Imagine it. Lions roaring, baboons thumping their chests, elephants trumpeting, hippos bellowing in basso profundo — and there, far away from all the cacophony is a quiet, sheltered spot in Africa where a former Fort Wayne resident, a missionary nun, will begin another year of teaching on her third trip to Africa.
Sister Marie Therese Nowakowski, a member of the Catholic Church’s School Sisters of Notre Dame religious order, who recently observed her diamond jubilee (60 years) in the order, also just celebrated her 80th birthday in August with longtime friends and parishioners in Fort Wayne.
“When I turned 79 in 2014, I decided that since I was entering my 80th year I would celebrate all year!” said Nowakowski, who served as pastoral associate at St. Therese Catholic Church in Fort Wayne from 1997 to 2005.“I told my friend Chris Hawkins, and she has sent me a birthday card for the 20th of every month all year. ... Happy birthday … 79 plus one; happy birthday … 79 plus two, etc.”
Born in Milwaukee, Nowakowski joined the convent in 1953 after high school and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education at Mount Mary University and a master’s of education degree in guidance and counseling, and a master’s of religious education from Saint Meinrad School of Theology.
She became a nun because she was taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame and was loved by them.
“I experienced their love and joy and wanted to be like them,” said Nowakowski, adding that when she entered the religious life her father didn’t think she’d stick with it and “gave me three months.”
Fast-forward to today, where Nowakowski not only has stayed the course with two mission trips under her belt but also is going for a third in October. She was in Ghana for 10 years before she came to St. Therese Catholic Church in Fort Wayne. After that, she went to Nigeria for four years, where she taught in the formation house for Nigerian postulants. Now she is preparing to leave for a two-year adventure to Kenya.
“Marie Therese is going there to help young African women who are interested in becoming religious sisters of her order to acclimate to the life in community with women from various African countries, different languages, different cultures,” said Cheryl Mowan, president of the Fort Wayne District Council of St. Vincent de Paul Society and former minister of services at St. Therese.
“These young women will be educated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame and eventually serve as teachers, nurses and maybe even doctors,” Mowan said.
One of Nowakowski’s main responsibilities here, in addition to visiting shut-ins, was to establish small faith community groups within St. Therese parish, said Chris Hawkins, a retired Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend employee.
“This was a huge task and took almost a year of research, recruiting and organizing before the groups were ready to go,” Hawkins recalled.
“Marie Therese prepared prayer sessions and led educational sessions about the patron saint of our parish, St. Therese, and later organized a parish mission by bringing in a guest priest for four days of prayer and renewal. She also organized a parish nursing program and visited homebound and hospitalized patients.”
Nowakowski has been coming back for a visit each summer for a “love fill-up” with her friends and fans at St. Therese, Mowan said.
“Marie Therese is one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever met,” Mowan said.
“Quiet and unassuming, she just steps up and does what needs to be done to help people,” Mowan said. “She literally shines with God’s love and shares it with everyone she meets. I hope God continues to bless her as she returns to Africa for two more years.”
In the short time she was here, Nowakowski, who keeps in touch with her friends and family by postal mail and email, has made a lasting impression on her congregants.
Jeff Hey was deeply influenced by Nowakowski soon after he became Catholic.
“Sr. Marie Therese asked my wife and me to help her start ‘Disciples in Mission’ at the parish,” Hey wrote in his email. “When the program began, she asked me to lead a small group each week and I agreed. The group Sister picked for me (a 40-something, newly-Catholic guy), were all senior-aged ‘cradle-Catholics’ and mostly women! When they discovered their leader had been Catholic for less than a year, we all had a big laugh and decided to let the Holy Spirit guide us.
“I made several wonderful, dear friends and learned a lot about our faith because Sr. Marie Therese brought us together,” Hey wrote.
Nowakowski also inspired Carolyn Schultz’s third-grade class at the parish school.
“Sister Marie Therese told the children about her missionary adventures in Africa,” said Schultz. “She brought artifacts with her and allowed the students to touch them. They learned songs, numbers, words and the alphabet in the native language. She loves what she does, and it shows when she talks about Africa and the children.”
When Nowakowski visits Fort Wayne, she stays with parish members Chris and Mel Hawkins.
“Marie Therese is an avid Green Bay Packers football fan, and we will watch the games together when she visits in the fall,” said Mel Hawkins. “She has her crocheting and a beer with her, both of which help her to stay calm during the game!”
Pam Trittipo, another friend, agreed, saying, “Sister is such a gentle and caring soul, and she has never met a party that she didn’t like!”
Asked what attracted her most about serving overseas, Nowakowski said it was “getting to know the people one on one.”
“We lived in the midst of the people and came to know them and their needs,” she said. “I enjoyed teaching in our school in Ghana because the girls were so eager to learn, and I greatly loved helping, teaching and encouraging the women who wanted to become School Sisters of Notre Dame.”
One incident stands out in Nowakowski’s mind.
“Here in the U.S., birthdays are celebrated with gifts,” said Nowakowski. “It was Patricia’s birthday, and I asked her how she would be celebrating the occasion, and she answered, ‘Maybe my mother will let me go to the market to buy an egg.’
“The outdoor market sold hard-boiled eggs, and there is a custom of welcoming a person into the local community by giving them a live chicken! It delighted me to receive such a precious gift from these wonderful people.
“Also, when a guest arrives at a native’s home, it is customary to offer water to the person. However, the people know Americans cannot drink their water, so they give them a Coke.
“We visited a poor family, and while we waited, the parents sent one of the children to the local vendor to purchase a bottle of cold Coke. Realizing this had happened, it was difficult to drink the refreshing beverage even though it was a hot day!”
In their free time in Africa, Nowakowski said, they played table games, danced to music or watched the local soccer teams (Ghana or Nigerian teams) on TV.
“I also like being alone for long periods of time, reading, listening to music or doing needlework,” said Nowakowski. “Also, I do enjoy beer or a glass of good wine!”
Finally, one of Nowakowski’s greatest talents was mentioned by Mike Mowan, Cheryl’s husband, (and echoed by Mel Hawkins, Trittipo, Cheryl Mowan and others): “Sister Marie Therese has some serious pie-baking skills, and I am always hoping she will practice on me when she visits Fort Wayne.
“Her lemon meringue pie is my absolute favorite!”