After 50 years in a profession, most people get a gold watch, retirement plan and easy chair. So it may seem odd that when Joyce Ross celebrated her 50th work year on Friday, she got the gratitude and love of a community, a day named after her and a chance to do it all over again. But then, Joyce Ross isn't like most people.
Sister Joyce Ross, of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, the Parish Administrator at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church in Kenai, renewed her vows and celebrated the Golden Jubilee of her religious profession Friday evening.
Archbishop Francis T. Hurley presided over the Eucharistic Liturgy, held to commemorate the 50 years Sr. Joyce has spent serving others.
Many of Sr. Joyce's friends and family members came to celebrate with her, including two fellow Mercy Sisters and longtime friends from New York that surprised her at the mass.
At the dinner reception following the service, she was surprised even more by being presented awards and memorabilia in honor of her 50 years of service. Included in these were a trip to Our Lady's sister parish in Nairobi, Kenya, and a proclamation made by Kenai Mayor John Williams naming August 4, 2000, as "Sister Joyce Ross Day," in honor of her years of devotion and service.
"I couldn't believe it," Sr. Joyce said. "I never knew a thing. The gifts, the appreciation awards, how many people showed up -- you don't realize how many people you know in life. I've been stunned by it."
During the service, her years as a sister were represented by articles placed on the alter. There was a jar of kitchen utensils for working in a kitchen while stationed in Albany, N.Y.; a New York Yankees baseball cap with a rubber frog to represent her time in Ilion, N.Y., working with what she referred to as some "mischievous" kids; a bible for teaching catechism at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Anchorage; and a parish directory from Our Lady of the Angels in Kenai.
Sr. Ross began her religious profession after graduating from a New York catholic high school when she was 17 years old. Three months later, she joined the Convent of Mercy in Albany, N.Y. She said she made her decision to become a sister the year before, after being influenced "by the good example and dedication" of her teachers.
She took her first vows in 1953, after two and a half years taking college education classes and training for her religious life in the novitiate, before taking her final vows on August 18, 1956. She began teaching at a Catholic school the next day -- one of only two people from her class of 10 to do so.
"To this day I know I wasn't smarter than the remaining 10," she said. "I secretly feel they wanted to get rid of me!"
Since then she went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the College of St. Rose in 1963 and a master's degree from the State University of New York at Albany in 1970 in elementary education.
One of the founding principles of the Sisters of Mercy is to respond to the needs of others. In the 1970s, there was a need expressed in the church for the Sisters of Mercy to come and serve in Alaska, and Sr. Joyce was among those who answered it.
She spent seven years at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Anchorage before answering another call, this time for Sisters to come to the Kenai Peninsula, in 1979. She spent the next 10 years making a circuit of the peninsula's parishes to provide religious and adult education with Sr. Joan Barina, a Medical Mission Sister. In 1989, both sisters were re-assigned to Our Lady of the Angels in Kenai.
Sr. Joyce was appointed parish administrator at Our Lady, which was without a resident priest. In her position she administers to 198 families, plans liturgical programs, works with the chancery, performs baptisms and leads communion services, parish functions, religious education and the Rite of Christian Education.
She says that the archbishop took a risk assigning a sister to fulfill these responsibilities, which is a somewhat unusual occurrence, but her parishioners haven't felt they had to gamble anything in having her.
"I consider her not only to be our administrator, but a very good friend," said parishioner Valerie Kwietniak. "She epitomizes the good shepherd."
Through her work, Sr. Joyce touches lives outside just her parish. She is involved in an outreach program of ecumenical churches called LOVE, Inc. 'Love in the name of Christ' is a network of local churches that provides all manner of assistance and support to people in need, including medicine and transportation.
Clothes Quarters is another ecumenical group effort of local Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic churches. It is a second-hand shop selling nothing over $2 that started in Soldotna but was moved to Kenai after a fire destroyed its original building.
The list of service goes on and includes providing services to the Food Bank of America, visiting with prison inmates, going on a mission trip with high school students to Tijuana, Mexico, bringing communion to people who are homebound or ill and answering outreach calls for food and other emergencies.
"There are just things that come up and people asked you to be involved in. The needs are there and you're in a position to help, and that's good," Sr. Joyce said. "When you help people, their gratitude is a reward."
In looking back at her profession, Sr. Joyce said she felt rewarded by the choice she made.
"A lot of people get into a job they don't like and are never happy," she said. "I think I did what I was called to do and it seems I've been successful. I guess if you want to get joy and peace and satisfaction out of life, you've got to go into it heart, mind and soul. I've never been a halfway person."
There's certainly nothing halfway about what she has accomplished in her 50 years of service -- as evidenced by the sentiments of the people helping her celebrate on Friday, who hope she won't be taking a gold watch or easy chair anytime soon.
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