Sister Stories: Our Life and Ministry

Sister Lyn Szymkiewicz, CSJ | Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania

 From the intricate workings of a honey bee colony to partnerships with local farmers, Sister Lyn Szymkiewicz finds God in all creation.

“Whether it is the Sister we live with, the person in the check-out line or some part of creation that has been entrusted to our care, I trust that God will work through my simple attempts to reveal his presence there,” she says.

Sister Lyn, Director of Grounds and Eco-Projects for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, works with farmers, school children and community groups to foster environmental education, conservation and sustainability on the Motherhouse grounds and throughout Western Pennsylvania. She maintains the Congregational apiary and garden, makes honey and soap and shares produce with local food banks.

Over the past 25 years, Sister Lyn has held one particular aspect of the Congregation’s Directional Statement close to her heart: “Be attuned to how all of creation lives and moves and has its being in God.”

Sister Lyn coordinates the Earth Tones Ministry, which brings together Sisters who share an interest in enhancing relations between nature and God and educating others about those connections. She is presently coordinating a Building Sustainable Communities Project with seven congregations of women religious and local farmers and distributors.

“I have been surprised by how God uses the ordinary circumstances of my life to reveal his presence to others. I pray in gratitude for the companions on my journey,” she adds.

With degrees in Health and Physical Education, Theology and Earth Literacy, Sister Lyn previously served as Director of Religious Education at St. Bernard Parish in Indiana, Pa., Director of Formation Ministries for the Sisters of St. Joseph and part-time librarian at Mount Gallitzin Academy.

Sister Elaine Hromulak (center) and her former students from Texas display a batch of dresses they made for impoverished children.

Sister Elaine Hromulak (center) and her former students from Texas display a batch of dresses they made for impoverished children.

Sister Elaine Hromulak, OSF | School Sisters of St. Francis

When Sister Elaine Hromulak completed her term as provincial minister of the School Sisters of St. Francis in 2011, she began a new ministry position at Catholic Cemeteries Association. But she also wanted a new personal project to which she could direct her passions. That’s when she learned about Little Dresses for Africa (LDfA).

LDfA was founded in 2008 to provide relief to vulnerable children throughout Africa and beyond. Volunteers worldwide craft dresses out of pillowcases or other simple patterns. The donated dresses are delivered to needy areas by mission teams and mail for distribution to orphanages, churches and schools.

The widespread AIDS pandemic is especially challenging for young girls in Africa, who often serve as primary caregivers of their younger siblings. LDfA aims to plant a seed of hope among these little girls by giving each the simplest of things that most take for granted – a new, clean dress. As the project’s motto states, “We’re not just sending dresses; we’re sending hope!”

With a dress pattern in hand and a hefty supply of fabric from Sister Mercedes Benko, Sister Elaine began to sew. Soon Sisters Ruth Zacharias and Irene Novak got involved as well. Before long, alumnae from Texas who come to Pittsburgh each spring to assist with the sisters’ Spring Festival, caught the sewing bug too.

More than five years later, the labor of love culminates each April when all the year’s finished dresses are gathered at Mount Assisi Convent in Pittsburgh and prepared for shipment to Africa and other areas. Sister Elaine estimates that her sewing group has finished nearly 300 dresses.

In the past, dresses have been directed to St. John Mission in Barberton, South Africa, where sisters care for children of all ages afflicted with HIV and full-blown AIDS. They’ve also reached India and the Czech and Slovak Republics. Just this past summer, Sister Elaine provided 75 dresses to the Diocese of Pittsburgh for the diocesan mission in Chimbote, Peru. There the dresses were distributed to little girls – most under age 5 – in the Chimbote orphanage. The missionaries reserved a partial supply of dresses to give to the children as Christmas presents.

“Even in the cooler winter months, the children wear the dresses over other clothing because it makes them feel special,” says Sister Lillian Bockheim, a Dominican sister from Grand Rapids, Mich., who has ministered in the Chimboti mission for nearly 50 years.

Sister Elaine and the Texas alumnae were especially heartened recently when they received photos of little girls from Chimboti wearing dresses they’d made. “You just can’t imagine how happy we feel to see these beautiful little girls wearing the dresses we made for them,” says alum and associate Armandina Garcia, whose mother died earlier this month. “The dresses I made were made with love not only from me, but from my mother who helped me pin the back of the dresses when she was visiting me.”

Each dress takes about two to three hours to complete. Sister Mercedes died in 2014, but Sister Elaine and her team are still exhausting her bountiful supply of fabric. They do, however, have to constantly restock their supply of bias tape, lace and trimmings. Over the coming months they will focus on sewing dresses for the smallest children who are in the most need.

To donate or to get involved in Sister Elaine’s sewing group, contact her at 412-761-6004. To learn more about the international project, visit www.littledressesforafrica.org.