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Sister Marlene Lieder

Sister Marlene Lieder’s story is unusual. Over the years she was a member of two religious congregations—the Franciscan Sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes in Sylvania, Ohio, with whom she spent twenty-one years; and the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan, with whom she spent the last thirty-four years.

It was on a fine summer day in Detroit, June 2, 1938, that a daughter was born to Leonard and Clara (Polakowski) Lieder and baptized Marlene. She was the youngest of four children, preceded by Rosemary, who lived only a few hours, Judy, and Jerry. Leonard Lieder was a native of Detroit, and Clara Polakowski was from Everson, Pennsylvania, both from large families. Clara came to Detroit seeking work. There she and Leonard met, married, and made their home in Detroit. Marlene and her siblings grew up with many aunts, uncles, and cousins. In her St. Catherine letter she wrote, “I am told that I was a very energetic child. A little blonde head was often seen running about, expending energy, indoors and out.”

The Lieders belonged to Our Lady Queen of Heaven Parish, and their children attended the parish elementary school with the Sylvania Franciscans. In these years Marlene was an average student until fourth grade, when “my teachers and increased motivation enhanced my performance.” She also continued her physical activities in the program introduced by Mayor Van Antwerp.

Vacant lots everywhere were converted into playgrounds with swings, slides, baseball diamonds, and volleyball nets in the summer. In the winter time the diamonds were flooded and became ice ponds. I, thus, spent as much time as possible in physical activities.

When Marlene was twelve years old, her father became very ill with arthritis for a time and her mother went out to work. Her older sister Judy had joined the Franciscan Congregation in Sylvania, Ohio, and Marlene became responsible for many household chores. She also spent much time with her father, and they became very close.

When she graduated from Our Lady Queen of Heaven School in 1952, Marlene progressed to St. Anthony High School. After a year that included scholastic and social success, and also much soul searching, she decided to join Judy, now known as Sister Augusta, in the Sylvania Franciscans.

She entered the Franciscan postulate on June 21, 1953, just a short time after her fifteenth birthday, and finished her secondary years at St. Clare Academy in Sylvania, graduating in June 1955. Two months later, on August 10, she received the habit and her religious name, Sister Peter Chanel. After spending a year as a novice at the Motherhouse, she was sent to St. Hedwig Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio, where she taught for a year.

She professed her first vows on August 10, 1957. Immediately after profession, she was again in Toledo, teaching at St. Jude Elementary School. In her autobiography she wrote, “I feel that I was given many opportunities in the Franciscan Congregation.” One of these opportunities was the three years that she studied at St. Teresa College in Winona, Minnesota, which resulted in a bachelor’s degree that she received in June 1962 with a major in science. Then again she was in Toledo, teaching for a year at Little Flower Elementary School.

In 1963 she began her high school ministry at St. Ladislas in Detroit, where she taught for three years. She received a National Science Foundation grant in 1963 and began summer study at the University of Notre Dame. In 1966, she was again in Toledo at Central Catholic High School where she spent seven years.

During the summers that she spent at the University of Notre Dame, she saw much of the renewal in religious life that was going on in various communities. It seemed to her that her own congregation was not keeping pace. She received a master’s degree in 1967, and spent several summers teaching chemistry at the Junior College in Sylvania, as well as participating in the Chapter of Affairs and the Chapter of Election

Thoughts of transferring to another community that was moving faster in the renewal process had entered her mind, and she and her sister began studying the Monroe IHM (Immaculate Heart of Mary) Congregation and the Adrian Dominican Congregation. After a period of about two years, they entered into the transfer process with the Adrian Dominicans, applied for formal transfer in July 1973, and became members of the Adrian Congregation on September 29, 1974. During this time of decision, Sister Marlene taught at Brother Rice High School in Birmingham, Michigan, and lived with the sisters at Walled Lake.

In 1975, as an Adrian Dominican, she began a three-year ministry in Florida: two years at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale and a year at Bishop Moore High School in Orlando. She then spent a year at Fordham University in Bronx, New York, and received a second master’s degree, this time in pastoral ministry. While teaching on the high school level at Resurrection Academy in Rye, New York, she lived in the Bronx and studied at Iona College in New Rochelle, majoring in counseling, and earned a third master’s degree that she received in 1982. She wrote that her schedule was most intense, and she began trying to relax by engaging in swimming, tennis, and bike riding. “Every day I seemed to be learning and having new experiences as Religion Department Chairperson at the Academy and as a student counselor at the Pastoral Counseling Center at Iona.”

She wrote that she became a member of the D.C. Mission Group and of St. Catherine Province. Since she was living alone, she valued the sisters’ support.

From 1982 to 1987, she served the Congregation as pre-admissions director, then moved to Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, California, as intern counselor. After a year she returned to the Midwest and for a year ministered at Catholic Social Services in Lima, Ohio, as counselor. She moved to Detroit and served as outreach coordinator at the Collaborative Literacy Project. In 1990 Laubach International awarded her a certificate in Tutor Training, Reading, and she was one of the founders of the Dominican Literacy Center in Detroit, where she served for sixteen years as outreach coordinator. Her service during these years was publicized in the Michigan Catholic.

