Whether it's teaching the teachers to instruct youngsters about religion or pulling weeds to beautify the grounds around the Kenai church, the devoted work of two Roman Catholic nuns over the past 30 years surely will be missed.
Sisters Joyce Ross and Joan Barina, who have served the Kenai community since 1979, will be returning the end of May to their respective religious orders -- Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and Medical Mission Sisters -- back East.
Sent to Kenai by then-Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley, Sister Joyce was assigned as the Our Lady of Angels parish administrator in Kenai and Sister Joan came as her assistant.
Father Robert Wells was the parish priest at the time, according to Margaret Menting, director of religious education at the Kenai parish.
"During the first 10 years, they did religious education for the west side of the Kenai Peninsula," Menting said Tuesday. "They taught the teachers who taught the children."
The future is not crystal clear for the pair.
"Sisters never actually retire," said Parish Council President Sal Mattero.
After making a presentation on the Catholic Youth Conference at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Anchorage on June 1 and 2, the sisters will head to Philadelphia to make a renewal with the Medical Mission Sisters, Sister Joan's religious order.
Sister Joan expects to remain there, while Sister Joyce will head to Albany, N.Y., on the Hudson River, where the Sisters of Mercy are based.
While the sisters were beginning what would become a 30-plus-years assignment on the Kenai Peninsula, Sister Joan started the Clothes Quarters -- a thrift-shop like endeavor to provide clothing to the less fortunate.
From the proceeds of clothing sales, the sisters helped feed the peninsula's poor by way of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, Menting said.
Mattero said the pair also raised money through the annual Mardi Gras festival at the parish to help defray air transportation costs for sending teen volunteers and some parents to Catholic villages in the Bush where they helped clean, build and deliver religious instruction to village youngsters.
The Bush trips, instituted by the sisters, took volunteers to Marshal, Pilot Station, Chevak, St. Mary's and Mountain Village, Menting said. Individual donations from Kenai parishioners also helped cover the costs.
After Father Wells left Our Lady of Angels in 1988, Sisters Joyce and Joan attended to the parish needs and assisted a traveling priest who came to conduct Sunday Mass every other week.
In addition to religious programs, the sisters were instrumental in making physical improvements to the Kenai church, including an arctic entry for the main church building, installing an elevator for handicapped access and creating memorial gardens on the church property.
Restricted by Canon Law in which official duties they can perform, the sisters were allowed to baptize, perform marriages, conduct funeral services and conduct eucharistic services.
"The emphasis was always on the children," Mattero said. "We have about 170 families here."
In addition to work within the Kenai Catholic community, the sisters reached out to others in the Soldotna and Kenai area, according to Menting.
"They're both involved with Love INC (the Christian clearinghouse for community service) and Bishop's Attic (thrift store in Soldotna)," she said.
Mattero added that Sister Joyce has always been involved with Linda Swarner at the food bank, Jane Stein, executive director of Bridges Community Resource Network and with the LeeShore Women's Resource Center.
Additionally, they joined with the Kenai United Methodist Church of the New Covenant to provide hot breakfast to students at Kenai Alternative School every day.
Mattero said Our Lady of Angels volunteers cook three times a week and the Methodist volunteers cook twice. Meals range from pancakes and sausage to biscuits and gravy.
"We serve anywhere from 30 to 60 kids a day," he said.
Sister Joan also accompanies one of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate priests to conduct Mass at Wildwood Pretrial Facility every Saturday. Before the three Oblate priests were assigned to the Kenai Peninsula west side churches, both sisters went to Wildwood every Saturday.
When asked what their most outstanding accomplishment has been during the past 30 years, Sister Joyce said, "For me, the fact that we were able to meet and associate with the people in all the Christian communities. We got so much more from them than we gave."
She said she will "certainly miss the people and the wonderful land of Alaska."
Sister Joan said, "It's hard to judge the most important accomplishment. We just had a Clothes Quarter luncheon ... some of the volunteers have been with us since the beginning. That's been a big thing; not just for the people who come to get clothing, but it's been a good outing for the ladies (who volunteer)."
Sister Joyce said she will miss the community, and Sister Joan said, while it will be good to be reinserted into the religious community of her order, reacquainting with some old friends, "It's going to be hard leaving the wonderful parishioners and friends here."
She also expects to miss the Alaska climate.
"Alaska is such a beautiful place," she said. "But our community has quite a bit of land in Fox Chase (Philadelphia), so it's kind of park like ... with some deer ... no bears."
An open house reception is planned for the departing nuns from noon to 3 p.m. May 9 at Our Lady of Angels church, 225 S. Spruce St. in Kenai. It is open to the public.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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