Sister Juana Gutierrez
Sister Juana Gutierrez
Each July, the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon honor sisters who are marking a significant milestone of prayer, vocation, ministry, and service to God through jubilees.

“The five women we are honoring this jubilee epitomize what it means to consider prayerfully God’s call to service and the joy found in a lifetime pursuit of a true counter-culture life,” said Sister Michael Francine Duncan, superior general. “These sisters are a vibrant part of our community, and their contributions to education, health care, and horticulture are a big reason why our ministries have grown and thrived for more than 136 years.”

The “SSMOs” (rhymes with “snows”) were founded in 1886 in Oregon. Their motherhouse is in Beaverton on the same campus as Valley Catholic schools and the Maryville Care Facility.

The five sisters celebrating jubilees come from different backgrounds and have all blazed different trails answering their call to serve God.

Sister Clare Vandecoevering

Born in 1930, Sister Clare Vandecoevering felt an early call to God's service — in the first grade. She considered herself a regular kid who enjoyed playing, talking with friends and even finding herself standing in the corner for socializing a little too much in school. She was raised in a large religious family of 14 children. She cherishes those memories, particularly those of William and Delia Vandecoevering, her parents.

This July, during the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon’s jubilee celebration, Sister Clare celebrates 75 years of service to God.

Upon entering the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon in 1946, she used her gifts and experiences from her large family to connect with and teach children catechism. "It was the thrill of my life going parish to parish," Sister Clare said. She typically traveled to parishes throughout Oregon, Idaho and Washington.

Sister Clare shared these experiences with two of her younger blood sisters. Sister Anne and Sister Agnes Marie both joined the convent in 1953. "As Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, religion and religious education came first for the three of us,” Sister Clare said. “We had the opportunity to visit many parishes and teach summer religion classes. Sister Anne was the organizer, Sister Agnes Marie was the artist, and I did the teaching. We have done over 100 summer class programs."

Recalling her teaching days, she said it was essential to let the students be active participants in selecting their study groups and not separate them by grade. "We put the students in a group, just like you're choosing a team, they would choose their own team," Sister Clare said. The sister sisters kept the lessons interesting, sharing God's word through movies, activities, and related projects.

While most of her education ministry focused on elementary-aged children, she also taught older students and adults at a number of schools and parishes.

Reflecting on her years of service, Sister Clare shared her thoughts for any woman who may be considering a life of service to God. "I would like to tell the whole world that they don't know how wonderful this is,” she said. “We are truly blessed. I want to shout it from the rooftops that this is the only way to live."

Sister Clare added with a soft smile, "Of course, there wouldn't be any people out there if they were all nuns."

Sister Juana Gutierrez

“I felt that God was always looking for me though I was stubborn. I didn't always listen. But God will find different ways of bringing us where he wants us to be, you know? It took 27 years for me to say, ‘Yes,’ to religious life,” said Sister Juana Gutierrez, a Sister of St. Mary of Oregon.

This July, Sister Juana celebrates 25 years of service to God during the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon’s Jubilee celebration.

Sister Juana was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and grew up with nine siblings. In 1992, her family moved to Hillsboro.

Sister Juana was 24 years old and could not write, read or speak English. Her family found community at St. Matthew Church where she became an active member. She enjoyed going to prayer, Mass and spending time with friends who were also a part of the Catholic community in Hillsboro.

Sister Juana had no intention of becoming a sister. She did not attend Catholic school and was not exposed to Catholic religious life as a child.

However, her time in the Hillsboro faith community was how she discovered her passion for teaching. “I decided to become a teacher because I just love being around children,” said Sister Juana. “They're so easy. They're not complicated at all. And their problems are easy to solve. They give me a lot of joy. I love being with them.”

In 1996, a close friend of Sister Juana invited her to a discernment retreat at the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon Motherhouse. When she was introduced to Sister Elizabeth Sohler, she immediately knew she would consider a life of service to God. “I liked her dress. That’s all it took to convince me,” said Sister Juana.

At age 28, Sister Juana joined the SSMO community and spent her novitiate years learning English. She became bilingual and started teaching. Sister Juana’s ministries have included Hispanic Ministry at St. Anthony Parish in Forest Grove and teaching Spanish at Valley Catholic Early Learning School. Currently, she is teaching third grade at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Milwaukie.

Reflecting on her unique path to ministry, she concludes, “Try before you say no. Be open. Have the experience first before you say no. Visiting a community and staying a few months is helpful because then you will know for sure if God is calling you.”

Sister Julie Doan

“Everything is a gift from God,” said Sister Julie Doan, as she reflected on the journey that led her to the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. “My call to be a religious sister was postponed a couple of times, but the sisters’ warm and welcoming spirit captured me.”

This July, during the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon’s jubilee celebration, Sister Julie celebrates 25 years of service to God.

Sister Julie’s journey to the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon was harrowing. She was born and raised in South Vietnam where she grew up in a large family and was taught by religious sisters from different orders. She enjoyed spending time with them and was inspired by the stories they shared of the saints. Their communal life attracted her, but it was not to be in her homeland.

When she was 14, her parents decided it was time to escape the Vietnamese communists. Motivated by the desire to protect their children from the persecution they experienced and to be free to worship God, the family divided up and fled to Thailand in 1979.

