Holy Names Srs. Mary Dernovek, Susan Mitchell and Kathleen Hepner have each spent a half-century in religious life. (Courtesy Sisters of the Holy Names)
Holy Names Srs. Mary Dernovek, Susan Mitchell and Kathleen Hepner have each spent a half-century in religious life. (Courtesy Sisters of the Holy Names)
MARYLHURST — This summer, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary are celebrating the 50-year anniversary of three women in Oregon.

Sr. Mary Dernovek

The youngest of four children, Sister Mary was born in Portland and raised on an 80-acre farm outside of Estacada, where she attended public schools. With the encouragement of her oldest sister, Dolores, she started college, majoring in physical education at Marylhurst College. She commuted from Beaverton, helping to take care of her sister’s growing family and getting to use her sister’s red Chevrolet Corvair.

During her freshman year she made the decision to become a sister; she jokes her only regret was leaving the Corvair behind. She continued her studies in PE, which required a special exemption from the mother general in Montreal to “change from her postulant attire into a white blouse, blue culottes and red tennis shoes,” she said.

Sister Mary completed her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and taught at St. Ignatius and Cathedral schools in Portland and at O’Hara School in Eugene.

Her master’s degree adviser was a grant writer, and Sister Mary realized she could use the skill to help Catholic schools subsidize tuition costs and raise funds for capital improvements. With her master’s degree in education and a business minor in hand, she was invited by Sacred Heart High School, Salem, and St. Mary’s Academy, Portland, to work for them — going back and forth between the two.

At the same time, a group of Salem development directors initiated WVDO (Willamette Valley Development Officers), a professional organization to provide education and support for those in the field. Sister Mary was asked to help, and with her trusty IBM Selectric typewriter she prepared the first membership roster and assisted with program planning. Eventually she became WVDO president. In this capacity, she realized many nonprofits could not afford consultants or training, so she formed Solutions for Non-profits to respond to the need.

When the National Catholic Educational Association established the Leave a Legacy program highlighting the importance of having a valid, current will as well as the rewards of making a bequest to nonprofit organization, Sister Mary traveled across the Pacific Northwest to introduce the program to numerous nonprofits.

Over the years Sister Mary has assisted a long list of nonprofits. Several have been especially close to her heart, including the St. Ignatius School Foundation, Neighborhood Health Clinics, Catholic Charities, Salem Catholic Schools, The Grotto, Jesuit Volunteer Corp, Loaves & Fishes, St. Mary’s Academy and Paulist Center.

In 2000, WVDO awarded Sister Mary its highest honor, “The Barbara Stallcup Miller Professional Achievement Award.”

Sister Mary said she feels grateful as she celebrates 50 years as a Holy Names Sister. She said she’s been richly blessed in the opportunities she’s been given and the encouragement and support of her sisters, friends, family and the organizations she’s helped.

Sr. Kathleen Hepner

Sister Kathleen, the eldest child of Vernon and Elizabeth Hepner, was born in Eugene. She lived with her parents and two brothers in a small “garage” home her carpenter/cabinetmaker father built. She attended a local public school for first and second grades and walked across to the local grange for a weekly religion class. On Sundays after Mass, she attended religious education class. During the summer she went to religious vacation school.

She met Holy Names Sisters in the Sunday and summer classes but was frightened of her teachers with the long black dresses.

Third grade was significant for the young Kathleen. Her family was among 20 founding families of St. Paul Parish and School in Eugene. Many weekends they helped build, plant, sew or create whatever was needed for the new parish and school or the home of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Kathleen learned simple hand stitching and embroidery at home, but she joined 4-H where learned how to use a sewing machine and how to construct clothing. These skills became a life-long hobby and way to pray and renew. During this time, Kathleen also felt the first urging to enter the convent.

When they were a little older, Kathleen and her brothers rode their bicycles to neighboring farms and picked crops during the summer. Their earnings gave them spending money, some of which they used to help their parents with school expenses.

Kathleen attended St. Francis High School where she again had Holy Names Sisters as teachers. In 1966 she entered the novitiate at Marylhurst, responding to the call she felt at age 9. She completed a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and language arts at Marylhurst College and went on to teach grades four through eight in Portland, Salem, Bend, Medford, Seattle and summer vacation schools in Central Oregon. During this time she obtained a master’s in education from Western Washington University

On retiring from classroom teaching, Sister Kathleen became an itinerate teacher, traveling to schools in the Portland, Baker, Spokane and Yakima dioceses teaching about the origins of Catholic education in the Pacific Northwest and the arrival of the Holy Names Sisters in Oregon and Washington. Following that, she became coordinator of the Holy Names chapel at Marylhurst, the position she currently holds.

Sr. Susan Mitchell

Sister Susan, the oldest of five children, was raised in a Catholic family on farms in in St. Paul, Beaverton and Newberg. Her family worked, played and prayed together. She said sharing in farm work and household chores, she learned responsibility and a strong work ethic.

Young Susan was surrounded by a large extended family that has stayed connected throughout the years. She attended Catholic schools in Beaverton through grade seven, then went to Newberg public schools. She knew she wanted to be a sister when she was a sophomore in high school. When she told her mother about this desire during her senior year, her mother, a graduate of Marylhurst Normal School, introduced her to a Holy Names sister. Susan applied and entered the Holy Names at Marylhurst immediately following graduation from Newberg High School in 1966.

Sister Susan experienced historic changes during her five-year initial formation at Marylhurst. Vatican II, which initiated groundbreaking changes in the church and in religious life, had ended the year before. Her first year as a postulant was very much religious life as it had been: wearing the traditional long postulant dress, following the common schedule of prayer, work, study, silence and recreation. The years that followed were ones of stimulating and energizing transition to updated dress, theology and community life.

After graduating from Marylhurst College, Sister Susan taught for 18 years in elementary schools in Portland, Lake Oswego and Salem. Sister Susan recalled those years as an often-tumultuous time of transition in religious life as many sisters responded to the unmet needs of those on the margins of society.

Sister Susan was introduced by a friend to L’Arche, an international federation of communities of faith founded by Jean Vanier. In the communities people with and without intellectual disabilities share life and create home together.

In 1990, Sister Susan joined L’Arche Portland, whose first home was newly opened. For the next 23 years she lived and worked at L’Arche Portland. She helped open a second home and assumed the roles of assistant, community coordinator and finally community leader/executive director. Sister Susan retired from L’Arche Portland in 2013 and is still active in its extended community.

After a renewing sabbatical year Sister Susan began her current role as community life coordinator for the retired sisters living at Mary’s Woods at Marylhurst. She said she’s learning from the wisdom and example of her elder sisters how to grow old gracefully, accepting the diminishments of aging while living life fully to the end.