Steffie Drucker/For CU-CitizenAccess.org — Sister Maryann Schaefer was dressed modestly in a simple gray habit and fleece vest, hands folded on her lap. Though the short, gray-haired Sister now has a reputation around St. John’s Catholic Newman Center for being especially kind and affectionate toward others, she once used her hands to hurt.
“Boys would call me fatso and I’d let them know how fat my knuckles were, basically,” she chuckled, looking back on her childhood encounters. “Virtually 180 days for three years I was in the principal’s office after school, in trouble because I’d fight.”
In fifth grade, Schaefer’s father placed her in the Catholic school where he worked.
“I don’t think it was more than two weeks into my fifth grade that I had an altercation with a Sister — and she slapped me across the face,” she said. “And then my father did the other side.”
Schaefer said this experience is where she got her vocation. Nobody in Schaefer’s family or the school system sat down with her to ask why she was angry and lashing out.
“That Sister, for me, was the one who represented Jesus in my life,” she said. “Would Jesus ever have slapped me? Would he ever have accused me of doing something?”
Schaefer decided in that moment to become a nun so that she could counsel troubled youths like herself.
Schaefer spent the first two years of high school around Sisters of what would become her order, the Salesian Order.
“I was won over by their kindness,” she said. “By the way they wanted to play with us, by the way they prayed… everything. It was just awesome.”
Schaefer, the oldest of three girls, had to change schools again when her mother became ill and her father needed help caring for her siblings. At her new, all girls, Catholic high school, Schaefer was again “confronted with that Gestapo, police-type of thing with the Sisters.”
During her senior year of high school, Schaefer met a man whom she eventually became engaged to.
“I wanted kids, I wanted to be on a farm and it seemed like the right thing,” she said. “But there was a part of me that wasn’t happy, that wasn’t fulfilled. … I finally decided I had to confront the life I had with the Sisters with the life I was looking at.”
To do so, Schaefer had to give up many of the luxuries she’d grown accustomed to. A self-described tomboy, Schaefer said a previous boyfriend introduced her to hunting. Over time she had acquired a motor home, a motorcycle and guns for hunting deer, pheasant and duck.
“I had to quit my job, sell my motor home and my motorcycle, all my fishing equipment, all my hunting stuff, pay off my bills and go,” she said.
There was one more thing she had to give up: her engagement ring. Usually, at this point in the story, Schaefer said, people clamor to know what her fiancée said upon the ring’s return.
“All he said was, ‘In six years, I couldn’t convince you. If that’s what’s going to make you happy, go,’” Schaefer said.
Following five years of formation— the process by which a woman evaluates whether she could live the life of a Sister— in New Jersey, Schaefer became part of the Salesian Order 31 years ago.
“It’s all trying it out,” she said. “On the other side, the Sisters (are) looking at you saying, ‘Is she a person that is good for us? For the work that has to be done?’”
The Salesian Order’s mission is focused on young people. With her background in mind, Schaefer looked for a congregation “that treated youth with respect.”
In her 31 years, Schaefer has worked with young adults in New Jersey, Florida, Louisiana and now Illinois. In her work she has also traveled the world, bringing young people to the World Youth Day events.
“There’s youth all over the world that love Jesus and don’t mind saying it,” she said. “There aren’t any words to explain it.”
Schaefer also finds herself at somewhat of a loss when thinking of her students at the University.
“They’re a phenomenal group of young people,” she said.
Working elsewhere with younger students, Schaefer said their activities were more limited due to increased parental concerns and paperwork.
“Coming here, I’ve actually had the chance to let that passion run,” she said. “And the young people desire it. They desire to be of service to others.”
Schaefer, 64, works with the Newman Center’s residents in various capacities. She acts as the spiritual adviser for the Center’s Service and Justice Outreach (SJO) committee, assisting with fundraisers for various causes and acting as the “fire behind, … telling them ‘they can do this, they can do that.’”
Schaefer has taken members of SJO to Gifford, Illinois, to help repair the town’s tornado-damaged structures, as well as to Green Street to pass out bags of food and other items to the local homeless.
Another endeavor Schaefer and the SJO students took on about a year ago is the Newman Shares! Food Pantry.
Newman Shares is a unique food pantry in that it exclusively serves University or Parkland College students.
Schaefer said she did much of the initial research and grant writing but that the pantry is staffed and administered by students.
“We wanted it to be just for students so that they could have a safe place to come and get food and not be embarrassed about it,” said Hanna Boorom, a core member of the Newman Shares staff.
Schaefer said the pantry empowers students receiving food by allowing them to fill out a shopping list of what they want, rather than providing them with pre-packaged goods.
She also strives to provide students with nutritious options.
“Ramen noodles: I do not have them on my shelves,” she said.
Schaefer said Joel Sarmiento, another student leader of the pantry, actually conducted a study that proved “If you don’t eat nutritious food, your brain does not function at its highest potential.”
In order to receive food, patrons must present a valid iCard or Parkland College student ID, provide a document showing they are currently enrolled in classes, sign a statement saying their income is below $1,400 per month and record their address.
Jack Doyle, president of Newman Shares, said the pantry places its trust in students to be honest in disclosing this information.
“We definitely could be more strict and say ‘bring all these documents’ but we’ve always kind of tried to preserve the feeling of ‘you’re a student, I’m a student,’” he said. “There’s no hierarchy in terms of the haves and the have nots.”
Schaefer and the student leaders of Newman Shares equally stress that students do not need to be Catholic to receive food from the pantry.
“Hunger doesn’t know faith,” Schaefer said. “I don’t care who you are. If you’re a student here at U of I and you’re living in an apartment or going to grad school, I can just about figure out how you’re scrimping and trying to put things on the table.”
Sarmiento said the Sister tries to eliminate hierarchy in the leadership of the organization as well.
“She always pushes ownership onto the students,” he said. Knowing that she’ll eventually be reassigned elsewhere, Sarmiento said, Schaefer said she wants Newman Shares “to be student-run, for the students.”
Sarmiento said Schaefer has taught him more than just leadership skills.
“I spread myself too thin freshman and sophomore year,” he said. “Working with her, I’ve kind of realized … the importance and good of committing to something.”
Hanna Boorom, another member of SJO and Newman Shares, said she strives to replicate the Sister’s love and connection with people.
“I think most days I’m just so wrapped up in my own life, and I just get mad if people are walking too slow in front of me on the sidewalk … but she just always really tries to connect with people, and she’s genuinely happy when she talks to people and connects with them,” Boorom said. “That’s just really awesome because I definitely struggle with that sometimes.”
Father Jim Pankiewicz, a priest at the Newman Center, also noted the Sister’s knack for connecting with people.
“She certainly sees Christ in just about everyone she encounters, whether they’re the most devout Catholic or have never been inside a church,” he said.
And Schaefer is happy to be recognized as a symbol of her faith everywhere she goes.
“If I was going to be giving up marriage and having physical children, then I wanted somebody to know that as I walked the streets,” she said of wearing a habit. “And to see my joyful face that I was proud of what I was — I am.”