Her parents drove her to Marywood in 1948. She was 18 years old. She recalls her Dad getting lost at various points on their quest to find “the convent.” “At one point, we drove up to the very humble back door of the property and I thought, uh-oh, this isn’t what I imagined,” says Jean Marie Birkman, OP. Eventually they found the main drive off Fulton. Sr. Jean Marie said at the time she didn’t realize the two drives were part of the same property, “Marywood looked very different back then, part farm.”
Farm was familiar territory. Her entire family had worked hard on their farm at home to keep food on the table. During World War II when the men were gone, she was loaned out to work in neighboring farm fields, doing the backbreaking work of picking pickles and other produce. “Actually, the farm and wooded environment eased her adjustment to religious life,” admits Sr. Jean Marie.
Sister Jean Marie became a teacher, then a principal and superior. She taught and led schools for 50 years. And her ministry didn’t stop at the classroom door. She was always heavily engaged in the parish communities where she lived and taught. She led adult education and visited sick and grieving parishioners.
A lot can change in a very short time frame. Sister Jean Marie knows. She recalls her adjustment to religious life beginning at age 18 being somewhat difficult. “One day I was on the farm, the next I was spending a lot of time indoors, in community, in formation to become a Sister.” Another significant life adjustment came just seven years ago, Sr. Jean Marie woke up and couldn’t see right. The next day, she was completely blind in one eye. On the third day, she was blind in the second eye.
“Once I started to adjust to the idea that I would never see again, I was ready to hear what I needed to regain my independence. The Association for the Blind is so wonderful. They helped with the adjustment, helped me learn to use the white cane and other tools,” says Sr. Jean Marie.
Before she lost her sight, she had returned to Grand Rapids, transitioning from educator to full-time pastoral associate. “I began visiting parishioners in homes and hospitals; people who were sick, lonely or grieving. I led prayer services during wakes. She ministered for 10 years, seven at Holy Name Parish in Wyoming, assisting Father Steve Dudek.
Her parish ministry continues. These days, her ministry calls are all by phone using a special attachment. She works for 2-3 hours daily calling on parishioners. She stays in touch with over 40 people. Some are older, some sick, others grieving. Many are caretakers for other family members which restricts their ability to go to church and social activities.
Adjusting one’s view to new environments and communities may not be easy, yet it’s incredibly powerful considering the gifts that may be unearthed.