Sr. Annette O’Donnell Article
From childhood, Sr. Annette O’Donnell was made aware of the lives of missionaries. Her uncle was a Dominican priest and was ministering in China. Her parents were active in fundraising for the missions. As a teenager, Sister notes that an ad in the Sacred Heart Messenger magazine for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament caught her attention and remained in her memory.
However, when she first felt called to give herself to the Lord as a Religious, Annette chose the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, because she had those Sisters in school and admired their prayerfulness and dedication. Her eighth-grade teacher, Sister Timothea, had taught them to meditate and know the Lord on a deeper level.
“My eighth grade Sister asked me if I had ever thought about becoming a Sister. I had been thinking of it, but her asking me enabled me to verbalize and own it.”
Also, as an only child of a mother who was severely lame and required assistance, Sr. Annette felt being in chose proximity to her family was a good idea. Since the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ) is a diocesan community, Annette would be able to remain close by in case her parents needed her.
As a Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Annette taught middle school for 15 years between 1956-1971. What she enjoyed most during those years was her involvement in the Eucharistic Crusade Movement, which was the children’s branch of the Catholic Action Movement. Each week, the children would study the Sunday Gospel, observe the Lord, and choose to imitate him in some way. She coordinated the program for grades one through eight with the assistance of the teachers and her students.
In 1971, she moved into college-level teaching and developed a campus ministry program for Aquinas Junior College. During that time, while she was also caring for her father, she joined the Big Sister Association and delighted in working with two young girls whom she still connects with today.
Around 1979, while attending a National Convention for the Teachers of English, she heard a guest speaker read a lament of Chief Joseph, who had promised his father on his deathbed that he would never sell the land in which his father’s bones were buried. The government, however, forced Chief Joseph to give up that land. Sister Annette was moved and deeply touched by this story that her desire to help the Natives grew stronger. At that time, she was caring for her father, who had outlived her mother, so she was unable to act upon her desires until God called him home.
When her father had passed into eternal life and her two “little sisters” had graduated from high school, Sister Annette asked her community to go to Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Granted permission, she lived in a cluster of trailers with a group consisting of Sacred Heart priests and brothers, Oblates Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and other Sisters from a variety of communities. During the day, the group traveled to a variety of small missions on the Reservation.
By the end of July 1983, they all decided to go on a picnic. There had been heavy rains followed by extreme heat, which affected the terrain. While Sr. Annette was climbing a hill, she felt it give way beneath her. As she began to fall, her foot got caught in a rut. Her ankle was dislocated and there were fractures in her foot, ankle, and lower leg that required next-day surgery.
The pastor was willing to keep Sister on doing office work until she was healed, however, her superiors sent the community nurse to bring her back to Boston where they knew she would get better care. Following a year of treatment and tutoring students for whom English was a second language, Sr. Annette was ready to get back into full-time ministry. Still feeling called to work with Native Americans, the CSJ administration told her if she could find a ministry near some Sisters of St. Joseph in their New Mexico missions, then she could go. In God’s providence, she found St. Catherine Indian School. A Boston CSJ was the principal of the parish school, and as luck would have it, they needed a high school English teacher. In the fall of 1984, she began teaching at the school.
Between 1984 and 1987, Sr. Annette lived and taught with the SBS. Eventually, she, her spiritual director, and the two communities, discerned that she had a second call to be a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament.
It was during this transition period that Sr. Annette asked to have an experience in the Black community. She was missioned to Xavier University, distinctly known as the only historically Black Roman Catholic institution for higher education. There, Sister worked in the Writing Center and assisted in the campus ministry program. At the end of the five-year transition period, Sister made her final vows as an SBS. Boston CSJ friends came to the vow ceremony in Bensalem.
While still teaching at Xavier University of New Orleans, Sister also began studying for her doctorate, which would be a requirement to remain at Xavier long-term. While sister enjoyed working with Xavier’s students, especially in campus ministry, she realized that there were many people in New Orleans who would be qualified to teach English at Xavier. On the other hand, she thought it would be more difficult to find qualified instructors for the Navajo Community College (NCC). Sister Annette completed her Ed.D. and applied for and received an Arizona Community College Certification in several areas. As a result, during her 16 years as an adjunct faculty member of Navajo Community College (later called Dine College) she was able to teach many varied subjects.
When NCC developed in to Dine College, Native American literature became a requirement. At the Window Rock Branch of the College, there was no one to teach it. Sister Annette had spent a summer at Rochester University studying Native American Literature through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She presented the certificate to the administration. Between her Masters in the Teaching of English and the study of Native American Literature, she was given the opportunity to teach the course several times.
Around 2007, having problems with her legs and feet, she went to the Motherhouse for treatment. When she was well enough, she was offered a position as the Director of Religious Education on the Gila River Reservation in Arizona. There she lived at St. Anthony Mission in Sacaton but was responsible for the religious education in several nearby missions. When her leg problems became such that she was not able to continue her work, she returned to the Motherhouse.
After some treatment at the Motherhouse, Sister Annette began working at the Mission Center giving retreat days and workshops, assisting in the Communications Department, and forming a St. Katharine Drexel Faith-sharing Circle, which still meets weekly at Paul’s Run. She also publishes her blog monthly, Companions on a Faith Journey.
Today, with the wonderful new means of communicating the message of Jesus, St. Annette rejoices that she, and others, too, can be missionaries despite limitations. Wearing the joyful smile for which she is well known, Sr. Annette comments, “Praise the Lord!” She is surely proof that when a heart is called to ministry, one always finds a way.