CLAXTON — Last week, Sister Janet Fischer, Claxton's only nun, was treated to her own day by county proclamation, with a reception and a bit of gentle roasting by her friends.
She isn't leaving St. Christopher Church or the area and doesn't want anyone to describe her as retired. But, coinciding with a change in the way St. Christopher's and two associated parishes are administered, she has been forced out of her official role.
"It was a shock to me to begin with because I still feel I have energy to do ministry, and I think it's needed," Fischer said in an interview before her day. "I don't know that I fully have grasped what this all means yet."
For more than 50 years, St. Christopher's has been staffed with priests from Glenmary Home Missioners. This priestly society is dedicated to serving areas "where the Catholic Church is not yet effectively present," according to its website, www.glenmary.org. Other area churches that were staffed in the past by Glenmary, including those in Reidsville and more recently Metter, have transitioned to having priests assigned directly by the Diocese of Savannah.
Now St. Christopher's in Claxton, Holy Cross Church in Pembroke and Our Lady of Guadalupe Missionin Sandhill have followed suit. Last week, the Rev. Francis Gillespie, a Jesuit, arrived as the first pastor of these three churches assigned by the diocese rather than by Glenmary Home Missioners. Meanwhile, the Rev. Francois Pellissier, who served for the past year as their final Glenmary priest, is staying until later this summer. In fact, Pellissier was never officially pastor, but remained sacramental minister, a limited role.
Glenmary made its own decision to stop serving these churches, Pellissier said.
"The reason is the level of development we have reached, you know, where there's a building, there's a hall, there's a gathered community, and also the needs in other parts of the country to start churches like we did in the late '50s," Pellissier said.
With the change to direct diocesan staffing, the bishop in Savannah reportedly notified Fischer's order, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, that her services were no longer needed.
The same age as ...
Although youthful and constantly on the go, Fischer is 76. She also doesn't speak Spanish, which Pellissier said was a factor in her not being assigned a further role in parishes that are now majority Spanish-speaking.
However, on Sister Janet Fischer Day in Evans County — June 13, 2013 — Hispanic congregants were among those expressing love for Fischer and thanks for her 33 years of service in the area.
Her age, 76, is also that of someone recently promoted to a very influential position in the hierarchy, as the featured speaker noted at her roast. The Rev. Steve Pawelk, known in Claxton as Father Steve from his 1989-1992 service as a newly ordained associate pastor at St. Christopher's, returned from Tennessee, where he now pastors two churches, to serve as roast master.
"Now, Sister Janet has many, many influences and she's a Franciscan ...," Pawelk kidded. "She is so influential that she was able to get the new pope to take her name, Pope Francis, so it's an intriguing thing and she told me today why that happens, because her and the pope are the same age."
Fischer plans to continue in several of her roles in the community. She serves on the board of Evans County CARES, which raises money for cancer research and to assist local patients, as well as on the church's CARES team. She is a member of the board of nonprofit Concerted Services Inc. and the ethics board at Camellia Health and Rehabilitation, Claxton's nursing home. She volunteers with the Evans County Christian Food Bank and the county's Ferst Foundation group, raising donations to supply monthly books to preschool children.
Works with animals
The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are named for St. Francis of Assisi, who believed that helping animals could be holy work. Fischer volunteers with the Evans County Humane Society, providing foster care for rescued dogs.
Pope Francis recently urged priests, as humble shepherds, to "smell like the sheep." Explaining this, Pawelk also cracked up his audience with, "So, Sister Janet doesn't smell like the sheep but she does smell like the dogs once in a while."
It was a friendly audience. About 130 people filled the big room at the Evans County Recreation Department headquarters. A committee with support from St. Christopher's English and Spanish congregations and from Holy Cross started planning Fischer's day in January. In May, organizers asked for and received the proclamation from the Evans County Board of Commissioners.
"Sister, this is a thank-you for all you do for us," committee leader Linda Aliffi said Thursday night. "We love you and we're thankful to God for your presence with us."
Fischer, who grew up on a farm in central Wisconsin, has been a nun for 54 years, spending two-thirds of her working life in Georgia. After high school, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked briefly for American Express, but knew she was resisting God's call to serve the church, she recalls.
"I did not want to go, but I have not been sorry. It's been an awesome life," Fischer said.
Returning to Wisconsin, she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, whose home convent, or motherhouse, is in La Crosse. After early assignments in Iowa and Wisconsin, she served as the motherhouse's chauffer for 13 years.
Then in 1980, the order sent four nuns — Sister Marcela, Sister Virginia, Sister Willanne and Sister Janet — south to Claxton. One by one, the others received new assignments or chose to leave. From 1985 on, Fischer was Claxton's only nun.
For a decade she operated the Clothes Basket, a thrift store in Collins that provides money used by the church to help people in need. Since about 1993, Fischer has been St. Christopher's religious education coordinator.
Serving through the tenures of seven priests and times when the church was without a pastor, Fischer has also represented her church at community events and interfaith services. She remains treasurer of the local Ministerial Association.
"She was the voice of the Catholic Church in Evans County and surrounding areas," Deacon James Spacher said. "If somebody asked you what church you go to and you say St. Christopher, ‘Oh, Sister Janet goes there. I know Sister Janet.'"
Spacher and his wife, Cathy, have been active in the Claxton church about 10 years, and he was ordained as deacon last year. Fischer's change of status has been difficult for some members, Spacher said, but he called it a blessing that she has decided to remain in Claxton.
Although she hopes to continue doing outreach work, Fischer acknowledged sadness about her loss of an official role, and similar losses of nuns from other parishes.
"The thing that also saddens me — women in the church — it's another woman, in a sense, that's let go," she said. "Of course I'm not the first one. It happened to Mary in Metter. It's happening to one of ours in Wisconsin."
But she expressed only positive feelings about her special day.
"I'm touched. I don't know if there are words that can explain it," Fischer said. "It's bigger than myself. I think it certainly will be good and say a lot about the community, hopefully about women religious and hopefully something positive about the Catholic Church."