sunday. Regarding these stones, as sisters died they were gathered one by one and placed in a bowl in our chapel. The placing of a sister’s stone has now become part of this Evening Prayer before a sister’s funeral. Years ago a Benedictine writer brought together the Genesis accounts of Jacob using a stone for a pillow, wrestling with God, and of setting up a stone to mark the place of meeting God. Sister Mary Collins wrote of our lives, of our very bodies being the “markers,” like the stone of Jacob, as the place of meeting God, the wrestling place with God in our lives, the “living stones” as scripture says (I Peter 2:5). Sister Thomas, a “living stone,” engaged with, wrestled with God in her need for two kidney transplants, encountered God as Benedictine Sister, wise guide, servant leader, and friend. She engaged with God and the Word of God in planning music for each Sunday Mass for over 50 years as choir director and where psalm and hymn texts were the prayer of her voice, her mind, and her heart.
Wrestling with God is what happens when you give your life away in love, with a fullness of presence, in listening with your heart to God’s unconditional love for everyone, and in wrestling with God’s unconditional love for oneself. And then, the final wrestling is to come to accept Jesus’ words, “come to me…I will give you rest.” Sister Thomas, a “living stone” whose very life and body mark, as do ours, the meeting place with God.
As friends of Sister Thomas, each of us has our own and many “Sister Thomas stories.” In these days messages have richly conveyed your regard for and tribute to her, citing such characteristics as her rare depth of humility, stalwart faith, supple and expansive heart, her genuine love and respect for others, witty humor, ready, joyful laugh, profound wisdom, graced presence, gentle nature, heart for service, inclusive forgiveness, and attentiveness…attentiveness that had an energy and fire of blessing.
In that great communion where we are one in the heart of God, we pray for each other--Sister Thomas for us and we for her. Because, that’s who friends are for each other, because that’s what friends do for each other.
For, with Jesus, Sister Thomas called each of us “friend.”
-Sister Janet Zander, June 28, 2020