By Tammy Townsend Kise, Communications Director
“I always felt I had an identity,” said Mary Bremer, an Associate of the Holy Family and volunteer receptionist at the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth (CSFN) provincialate in Des Plaines, IL. She attributes her strong sense of self both to the business skills she acquired from her father, who owned an office supply store, and to her Catholic faith that she learned from her parents and the many religious sisters in her life.
“My faith is a part of me – it’s my identity,” she said.
Mary was born in a house on Golf Road in Des Plaines, not far from the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth’s convent. In those days, the area was rural with farmland stretching far into the western distance – a very different scene from the busy suburban Chicago landscape of today. The Bremer’s family home was one of the nearest residences to the convent — so close that in the 1920’s Mr. Bremer would walk over to serve at morning Mass for the sisters and so close that the CSFN sisters often passed the Bremer home on their walks to town.
It was during one of those walks in February 1936 that the sisters first learned of the birth of the third Bremer child.
According to Mary, when Mr. Bremer saw the sisters passing his home, he went out to let them know the good news. The sisters asked the baby’s name. Her father said, “Mary. But, we don’t have a middle name.”
“Don’t name her anything else,” the sisters reportedly said. “Mary is enough.”
Whatever blessings the sisters imparted to Mary, on that February day, were enough to lead her to a “good,” “fun” and “blessed” life – words Mary repeated several times as she recalled the role religious sisters have played in her life in the last 80 years.
The Sisters of St. Francis served as her teachers in grade school. The Sisters of Mercy taught her at St. Patrick Academy. And, three sisters from an order she can’t recall accompanied her by train to Colorado when she went to visit her Aunt Agnes.
“I was in eighth grade and traveling by myself,” she said. “The conductor sat me with the nuns. My mom had tipped him $5 to watch me on the train — they used to do things like that. I think the conductor knew I would be fine with the sisters.”
And, Mary has been fine, sharing numerous other exchanges of faith and friendship with religious sisters through the years. As owner of Mary Bremer Card Shop on Ellinswood Street in Des Plaines, Mary would give the CSFNs discounts when they came in to get cards and gifts. “They didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “I was good to them.”
In 1961, the CSFNs who frequented her stationary store convinced her to join the auxiliary and volunteer at the newly opened Holy Family Hospital, now Presence Holy Family Medical Center, in Des Plaines.
“I would volunteer on Wednesday nights,” she said. “After I sold my store, I became the paid manager of the hospital’s gift shop and director of volunteers.”
Sr. Amata Sweeney, CSFN, was the president of the hospital at the time and hired Mary for the position – a position she served in for 35 years, helping the auxiliary raise over $1 million for the hospital.
Mary recalled, “Sr. Amata could reprimand you in a way that made you feel good. She really uplifted people.”
Through their mutual work at the hospital, Sr. Amata and Mary became close friends, spending Saturdays together shopping and taking weekend trips to Door County in northern Wisconsin. Mary, even, made three trips to Rome to visit Sr. Amata, who was elected to the CSFN General Council in 1978.
“Everyone would stop and talk to her,” she said. “Jewish, Protestant… everyone. She was brilliant.”
When four of Mary’s nieces and nephews were born at Holy Family Hospital, Sr. Amata was in the delivery room. “She was part of our family,” Mary said. “I still miss her.” Sr. Amata passed away in 2014.
Though she is close to her siblings and many nieces and nephews, Mary has never married. Which begs the question: did she ever consider entering a religious community, especially when five of the 57 members of her high school graduating class became sisters?
“Being single is a vocation, too,” she said with the same sense of a calling many religious sisters express when talking about their vocation. “I never felt called to marriage.”
Mary’s single vocation did call her to become one of the first members of the Association of the Holy Family where she continues her faithful service to God and others. “The sisters have always been in my life,” she said. “From them, I’ve learned to try to be a good person – though, I learned that from my parents, too. I’ve learned to go to Mass every day, which I still do. And I’ve learned to try to be nice to everyone.”
As an associate, Mary says she has deepened her spirituality by being with the sisters and participating in their prayer life. She believes the warmth and kindness she experienced with Sr. Amata and other CSFNs is part of the sisters’ calling to bring Christ to everyone.
Mary shares that same warmth and kindness with others by living the spirit of Holy Family in her relationships with family, friends and colleagues. One look at her glowing face and generous smile greeting visitors at the provincial offices reveals a spiritual depth and peace.
“Did you know? I’ve never been in the hospital,” Mary stated with pride at her eight decades of health. “I’ve had some outpatient procedures, but I’ve never had to stay overnight. My mom and dad were the same way. They lived to be 89 and 94.”
Perhaps there is something to be said for living next door to a convent and sharing laughter, love and prayer with sisters.