Have You Seen Your Oranges Today?

Annette Ritzko, Editor-in-Chief

The cherry tree dedicated to Sr. Paulette who has always been a source of support and positivity for the Grounds crew.
It lies near the waterfall (depicted toward the right) and at the
heart of Campus.
The plaque that is located at the foot of the cherry tree dedicated to Sr. Paulette Berrang, RSM.
Annette Ritzko
A painting of a lighthouse that was gifted to Sr. Paulette
that currently hangs in her room. It reminds her that God is present
in the light and in the dark.

Inspiration walks on campus, preferably on warm days, wearing a hat and white sneakers. She often stops to talk to passersby and can be easily missed if you aren’t observant.

Sr. Paulette Berrang, RSM, has been walking the campus since the 1980s, and she has guided and inspired faculty, staff, students and community members each step of the way.

Laurie Finnegan, Grounds Manager, met Sr. Paulette six years ago while  recovering from ear surgery. Finnegan was working in front of the library, wearing “this  ridiculous earmuff-looking thing” when Sr. Paulette approached her and asked what had happened.

“So I explained to her I had to have a surgery and what it was for, and then she explained to me some of the issues she has had with her ears over the years. That was a connection immediately, but I knew the moment she started talking that she would be someone who was going to have a huge impact on my life.”

Finnegan and Sr. Paulette have sustained a friendship that includes walks and morning calls to deliver inspirational quotes such as “every day is a good day” and other fruits of  wisdom.

Finnegan said that during one walk together, Sr. Paulette shared that she was thinking about oranges. It had been a long time since she had eaten one.

“And wouldn’t you know when my breakfast tray came, there was an orange on it,” Sr. Paulette told her. “God just spoils me rotten!”

“I love that story because she did so much for me without even realizing it,” Finnegan said. “We continued to talk and before she walked back to Mercy Center, she said to me, ‘look for your oranges today.’”  She put things into perspective for me without knowing it.  When life gets busy, people may not see their oranges, but they still get them,” Finnegan said.

Sr. Paulette has always been a lover of nature, an interest she acquired from her family, and an avid walker. So long as it’s a nice day, she’ll don her hat and white sneakers and explore the campus.

“I love walking on campus just for the beauty of it, I feel like I’m being enveloped in God’s love as I walk around this beautiful nature, but another thing that gives me great joy is meeting the students and the staff and over the years I’ve gotten to know an awful lot of them.”

Chris Somers, Director of Campus Ministry is one of them. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without her hat, to tell you the truth, because even if it’s summer or the spring, there’s always a hat on, always! I’ve been to Mercy Center, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her there and if I did I wouldn’t know because she didn’t have her hat on,” Somers said.

Sr. Paulette said her father  was her inspiration to become a Sister of Mercy because he served as a model for her future. She grew up during the Depression and saw how her father not only noticed the needs of others but acted upon them. When she was too young to be in school, he often took her along on his visits to elderly people who needed a small service and a little care.

“He would go to elderly men, he’d go and shave them and while he was doing that, they would feed me cookies and milk. I watched my father and his sense of compassion and giving and got that from him. He helped me to see where there was a need that wasn’t being met, to just go and try to meet it.”

Sr. Paulette’s day begins with praying; it continues with praying and ends the same. She considers every part of life to be a moment of prayer so long as it is done with love, she said. She spends a good chunk of her time in silence, too, listening to God.

She likes space for contemplation, and her peaceful minimalism continues in her room. She is no fan of clutter: She only has four pictures on her wall, all of which hold spiritual significance for her. A drawing of a little girl in the wilderness looking at a bird, which hangs to the left of her door, came from her parent’s home.

“That to me speaks about my love for God in all of creation, so I asked for that picture when my mother died,” Sr. Paulette said.

She hung a photo of father with some of her siblings in honor of the man who she said “was such an image of God to me.” An original painting of a lighthouse, which she received as a gift, symbolizes God’s presence in the darkness and in the light. She also included a painting of a girl climbing a ladder to touch a star.

“That was painted by my niece at the beginning of her college degree for fine arts, ” she said. “Only one she has, it’s an original. She did not like it, but I loved it so she gave it to me. To me it signified our journey, we’re on this journey to God, she’s reaching up for God.”

