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Archives Atonement Sister Ellen Donahue looks back on 22 years of ministry in the North Country
Standing on the shoulders

Aug. 2, 2017

By Sister Ellen Donahue, S.A.
Retiring Episcopal Delegate for Religious and director of Office of Safe Environment

Nearly 22 years of my life I have ministered in the Diocese of Ogdensburg. I worked in Saco, Maine; Lindsey, California; and Elmira, New York; before coming to my home diocese.

I was asked to come to the diocese in 1968 and worked for the Diocesan Office of Religious Education under Father Stephen Nevin.   Atonement Sisters Marcia LaFave and William James  had preceeded Atonement Sister Theophane and me in building up the Diocesan Religious Education office with Father Branche. 

At the closing of St. Mary’s Academy, Msgr. Joseph Bailey and Msgr. Robert Giroux asked me to leave the Chancery and become the coordinator of the newly formed Central School of Religion of St. Mary’s Cathedral and Notre Dame Church in the city of Ogdensburg with the capable assistance of Mildred LaRock, assistant coordinator and secretaries Judy Wells and Joyce Doe.   Sr Ellen Donahue

I left Ogdensburg in 1975 to complete graduate studies at Catholic University and then returned to Saco, Maine for a second ministry assignment with the Holy Cross Fathers. I was released from Saco to care for my mother in her blindness.

I returned to ministry in 1993 with Father John Yonkovig in St. Peter’s, Plattsburgh and was elected to Major Superior of Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement in 2001.

In 2007 Bishop Robert Cunningham asked me to assume the roles of Episcopal Delegate for Religious and Diocesan Coordinator of Safe Environment in the Diocese of Ogdensburg.   

Delege for Religious
It has been a great privatilege serving the Religious of the Diocese with Bishop Cunningham and Bishop Terry LaValley.  Both bishops have great respect and love for each Religious within whatever Congregation they serve and both have a deep desire to promote the values that Religious Life offers to the people of the Diocese within the parish settings.  Msgr. John Murphy, under whom I worked daily, had the same commitment and love for our Religious women and men.

The Diocesan Council of Consecrated Life contributes greatly to the unification of our varied religious congregations.  The work of this group is overseen by their Presidents. 

Sr Ellen DonahueIt was an honor for Bishop LaValley and me to serve ex-officially with several Presidents:  St. Joseph Sister Constance Sylver, Miriam Najimy, a Daughter of the Heart of Mary; Servite Sister Rita Mary Morrissette, and currently, St. Joseph Sister M. Annunciata Collins.

Annually we were honored to hear the remarkable faith stories of the individual lives of the Sisters as they approached their Jubilee celebrations.  The greatest challenge has been to watch the diminishment of many of our religious as they age and return to their motherhouses.

It is with great joy we welcome a few new members in our established orders and pray for their expansion.
Our bishop and several pastors from our diocese have committed themselves to accept a new community, the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod which has brought new hope and great joy into our diocesan family. We have received word this week that their I-129 USCIS petitions have been APPROVED by the USCIS for three more the Sisters of the Cross to minister in our Diocese.

Ensuring a safe environment
In light of our culture today, the rewarding part of the ministry to the Office of Safe Environment is the commitment of so many parents, teachers, catechists, lay volunteers in ministry, priests and religious to work diligently to keep our children safe wherever they are gathered. 

Our commitment to youth is one of my greatest joys.  It would be easy to walk away or to close down spaces where young people gather but having young people in our midst whether in our Faith Formation programs, school classrooms, summer camps or parish youth ministry is a great sign of our hope and belief in our young. 

It requires risk taking but with so many of our leaders dedicated to keeping them safe, the possibilities are numerous to offer them meaningful experiences of faith sharing events. 

Elaine Seymour, our Diocesan Charter Compliance Coordinator and I are deeply grateful to our faithful facilitators who volunteer many evenings in all seasons to give of their time to train adults how to keep our children safe. 

We are also deeply indebted to our regional background check screeners who cover all our deaneries in the diocese and make sure that no one gets access to our children in the many programs provided across the Diocese.  We are also indebted to the heads of our Diocesan institutions especially St. Joseph Sister Ellen Rose Coughlin and her staff and Kelly Donnelly who vigilantly oversee great numbers of youth.

Raised in faith-filled family
In speaking of childhood, I grew up in a faith filled family.  My nephew, Father Micky Demo captured our home life in words he shared at my mother’s funeral.  “I learned what church was from my grandparents” he said.

