Southwestern Indiana's Catholic Community Newspaper

Seeing Christ In The Poor

By Greg Eckerle, Special To The Message
Benedictine Sister Donna Marie Herr (third from right) and volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in Evansville make the sign of the cross as they begin prayer before the start of their morning shift.

Helping the poor has long been a passion for Sister Donna Marie Herr, a member of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand. 

As the coordinator for the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry & Office of Emergency Assistance in Evansville the past 10 years, she is in a great spot to assist those in need. 

Even in her prior 37-year stint as a teacher at Evansville’s Mater Dei High School, she often promoted the need to help others. “I tried to teach the students to live out their faith as being the hands that feed, as Jesus did,” she says. “He lived for 33 years, then entrusted that same mission to us. We are the hands and feet of Christ now.” 

And when it comes to feeding the poor, Sister Donna Marie steadfastly follows her approach of recognizing the presence of Christ within each person. 

A powerful passage written by a long-time St. Vincent de Paul official she knew is always in her thoughts. He wrote it just before he died of cancer: “For the past 50 years, we’ve kept people’s lights on, kept their homes warm, we’ve kept food in their refrigerator, and we keep our mouth shut about their names. For us, their name is Jesus Christ.” 

And one of her favorite illustrations depicts Christ in a bread line, in between several poor people awaiting some food. When describing the drawing, she quickly mentions the related gospel words of Christ: “what you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.” She acknowledges it’s a challenge for some to recognize that, but she personally feels it a privilege to serve in that way. 

The prayer Sister Donna Marie leads pantry volunteers through twice a day, five times a week, strongly echoes the same theme: “Lord Jesus, you who willed to become poor, give us a heart directed toward the poor; Help us to recognize you in them – in their hunger, their loneliness, and their misfortune. Strengthen us, so that we may serve you in them . . . “ 

She uses the prayer to propel herself and pantry volunteers into the right frame of mind for the day, reminding them to continually recognize Christ in their clients. The volunteers do that so well that Sister Donna Marie says, “One of the greatest joys I have is just watching the hospitality of our volunteers towards those who come in. That truly makes this a dream ministry for me. I am having the time of my life.” 

The pantry, which relies entirely on donations and grants, hands out free food, a personal hygiene item, a housecleaning item, and toilet paper to about 2,800 extremely low-income people every month. Recipients are limited to a 3-day food supply every 30 days. The Office of Emergency Assistance fields up to 600 referrals monthly for people with a variety of urgent needs – anywhere from meeting utility bills to paying rent to getting any kind of furniture for their bare apartment. A volunteer force of nearly 100 keeps the operation humming, with most working a half-day every week. Besides providing financial assistance and food, Sister Donna Marie points out the organization also offers the gift of friendship and a listening ear.  

Sister Donna Marie particularly savors the times when clients realize a volunteer has a “listening heart” and they share their struggles, and sometimes ask for prayers. One desk volunteer keeps a journal of people’s prayer intentions. Some of the entries provide a sobering reality of what customers are dealing with – 

  • That I can get my life back on track
  • Finally left extremely abusive husband, but can’t keep up financially
  • Pray for our family to stay together, for my mom to stay strong so we can keep our home
  • To get a good paying job and to get our own home
  • For healing for my daughter who is deeply angry
  • For my son who is in jail and is going to be sentenced to prison time
  • For me, a single father with custody of 6 children
  • That my MS won’t progress and that I don’t end up in a wheelchair

Sister Donna Marie talks about a man who arrives every fourth Wednesday. He is quite talkative, but has an extreme speech impediment and is difficult to understand. He normally appears an hour before the doors open, and Sister Donna Marie delights in going out to see him every time. Because she knows Christ is in him, too. 

Just as she knows Christ is in the others who show up -- grandmothers raising grandchildren, the disabled, people just released from prison, the man with the shell of a push lawn mower on which to lay his food, the ones who can only get there by walking or riding bicycles, and the ones who are upset that the services are for emergency help, and not for regular income.   

