Sister Esther O’Mara of the Institute of Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) served at Wellspring from 1994-2005 as a volunteer, as a staff member and then as the nonprofit’s executive director. Wellspring opened her eyes to a new world.
“The new world was being with – not just knowing that there were poor people out there struggling – but being with them and being a part of them and listening to them and knowing that they were just like me – and only that they had bad circumstances and that they were strong and brave ladies,” said Sister Esther, who is 85.
Sister Esther said many Wellspring guests faced their struggles with unparalleled grace and humor.
“I think that the thing I learned the most was that there are a lot of people out there who can endure their lives’ trials far better than I can,” she said.
Sister Esther started volunteering at Wellspring on a weekly basis. One day, Sister Catherine Connell, who founded Wellspring with Sister Claire Graham, asked Sister Esther if she would like to work at Wellspring. Sister Mercedes who was Sister Esther’s close friend and former co-worker followed Sister Esther to Wellspring six months later.
As staffers, Sister Esther and Sister Mercedes, worked directly with the guests. Sister Mercedes passed away in November of 2019 and belonged to the Sisters of the Holy Family order.
“Sister Mercedes was very outgoing and always had a kind word to each person,” Sister Esther said. “She was a good listener and a good do-with-you person. She went to court with some of the ladies and would try hard to give them anything they needed. She always said that she was behind me, way behind me. I became the Director as Sister Catherine became ill and had to give up work at the center. Sister Mercedes usually backed me up, but I said to her one day, ‘Don’t be giving out coats at this backdoor because if you give out one you will have a whole line.’ And then I met her on the stairs with a coat on her way to the backdoor. For Sister Mercedes, the guests of Wellspring always came first.”
Sister Esther negotiated a contract for Nextel to use Wellspring’s tower for its cell station, an arrangement that has brought in a steady stream of funding for Wellspring’s work. She was also successful in securing a grant to start Wellspring’s Children’s Corner, a preschool environment for kids.
“Well, we were getting more and more children who had nothing to do, so we got a couple of grants and we got furniture,” Sister Esther said. “Anyway, the Children’s Corner really grew to an education corner – with the computers and the books and the puzzles so that they were ready to go into school from there.”
Sister Esther became a nun in 1951, inspired by the sisters who taught her in high school in Chicago. She was just 17.
“The sisters seemed very content and worked hard,” she said. “Not having a family left them free to do that and to go to other places and since my day it has been the women who have started all kinds of things — you know, the food program at St. Philomene’s Church — a couple of women started that. The people who are at the border now [dealing with the immigration crisis] – who are they? Well, women. So you can do other things that you couldn’t do then. So I think that the fact that the sisters could do different things and I felt called to do that – put those together.”
When she first joined the IBVM order, Sister Esther lived in Wheaton, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.
“My first few years in the IBVM community were at the motherhouse which had 10 or 12 other sisters,” Sister Esther said. “It was attached to a parish and we led a very structured life. The bell rang in the morning and you had prayer and then you got off to school or wherever you were going to work and then, in the evening, we had prayer time. And then came the ‘60s, and Vatican II, where we changed habit, lifestyle, and often ministries.”
After Vatican II, smaller groups of nuns moved from the parish to live in homes or apartments. The sisters stopped wearing habits and prayer time became more personal because it was no longer dictated by the communal rhythms of the parish.
“We had one sister who described how Vatican II changed what it was like to be a nun, she said: ‘We used to get at the end of the year a little note that said (say you are in Chicago): Dear sister, you are going to go to Carmichael for the next year and teach at this school, and now we get a letter and it says: Where are you?’’’
For the past 26 years, Sister Esther has been living in Sacramento with three other Sisters who do various ministries. But, she plans to return to Chicago soon to live in a retirement community.
“I’m prepared [for the Chicago winters] – I even bought my winter coat already,” she said. “Now, I’m looking for boots. But, this time of my life, I don’t have to go out if I don’t want to.”
There are only three sisters who belong to the IBVM order remaining in Sacramento. The order established a presence in Sacramento after the Sacramento diocese requested that the order send nuns to work in education. The IBVM sisters worked at Loretto High School, St. Philomene’s Grade School and St. Assumption Grade school. Loretto High School closed in 2009.
The IBVM order’s mission has been to educate women. It was founded by Mary Ward in the 1600’s and is active in 10 countries around the world today. The majority of women today who are entering religious life live in developing countries.
“What the future holds for religious life, nobody knows,” Sister Esther said. “Some communities will die out. They are finished and they’ve done what they can do and are not accepting anyone else and some, like us are international.”
Currently, Sister Esther volunteers for Dignity Health and does administrative work for Clara’s House, a free clinic for women who lack health insurance located in downtown Sacramento.
“My life has been full and blest and I thank my God for this journey,” Sister Esther said
Sister Esther keeps McDonald’s gift cards and bottled water in her car just in case she runs into someone experiencing homelessness.