Sister Julie, with her dad and younger sister, fled the country by boat with 42 other refugees. They were nearly captured by the Vietnamese navy, and their boat was attacked by pirates. They were robbed and beaten multiple times before the pirates finally sank their vessel and left them for dead. Thai fishermen spotted and rescued them, but nine people did not survive the escape.

“My family survived — all six of us,” Sister Julie recalled. “It is a testimony to God’s providence. I still think of those who passed away; they were my inspiration to become a sister.”

Although they were rescued, living as refugees in Thailand and later in the United States was extremely hard. The fast-changing climate, constant threat of attack by both pirates and guards and the lack of food, water, and shelter made life in Thailand difficult. Life improved when they made it to the U.S. but it was still challenging because her family was very poor and struggled with the language barrier.

“God gave us opportunity to grow,” said Sister Julie. “A young Catholic family sponsored us and Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie began to support my family.”

That was where Sister Julie first met the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon because her fellow jubilarian, Sister Clare Vandcoevering, who is celebrating her 75th jubilee, was a teacher there.

At that point, though, Sister Julie thought being a sister was no longer meant for her. She had to work hard to help support her family and had to study hard to learn English and get her education. She remembered the Vietnamese sisters inspiring her to teach, so she began to focus on school and working toward teaching catechism. Her drive led her to finish high school and get her associate’s degree. She began teaching Vietnamese-American children and translating in parishes.

That is how God brought Sister Julie full circle. In 1996, a friend who was interested in religious life, asked her to accompany her to the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon campus to help translate for her. They met Sister Catherine Hertel who invited both women to visit the Sisters as often as they wished.

“The sisters’ love and acceptance compelled me to join them and learn how to be a faithful and joyful servant of the Lord,” Sister Julie reflected.

The Sisters encouraged her to complete her master’s degree in education and to continue to make herself available to the communities and parishes she served. Currently, she is a third-grade teacher at St. John Fisher School in Portland.

“God is graciously merciful and full of compassion,” Sister Julie said. “He teaches me the values of emptying and receiving because he wants me to know that he is my all.”

Sister Patricia Lulay

Sister Patricia Lulay said she was literally “born into the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.” She was one of nine in her family, always surrounded by religious women and priests in Sublimity.

When she was in third grade, her teacher, Sister Beatrice Rigert, asked the class, “Who would like to be a sister or priest?” Young Patricia raised her hand. She had her picture taken on the steps of the St. Boniface Convent. That was her first memory of expressing her desire to live a religious life.

However, during high school, Sister Patricia said she was the “least likely in her graduating class to come into a religious community.” She moved to Portland and started working directly after high school, but felt neither completely happy nor fulfilled.

She felt God calling her and after one year, in 1971, she asked to enter the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.

Sister Patricia celebrates her 50th year in ministry. Five of her extended family members currently live with her in the community.

Over her decades living on the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon campus, Sister Patricia developed her green thumb by tending the gardens and grounds, especially the roses. As a lifelong learner, she also has served in elder care, food service, and, recently, the formation of the younger sisters.

Sister Patricia said, “Living a life of prayer, community, and service has been beautiful and fulfilling. All the blessings I have received over the years have given me meaning and purpose in my life. Serving others as a way of loving God has been my greatest gift. I am very thankful for my community and all the good we do for the world.”

St. Patricia concluded, “If a young person is looking for a rewarding, counter-cultural life, this is one of them. It is an exciting way of life; it’s a very, very, very good life, a difficult life at times, but a good life.”

Sister Theresa Ann Bunker

Sister Theresa Ann Bunker celebrates seven decades of service to God this July, during the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon’s jubilee celebration.

Sister Theresa Ann was born Nov. 5, 1933, at her family farm home in Dayton Prairie in Yamhill County. Her birth was difficult. The attending physician ordered an ambulance and took parents and child to the McMinnville Hospital. Her parents prayed to St. Thérèse of Lisieux — “The Little Flower” — for both her and her mother. If she lived, they promised to name her Theresa. Her middle name would be Ann, after her grandmother Anna and St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus.

Sister Theresa Ann believes her vocation to religious life began at her challenging birth. It was a Sunday morning, and her parents told her she was born between the first and second Mass. She was close to the sisters in McMinnville throughout her youth, bringing milk and butter from her family’s farm to the convent. At the age of 7, she declared she would be a sister.

In high school, she dated boys and attended sporting events and dances like other girls, not yet knowing if she was being called to a traditional married life. Her mother asked if she remembered her childhood pledge. With that inquiry, Sister Theresa Ann started praying again about her vocation to religious life — and found the answer to be freeing. At 18, she knew religious life was her calling.

When Sister Theresa Ann Bunker entered the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, she knew she did not want to teach but was eager to care for others. This confirmed that nursing would be her vocation. She admits that early life in the convent was challenging. She was desperately homesick and bonded with the other sisters who were also struggling with separation from their families. Some of her favorite memories included the joys of serving together and having fun playing games like softball. “I taught them how to do the backbend,” she said.

In 1963, when Maryville officially opened on the sisters’ campus, Sister Theresa Ann became one of its first nurses. After 40 years serving Maryville residents, she now serves her religious sisters in the motherhouse.

Sister Theresa Ann said, “I am very grateful to God for my vocation, my family, my sisters in the community, those with whom I have worked, met, and those who have supported me in so many ways through these years.” She said if she had to make the choice again, “I would do it again. I would do it all over again.”