March 2007: SISTER ROSE DUCHESNE NOELKE
As a child, teenager, and young adult, Leona Noelke had hopes of being a wife and mother. She told herself that if God ever wanted her in the convent, He was going to have to pick her up and get her there! Well, this Divine-mode-of-transportation actually took place but not before quite a journey.
The story begins in Washington, MO
Henry and Rose Barbara Noelke lived in Washington, MO with their family: seven boys and two girls. Leona was their sixth child who recalled helping her mother with household duties and also caring for her younger sister and brothers. They lived two blocks from St. Francis Borgia Church and school - a short walk to daily Mass, grade school, and high school.
The Hospital Sisters in Missouri
Meanwhile, the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis had brought their healthcare ministry to Washington, MO at St. Francis Hospital. While the Sisters cared for the sick, Leona was successful in avoiding the hospital and also the Sisters because, without question, she had no interest in being a nun but someone else did.
One of Leona’s grade and high school classmates felt a calling to religious life. So during their senior year, Leona said goodbye to her friend who replied that she would pray for her. This was not what Leona wanted to hear for she feared that her friend would pray her into the convent. So Leona decided to pray that God would not take her into the convent and was convinced that her prayers would be just as effective. Her classmate entered the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis Community and became Sister Marie Neier.
A career and some thoughts of marriage
After high school, Leona worked as an accountant in the local shoe factory and when her mother died, she quit her job and cared for the home and family. Throughout these young-adult life years, she dated and eventually found someone who happened to be their new parish organist and choir director. They dated for eight years (even after he moved to Maine) after which time he proposed. “I was not ready to move away but felt like he was the one. All the arrangements were made with our pastor but something was just not right,” she recalled.
She had always attended daily Mass and appreciated receiving Holy Communion. Her pastor knew of her devotion and one day after Mass talked with her about the upcoming wedding listing in the bulletin. He asked if she was ready to get married and with that, Leona listened to her heart and cancelled the wedding just four weeks before it was scheduled.
God, what do I do now?
About this time, Leona read an article in the St. Anthony Messenger about a girl with exactly the same struggles while her friend, Sister Marie sent notes with the assurance of prayers. Sister Marie told Leona to pray for a sign from God and so she prayed but always with a specific sign in mind. For example, if she was playing darts, she would pray that if the dart landed on a black #11, then she would be convinced to enter the convent. As predicted, this sign did not appear.
God sends a messenger
Leona and her friend Agnes were debating on their thoughts of entering the convent. So the plan was set: Agnes was going to Mass and would pray about their future. In doing so, she heard God’s voice and when she shared the news with Leona, there was a sense of relief as both planned to join the Franciscan Sisters in Springfield. However, after all the plans were made, Agnes quickly changed her mind.
Facing realities from God
So with the magazine story, her pastor’s support, her father’s encouragement who said it was always her mother’s wish that her daughter become a nun, the prayers of Sister Marie, and the situation with Agnes, Leona felt assured that the Lord was guiding her and entered the Community on September 23, 1949 at the age of 29. Soon after she became Sister Rose Duchesne Noelke.
Sister Rose graduated from St. John’s School of Nursing and later earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Marquette University. Over the years, she has served as the Novitiate Office secretary at St. Francis Convent, along with responsibilities in nursing and pastoral care at St. Mary’s Hospital (Decatur) and St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center (Green Bay). In addition, she served at House of Prayer, Henry, IL, in providing hospitality and prayer at this Retreat house.
Sharing her Franciscan spirit
“Sister Rose Duchesne hired me at St. Mary’s Hospital, Decatur, when I was a young RN,” said Laura Brown, HSHS Education Director. “I remember thinking during the interview that I really wanted to work at St. Mary’s primarily because of her calm and caring demeanor. She was truly interested in me and I soon learned that her leadership style was definitely that of a servant leader. She sold me on St. Mary’s and I stayed for 27 years,” Laura added.
“I have had many beautiful moments in Decatur, Green Bay, and Henry but one stands out,” Sister Rose explained. When I was bringing communion to an ICU patient, another patient asked if she could also receive although she was not Catholic. I asked if she truly believed that this bread was really Jesus and she said ‘yes.’ I gave her Holy Communion and we prayed together. Later that night she died and I was at peace in knowing that she was now with God,” Sister Rose said.
“For more than 50 years as a Franciscan Sister, I have no regrets,” Sister Rose said. “It has been quite a journey to get here,” she said with a smile, “and I encourage all who read this story to have faith about the future – especially if anyone is considering religious life. Try it…you’ll like it,” she concluded.