She had been fighting cancer for several years, and in 2006 she and her sister Judy moved to a residence in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan, where Judy cared for her sister tenderly until Sister Marlene’s death two days before Christmas, December 23, 2008.

In Adrian, a wake-remembrance service was held for Sister Marlene in Holy Rosary Chapel on December 28. Present were her sister, Sister Judy; her brother Jerry and his wife Joann; nieces, nephews, and cousins; and her many Dominican friends. Sister Frances Nadolny, Prioress of Great Lakes Dominican Mission Chapter, opened the service, welcomed those present, and summarized Sister Marlene’s life and ministry. She said in part:

She had a long and loving relationship with the Xaverian Brothers that began in 1973 when the Xaverians and Adrians held the summer ELM [Education for Living and Ministry] programs here. . . . Just two months ago, they inducted her into their Society of St. Michael in Brooklyn in recognition of her ministry in literacy education.

In 1987 she was diagnosed with cancer, and she fought it bravely for years. I think she survived all these years because she lived by a quotation that I found displayed in her room. It reads, “Ask for the grace to know when a gift is given; to hold onto it, and then say, ‘Thank you, God.’”

Sister Marie Damian Schoenlein spoke of Sister Marlene’s ministry in adult literacy.

Some twenty years ago, Sister Marlene expressed an interest in adult literacy. She became the co-founder of the Dominican Literacy Center in Detroit and assisted in establishing four other literacy centers. That meant initiating their tutor workshops and supervising the centers’ certification. There were no blueprints of how to do any of that, so it meant creating the plan and anticipating the needs. Her creativity, persistence, determination, and fidelity met those challenges.

Sister Marie Damian listed the awards that the Center received: The U.S. Department of Health and Services Award, the Martin Luther King Award, The State of Michigan Partnership Award, the Presidential Points of Light Award, the Governor’s Service Award. When the Michigan State Director of Adult Education returned to Lansing from her visit to the Center, “she said that she felt like giving the DLC $16,000,000 and having them run the Adult Literacy Program for the State of Michigan.”

Sister Rosemarie Kieffer remembered the years of transfer when Sister Marlene lived with the community at Walled Lake.

Her witness of choosing the Dominicans was powerful. She would go to Adrian monthly and then share with us her journey of transfer, which certainly wasn’t easy. It was truly a time of discernment. . . . I remember her commitment ceremony . . . and the reading was, “I set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” I will never forget those words and know that Marlene did choose life. She chose life over and over.

She also spoke of Sister Marlene’s ministry as Pre-Admissions Director in the early 1980s.

I had recently become the Director and Sister Marlene took on the two ministries, Vocations and Pre-Admissions. . . Her fidelity and love of the Congregation was demonstrated as we traveled all around the West to share with our sisters what formation was about at that time. She was a great companion and person of integrity and organization. She was such an asset to our Formation Team.

Three words come to mind when I think of Sister Marlene: fidelity, persistence, and compassion. She truly was a woman of deep faith, and a persistent person who never gave or drew attention to herself. She was always thinking of others. . . . She loved fun and life. I thank you, Marlene, for being my companion on the journey and my friend.

Sister Marlene’s niece, Cheryl Stafford, also reminisced.

My aunt, Sister Marlene, was a woman of great faith and courage. She exhibited a strength of character that I have found in few others. Her selfless love and care for others was extraordinary. When she spoke with you, she always wanted to know about you. She never talked about herself. She struggled with her own illness daily. She lived a life of service to others—whether she was teaching, counseling, or training and working with literacy volunteers or learners—she was always there to serve. She was a hard worker and was always ready to lend a helping hand wherever needed.

We are all sad because we must bear the loss of our sister, friend, co-worker, and auntie, but I also know that she would want us to rejoice in her newfound freedom in Christ. She is no longer bound by the chains that cancer held on her here in this world.

Sister Mary Kay Homan, one of the Congregation’s General Councilors, also shared.

I never lived with Sister Marlene, but I lived with Sister Judy.

Every year the two of them made a retreat in Conway, Michigan, and I talked with them after the retreat. They always had fantastic stories. One year the nuns who took care of the retreat house went away and left them the key. They went outside, locked themselves out of the house, and had to break in the door. Another time the water gave out and they had to drink bottled water. Every time they went out there, they had bee attacks. I said to them, “You really make interesting retreats!” They were both such prayerful people, and I was happy when they went to make their retreat because they always promised to pray for me.

Sister Marlene’s funeral liturgy was celebrated on December 29. The presider and homilist was Monsignor Donald F. Hanchon, pastor of Holy Redeemer in Detroit. Father Ronald Victor, pastor of St. Anastasia in Roseville, concelebrated. Monsignor Hanchon said in part:

For some it will appear sad that Sister Marlene should leave us “in the shadow of Christmas.” . . . The readings she chose are readings associated with Christmas. . . . In the Infancy Narrative, however, only certain individuals are privileged to know the secret of His identity—Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and perhaps Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna.

The readings are about Jesus, but they are also about those who live their lives as His disciples—and this Sister Marlene did with all her heart and mind and soul and strength, as the Old Testament says we should love God. . . . She made the world a better place. She radiated peace and hope where we hadn’t seen it before!

As Sister Frances said, Sister Marlene was a gift that God gave to the Adrian Dominican Congregation. We thank God for her ministry.