Sr. Edna Lonergan Awarded Doctor of Humane Letters Degree from Cardinal Stritch

Sr. Edna Lonergan joined the graduates of Cardinal Stritch University’s Class of 2018 at the May 20 commencement where she received an honorary degree. In recognition of her more than 35 years as founder and president of St. Ann Center, Sr. Edna was awarded the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Cardinal Stritch, founded in 1937 as St. Clare College, joins St. Ann Center as a corporate ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Sr. Edna was a keynote speaker at the undergraduate ceremony, speaking on one of the core Franciscan values—creating a caring community.

Excerpted from Sr. Edna’s commencement speech:

One of the advantages of being president of an intergenerational day care is having the wisdom of several age groups to call on. A few weeks ago, I went to talk with the 4-year-olds in our Bumblebee Classroom and told them that I had the awesome responsibility of speaking before some college graduates. First, I had to explain to them that college is several grades beyond kindergarten. After they wrapped their heads around that, I asked them: “What does it mean to have a caring community?” Little Lucy’s eyes grew wide as she raised her hand and said, “If you’re very kind to one another, Sr. Edna will give you a sticker!”

Well, while I don’t quite have enough stickers to go around, I want you to know how tremendously honored I am to meet you, the Cardinal Stritch University Class of 2018. And I’m excited that the Franciscan value you have been focusing on this year is “creating a caring community.”

I’m sure each one of you could tell me stories of how this core value has come to life for you during your experience at Cardinal Stritch.  I am very fortunate to see many beautiful examples of a caring community around St. Ann Center, too. Recently, I saw an 11-year-old volunteer in our Buddy Program playing dominoes with an older man who has developmental disabilities. I saw the boy a little later and said to him, “I bet you win every game.” The boy answered, “Oh, no. I always let him win.” What a world this would be if everyone acted like that…making sure that those around us have a chance to win at life.

At such a young age, that boy has shown the same deep caring that we see in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. I love the story of the night St. Francis and his fellow friars were sleeping after a long day of fasting. One of the men was so hungry, he called out in the middle of the night “I’m dying of hunger!” Hearing him, Francis jumped up, woke up the other brothers, and told them to set out what food they had so they all could eat together. He was much less concerned about the rules and regulations around fasting than he was about the wellbeing of his brother. He didn’t want him to feel guilty or embarrassed, so he insisted they all join him in a meal. I can only imagine the kind of caring community Francis established.

Today, our own Pope Francis is demonstrating this same compassion. Seeing the large number of people who were homeless around the Vatican, he ordered showers be built for them in the heart of St. Peter’s Square. He also made sure that they received soap and towels, and distributed sleeping bags. He even recruited volunteer barbers to give haircuts. Through those basic acts of kindness, he is creating a caring community in a powerful and empowering way…by respecting human dignity.

I have an older brother with dementia. A wonderful volunteer named Joe often works with him at St. Ann Center, trying to make sure he’s getting exercise. Joe could tell my brother, “Okay, now you have to go for a walk. It’s good for your therapy.” But instead, he tells him, “I have a heart problem, so I need to do more walking. But I don’t like to go by myself. Would you go with me?” In that simple, gracious way, Joe is not only giving my brother dignity, he’s making him feel needed. He’s helping him rediscover a sense of purpose.

There are so many things I admire about your generation. I love your insight, your determination and your compassion. For you, a job is about more than a paycheck — it’s about a purpose. You want to use your talents to make the world a better place.  That is so important! When I look at you…and when I look at the children at St. Ann Center, I have real hope for our future.

A few months ago, the mother of a girl in our childcare program stopped in and told me a story. She and her daughter had stopped for lunch at a local McDonald’s. In a booth across from them there was an elderly couple. The man was shaking severely. Without prompting, the little girl got up, went over to the couple and said hello. She even shook the gentleman’s hand. Before the couple left, the wife pulled the mother aside and told her, “My husband has Parkinson’s disease, and we can rarely go anywhere without people staring. How is it that your daughter, as young as she is, isn’t afraid of him?” The mother explained that her daughter is surrounded by people of all ages every day, including some who look, act or move differently. She considers them all her friends. This little girl spends her day in a caring community. And when she leaves it, she takes that experience with her and creates a caring community wherever she goes.

Like all of you graduates, I have been blessed to have a very caring community in my corner. When I brought the idea of starting an intergenerational center to the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi over 30 years ago, I’m sure they didn’t know what to think. Children and older adults in the same day care…how could that work? Thankfully, the Sisters trusted that I knew what I was doing and they offered me their support, their wisdom and their inspiration. I know they have the same trust in each one of you. They believe that you will take what you have learned at Cardinal Stritch and use it to create amazingly caring communities of your own.

As I said, I asked the children and the adult clients at St. Ann Center to help me with this speech. So I’ll close with just a few words of advice they suggested I pass on to you.

    • Liam, age 9, said: Find a job that YOU want to do…not a job your parents want you to do.
    • Willie Mae, 78, said: Get yourself a real nice suit. It will pay for itself.
    • Collen, age 8, said: If you decide to be an artist, make sure you’re good at it, or you’ll never get into a museum.
    • Barry, 56, said: Go with your passion. Loving what you do will keep you young.
    • Carlton, 9, said: If you go on a trip to Switzerland with your friends, make sure that you have enough money left to pay your rent when you get home.
    • Barbara, 71, said: Never give up…and never stop learning.
    • Dennis, 75, said: Keep your mind and your heart open and travel, if you can. The whole world is your classroom.
    • Mia, 8: After you graduate, if you ever get nervous, remember to take deep breaths.
    • And finally, Josiah, age 7, said: You don’t have to buy a house right away. Ask to stay in your dorm room for another year. Or, you can live with your parents. They won’t mind.

Now I’d like to reiterate what I said in the video—that we are all born with divine love. I invite you to grow in that divine love, which has been nurtured through your family, friends and especially at Cardinal Stritch University. And as you grow in that love, create your own caring communities, helping others to be all that they can be.

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