By Father Hugo L. Blotsky, O.S.B., Guest Writer
Sister Monica Suhayda, CSJ, who has worked at St. Stephens Catholic Indian Mission for 47 years, was treated to a surprise party on her 95th birthday, April 29, by the Mission staff. She commented, “This was my second birthday party in my
whole life, which made this celebration all the more special for me. I will remember this birthday and this party for the rest of my life.”
Her age has not kept her from filling her days with activities. She still keeps herself busy by managing the Heritage Center with history of the schools, the
Jesuits, and other religious people who helped staff the schools. Four days every week, she makes herself available in the gift shop selling beaded crafts that are hand made by Native women on the Wind River Reservation.
Sister Monica has been at St. Stephens Mission for nearly five decades, which has made her well-known to the residents on the reservation, and to many people off the reservation. She remembers the great-grandparents of many residents, and knows many of the younger generations.
However, there is another part of her life that is not so well known and that is about her start in consecrated life as a Sister. On the evening of her graduation from high school on June 14, 1946, her father died. He had been a patient at a hospital staffed by Sisters of St. Joseph.
On September 8th of that same year, she entered St. Joseph Convent in Badan, Pa., as a postulant along with 20 other young women. Postulancy is a six- month testing period for the young women to see whether they are a good fit for the community, and it is a testing period for the community to discern whether the young woman has the qualifications to live the consecrated life of a Sister.
At the end of the six-month postulancy, the young women who were considered ready to move to the next step in consecrated life were invited to begin a two-year novitiate to learn more deeply what it means to live the vows of poverty, chastity
and obedience in community life. At the start of the novitiate, each novice was fitted with a habit or garb and given a new name. Monica was the name given to her at birth and it was her baptismal name. The name given to her as a novice was Sister John Baptist.
Those who persevered the two-year novitiate and were considered ready for the next step were invited to profess the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for a one-year term. At the end of the year, the junior Sister could opt to leave the
community or profess the vows for another year, up to three years total. At the end of the three years of temporary vows, the junior Sister could leave
consecrated life, or apply for final profession of vows.
Sister John Baptist taught school for about 25 years. In 1960, she became principal at St. John Baptist School in Badan, Pa., and served as principal for 12 years in addition to teaching.
In the 1960s, Vatican Council II came along and with this council came about many changes for both women and men in communities of consecrated life. The Sisters in many communities were given the option of going back to using their
baptismal name. Sister John Baptist then became Sister Monica. Another change in women religious communities was modifying their religious habit. To help them decide what kind of religious garb they wanted to wear, the Sisters held a fashion show to demonstrate the various styles of garbs. Sister Monica was one of the models in the fashion show. Eventually, the Sisters decided not to
wear a distinctive garb but instead chose to dress as the laity.
After about 25 years of teaching and having served as principal at schools for 12 years, Sister Monica saw a need for a different type of ministry for herself. She went to St. Louis University in Missouri to participate in a newly formed corporate
ministry (or as some prefer, team ministry).
While at the university, she became acquainted with individuals going through treatment for addictions. She was impressed with the honesty and openness of most of those in treatment. For the field work for her program, she applied to work with individuals in the recovery program for one year. This experience inspired her to move into the direction of wanting to counsel individuals with addictions.
While at St. Louis University, she met Jesuit Father Tony Short, S.J. When he learned of her interest in addiction counseling, he suggested that she join him on a visit to St. Stephens Mission. She came for a visit of two weeks in May 1974. Officially, she started working at the Mission in September 1974. She spent the first year as the director of religious education at the Mission.
Next, she began her addiction counseling ministry. After these many years, Sister Monica still helps individuals with their pledges to sobriety. “People keep coming to her with their addiction problems for help. They have become a part of her life, and she has become a part of their lives,” commented Ron Mamot, who is the director of the St. Stephens Catholic Indian Mission Foundation. Mamot came to work at the Mission the same year as Sister Monica, 1974. “When people come to me for help with their addiction, I show them tough love, give them a listening ear, and I let them know that God loves them,” she said.
Sister lived with the three IHM (Immaculate Heart of Mary) Sisters in the big yellow house on the Mission grounds. The IHMs came from Detroit in 1974 and left in the 1980s. Sister Joyce Durosko and Sister Laetitia LaRevire taught in the
elementary school. Sr. Wendy worked in the development office for the Mission Foundation.
The Franciscan Sisters taught in the elementary school at the Mission. They also left in the 1980s. There were 11 Franciscan Sisters at the Mission in the mid-1970s. Many residents on the reservation still remember fondly Sister Incarnata who was the baker, Sister Balbina who sold school supplies, and Sister Adreanna who was the cook.
One Franciscan Sister Teresa Frawley continues to serve at the Mission after 43 years. She is pastoral assistant and director of faith formation at Blessed
Sacrament Church at Fort Washakie and at St. Joseph Church in Ethete. She had this to say about Sister Monica, “What can I say about Sr. Monica? First off I think she is related to the Energizer Bunny: She just keeps on keeping on. And,
she’s still going at 95! Perhaps her good practice of going for a walk every morning (neither snow, nor wind, nor rain, nor stray dogs ever stopped her) gave her the blessing of good health and the energy that she displays. A keen sense of humor also helps.”
The present St. Stephen’s Indian Elementary School was built on land given to the tribe in the 1980s by the Mission. The St. Stephens High School continued at the Mission for several years, and then closed when St. Stephen’s Indian High
School was built on tribal land next to the tribal elementary school.
The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph was founded in LePuy-Velay, France, by a Jesuit Priest Father Jean Pierre Medaille around 1650. Six of its
sisters were guillotined during the French Revolution in the mid-1600s. Also
several convents of Sisters were suppressed, but then later re-founded.