Reflection on the Life of Sister Michelle Rheinlander, OSB


Jubilarians gather for a photo in 2012. Back row, l-r: Sisters Sandra Brunenn, Margaret Suerth, Martina Brinkschroeder; front row, l-r: Jozefa Seskar, Michelle Rheinlander.

By Sister Sandra Brunenn, OSB

“Come, you whom my Father has blessed, says the Lord; Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”

Truly, Sister Michelle has been blessed by God … and in turn she has been a blessing to each of us and the countless numbers of people she has served.

The first blessing Sister received was that of being nurtured in a loving family.  Rachel, the youngest of 5 children, was born in 1922 to Arthur and Dorothy Rheinlander in St. Louis, Missouri. She attended St. Mary’s Academy in Nauvoo during her high school years.  Sister Michelle has kept the letter her mother wrote to her just before her entrance into community, so I can share it with you now.

My dear:  
My heart is too full to write a lengthy epistle.  My mind is crowded with such sweet and happy memories of a very dear little daughter.  I want to convey to you the message of my extreme happiness on the occasion of your entering God’s service.  I have never given anything so precious to me, so gladly.  And, my prayer of gratitude each day will be, “Thank you dear God for permitting me to keep her for ever so brief a time, take her in the sweetness and innocence of her youth, and keep her ever close to your Sacred Heart.”
May God bless you always, and grant you the grace of perseverance will always be the fervent and sincere prayer of,
Devotedly yours, Mother.

This letter I believe speaks volumes about the quality of the home which nurtured Sister in her early years.

In her personal notes Sister writes that within the first couple of weeks after she entered, the whole community moved from the original convent (Mary Hall) to the boys’ school (Benet Hall) a block away. She writes, ‘Mildred and I carried lots of ‘stuff’ because the novices had to put on a black veil—over white—just to walk the block away to the new house.’

Indeed, Sister was blessed with many gifts and she had many opportunities to share those gifts in varied ways.

She was first of all an educator, serving as a teacher and principal for her first 20 years of ministry. And she also served as Diocesan Associate Superintendent of  Schools.

Appreciation for her service in this area is summarized in a letter of reference written by Father Eugene Finnell in 1973: “I am extremely honest when I tell you that she receives the highest recommendation I have ever given. She is extremely capable, tremendous to work with, accepts responsibility, and shows great initiative in every area.  Her ability to work with others in a tough field is one of her greatest assets.”

Sister was also a missionary, serving in Mexico for 2 years at children’s home, Casa Kinder. Though she was living at a distance, Sister stayed in close contact with us; she was a terrific communicator who helped us experience mission life along with her.

An early letter presents this vivid image:

“The boys are precious and have already learned to come marching to the clinic with their cuts and bruises. They have only ragged clothes to wear and their fat little tummies are probably full of worms, but they know that when they reach out to be loved they’ll be picked up and held. Even a picture can’t tell you these things. One must see how they concentrate on their bread or how a cookie is a treat beyond words.”

Sister may have been most proud that she was a Nurse! And for over 20 years her ministry focused on public health nursing with the Navajo Tribes and various Native Americans in New Mexico. During those years she stayed connected through frequent notes to the sisters and periodic visits to Nauvoo. And several of us can share wonderful experiences of our visits to her. She was an extraordinary hostess AND tour guide!

A letter received from the Assistant Surgeon General of the Department of Health & Human Services at the time of her retirement provides testimonial to the depth of gratitude people had for her work there: “The years of Government service which you have completed represent a truly remarkable achievement and, because this service was of such high quality, I believe that your achievement is even more meaningful and deserving of special recognition.”

Sister returned to Illinois in 1994 and began her next career as Pastoral Associate at St. Mary’s Parish in Moline. She served there for 11 years directing the RCIA process and pastoral care, and also writing a weekly Scripture reflection for the Sunday bulletin.

In time this article was also taken up in the Catholic Post. I shared several of these years with Sister at St. Mary’s and I remember chats over our morning coffee about those reflections.

We all have precious memories of Sister these past 9 years at the monastery. In some ways she never stopped being an educator, missionary, communicator, and nurse. And as her own abilities lessened she seemed to meet new challenges with the same acceptance and grace she had demonstrated all her life.

Again, I share a note—one she wrote that captures this attitude. It is dated October 30, 2007 and addressed to Sister Phyllis:  “As you are probably aware, I have been ‘independent’ in many ways including transportation and could drive any car to any place. However, time has marched on and left a few wrinkles and a certain insecurity as far as driving is concerned. Soooo …. since ‘prudence is the better part of valor,’ I think it is prudent for me to discontinue driving at this time.”

Through all her life I believe we can see Sister Michelle exercising the good zeal of monks that Benedict describes. We are grateful that her mother’s prayer has been answered: God blessed her and granted her the grace of perseverance! Let us rejoice with Sister as the Lord surely says to her now: “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”

We give thanks for all the ways she has been a blessing to us and the people she has served.

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