She tells the story of a volunteer registering a young man from Texas, who moved to live with his grandmother after his father died. Spotting the cross he was wearing, the volunteer asked why he wore it. He said it reminded him to always have hope. The volunteer told him to never give up, to keep that hope alive. Sister Donna Marie beamed after hearing that interaction, typical of the volunteers’ compassion and hospitality.

She also saw the time a mother came with three children. A referral desk volunteer noted one daughter’s birthday was the next day. The volunteer asked if she would like a birthday cake. Tears instantly rolled down the eyes of the mother. 

“One of the great delights for me is to witness the compassionate service exhibited routinely by our volunteers,” says Sister Donna Marie. “It’s very touching for me. 

“We meet emergency needs, and try to do things to improve clients’ lives.”   

Her own caring heart is quickly noticed by others. 

Vicki Eichmiller, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, says, “Sister Donna Marie has a way of making people feel calm, when she is kind and loving and brings a peace to things. Some people get agitated at the situation (they’re in), but I’ve never seen anyone get upset with her.

"Because of her devotion to the pantry, we have received some wonderful bequests. I believe it’s a reflection of the time she takes to write personal thank you cards and to make everyone feel special. She does a volunteer (recognition) week here (annually). She makes it such a family environment that she has a waiting list for people to volunteer. It’s really incredible. Volunteers love to come here, and they’ve often said it’s because of Sister Donna Marie.” 

Volunteer Erma Pfeiffer says of Sister Donna Marie: “She is definitely a role model; she helps everyone. I don’t think she ever misses a funeral for volunteers’ families. She never seems unhappy.” 

Another volunteer, Mary Damm, notes how hard Sister Donna Marie works. “No grass grows under her feet. She’s so calm and always so appreciative (of the volunteers). Even when some (customers) come in and get nasty, she’s able to cool them down.”         

Besides selecting the volunteers, Sister Donna Marie coordinates their schedules, and helps train them on office procedures and the computer program.  She orders and processes incoming food, and writes personalized thank you notes for every donation the facility receives. 

One of her favorite beliefs is that people may not remember what you did for them, but will remember how you made them feel. She readily compliments volunteers on such behavior toward clients.  

“I especially try to affirm people when I see that they really have a caring heart for people,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing to observe. I’m privileged to see how our volunteers treat others.  Another really neat thing that I see here is the community that forms among the volunteers. When I pick substitute volunteers, I try to choose someone I feel will be comfortable in that group. Simply, our operation would never be possible without the volunteers. 

“One of the office volunteers told me, ‘It means so much to me to come here. It puts everything in perspective. This is the highlight of my week.’” 

Sister Donna Marie was honored in 2017 by receiving Leadership Evansville’s Celebration of Leadership Award. She was nominated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Evansville, which wrote in its nomination letter, in part, “. . . when we hired her for manager . . . was the day that our pantry was blessed. . . . With her personality, a job that would be hard for most people, for her is common. . . .  Sister Donna comes to us with her dedication to her Benedictine background . . . What an inspiration (she is) to us . . . “   

Eichmiller says Sister Donna Marie is “a picture” of having people remember how one makes them feel. “She always has a smile and asks what she can do for me. People know that she made them feel special, loved, and cared for. She is a role model (for volunteers interacting with clients). She makes people feel comfortable. I’ve had people say, ‘Sister knows my name.’ That just warms my heart, when you work with people and make them feel like people, and not just a number. It’s pretty special. She runs a tight ship, but does it in such a kind and loving way that she makes it easy for people to want to be here.” 

Volunteer Bob Wathen wholeheartedly agrees. 

“She truly exemplifies everything of giving. She is very willing to do anything necessary to make sure these people are accommodated with food. She’s just a wonderful woman. She never misses a birthday card, and always has a little gift for you. She knows the candy bar you like. She’s always decorating for the seasons. 

“I’ve never seen her upset. She’s what you aspire to be. Calm and receptive. If the world was like Sister Donna, we wouldn’t have any problems.”