“From the moment you arrived at their house, they were out to meet you asking, ‘how long can you can stay’ and closing at the end with ‘when are you coming back?’”

It was a true hospitality home as we were always opening doors to say hello and standing out in the yard, waving goodbyes.

I attended school at Bombay High School and graduated from Salmon River Central.  My greatest joy was the diversity of our school days.  We were privileged to have the native American youth from Akwesasne in the school.  Many of these beautiful people are still my friends and especially Hilda Herne from my high school years.   Sr Ellen Donahue

My parents shared our home with children from NY City through a fresh air program and we became a group of fun loving brown, white and black children who enjoyed summer fun together. 

My mother was an immigrant from Scotland and my father was an Alcoa worker who was born in Gouverneur.    I had four sisters and one brother for siblings and they were a normal, fun loving group.  I missed them terribly my first year that I entered the convent and they supported my vocation.

Our parish was top of the line with the Sisters of the Atonement who loved life and provided us with religious education, summer bible classes, high school home discussion groups and exposure to several congregations in annual retreats from grade one through high school.  I believe our desire to serve God came from the way the pastor and the Sisters treated us and called us to share faith through helping them teach in summer programs and volunteer social services in the parish.

On the shoulders
I would like always to remember that “I am standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before.”
I am proud of my Congregation as I am of all the Congregations that served in our Diocese. 

Our community was an Episcopalian religious community which was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1909 by Monsignor Joseph Conroy who later became the third Bishop of Ogdensburg. 

Sr Ellen DonahueOne hundred years later, Father Terry LaValley who would later become the 14th Bishop of Ogdensburg, Sister Edward Marie Tesiero and I joyfully traveled together to Graymoor for the 100th Anniversary ceremony of the reception of the Graymoor community into the Catholic Church.

It was noted that it took Msgr. Joseph Conroy four days to travel to Graymoor and Father LaValley and the Sisters completed their journey in a few short hours. 

The Sisters of the Atonement came first to Sacred Heart Church, Massena in 1927.  In 1928 the Sisters came to serve St. Andrew’s Church in Norwood and the Church of the Visitation in Norfolk.  In 1930, they established a mission in St. Mary’s in Potsdam and in 1931 they established a foundation at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ogdensburg. 

Look at the shoulders I stand on as 50 Sisters of the Atonement were stationed at St. Mary’s Cathedral from 1931 to 1975. 

The Sisters served 20 parishes from Ticonderoga to Adams.  When you add in the missions attached to these parishes, 43 locations were served by the Sisters of the Atonement in the diocese and the Friars of the Atonement built and administered St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation Center in Saranac Lake.

Today as Sister Edward Marie and I leave the diocese, there is one missionary Atonement Sister, Sister Carol Daul, born in Dannemora who lives and volunteers her time in Morrisonville and the greater Plattsburgh area.  
We are grateful to so many women from this diocese who answered the call of a religious vocation to Graymoor, that we called ourselves at the Chapter of 2001 “the North Country Cousins”.

I have ministered with giants among the clergy.  My giants were Father Stephen Nevin, Msgr. Joseph Bailey, Msgr. Louis Berube, Sr Ellen DonahueMsgr. Robert Giroux, Father Joseph Trombley, Father Donald Manfred, Father John Yonkovig, Msgr. John Murphy, Father Kevin O’Brien, and Father Jay Seymour. Our diocese is blessed with many clergy whose spirit attracts religious orders into ministry.

Finally, I come to my special group that I am deeply grateful for in my life and have saved for a final recognition as I can truly give them the rightful place in building the family of God.

These persons are the “secretaries” at work each day within our diocesan staff and throughout the diocese. How many projects would have fallen through without these people in our lives.  Wherever you see success, look behind the leader and you will find the shoulders that held up the living structure on its way to fulfillment.
I would like to mention the women who have been my personal secretaries in my ministry.

Their names are: Diane Tynon, Judy Wells, Joyce Doe, Atonement Sister Ann Zelia, Sister Edward Marie, Barbara Hatch, Ellen Turongian, Tiffany Childs and, the last one standing, Jean Grizzuto who is steering the transitions in our offices now through the National Audit and is providing assistance to Elaine Seymour and myself as I prepare to enter a rest sabbatical approved by my community. 

Thank God for all the shoulders we stand on within our diocesan family.  May you always know that you are appreciated and loved.

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