She also has a growing prayer list, which she wrote by hand on eight colorful 5 x 7 index cards. Her petitions are for deceased and living family members, the religious and nonreligious community members, the Mercy Center, which is an on-campus nursing unit and Sr. Paulette’s current place of residence, and all its staff and residents, as well as members of the campus community –  faculty, staff and students alike.

When she prays, Sr. Paulette closes her eyes, carefully pictures the many on her list and sends them blessings. But her day is not only filled with petitions; she also  prays to ask God for guidance and courage.

“One of the things I say at the beginning of the day is ‘Open my mind to remember your presence. Open my eyes to see you as you come to me in people, in creatures, in creation and in the events that happen to me. Open my mouth so I may speak your wisdom. Open my heart so that the peace and the love that I have will go out to all the world, and open my hands so that I may be of service.’”

Somers, whose name is on one of those cards and in Sr. Paulette’s prayerful contemplation, said Sr. Paulette often reminds her that she is praying for her family.

“I think what I learn the most from her is to be present because whoever walks up to her, whether it be someone working for Grounds or the Post Office, she would always stop and talk and look at you and want to hear your story and she would always listen and then say ‘I’m praying for you.’”

Sr. Cynthia March, RSM, an alumna and Coordinator of the University Initiative for Compassionate and Mindful Living, is another recipient of Sr. Paulette’s caring presence. Sr. March first interacted with Sr. Paulette during meetings at the Sisters of Mercy’s former on-campus administrative building, Trocaire. She said Sr. Paulette’s presence overflows with peace and goodness.

“The same feeling I have when I’m around her from when I was in my twenties is still there, and I’m old now. She would often give me prayer cards. There is one card I still have today and it became one of my favorite ways of praying.”

Sr. Paulette still keeps in touch with many students after they graduate. She met Sean Vitale, class of 2012, when he was a freshman, and she found him filled with vitality and joy, she said.

“I finally stopped him and asked him for his name and he told me, and I told him who I was and from then on we got to be just good friends, and he’s come back to see me and we try to keep in touch. I have pictures of him that he’s sent, and he’s a wonderful young man and just one example of so many other students,” Sr. Paulette said.

Vitale remembers visiting Sr. Paulette during the spring of 2014 at a time when she was not feeling well. Instead of complaining about her difficulties, she spoke praise for the people at the university who showed her kindness and thankfulness towards God.

“She was a pillar of faith, and that demonstration is something I’ll never forget,” Vitale said. “She helped me to see the good in others and believe that same good lives in me.”

Scott Schukraft, a contracted service worker, said when Sr. Paulette learned of his son’s plight with end stage renal disease, she made it a point to visit with him whenever she saw him on campus.  Her sincere compassion, caring words, and daily prayers were a source of comfort to him in that difficult time, he said.

“Just seeing her walking around campus gave me and my family hope, hope that one day soon he would receive the gift of life.  Our prayers were answered when he received his transplant, and was able to resume his daily life.  I am, and always will be, indebted to Sister Paulette.  Her compassion and caring was shared with everyone she met and it is those qualities that truly make her a beacon of light and hope,” said Schukraft.

Edgar Tapia and David Tomko, members of the Grounds staff, said Sr. Paulette gave them new appreciation for the little things in life.

“Even on days I’m not feeling well, she always seems to brighten my day.  Sister Paulette always reminds me of how big of a heart I have and never to change, and for that I will always have a special place in my heart for her,” said Tapia.

“Sister Paulette fills every day with kindness and positivity.  She greets all with kindness and accepts everyone for who they are. You will begin to soon appreciate the small things that have been overlooked,” said Tomko.

Because of this and many other moments when Sr. Paulette provided support and motivation, the Grounds crew decided to dedicate a tree to her. It rests to the right of the waterfall in the center of campus. It was not the location Finnegan and her team originally chose. They changed their minds when Sr. Paulette disclosed  her favorite spot on campus, which, by no coincidence, is also a central spot, one that everyone can enjoy.

“I planned to plant it by the library because that was where I first was when I met her, but she loves the water feature,” Finnegan said.