Since founding Mount Marty College (MMC) in 1936, the Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery have made efforts to be involved with the school’s student body. These methods have ranged from being professors to serving roles in the campus ministry.
One of the better known methods used today is the Prayer Partner program, through which MMC students, faculty and staff are matched with a Sister with whom they meet with occasionally to discuss their material and spiritual lives.
Students also interact with their prayer partners through game nights and formal prayer gatherings a few times a semester.
The program began in 1985 as a vocation effort through S. Rosemarie Maly, who was the vocation director at the time.
"I thought it would be a good idea to have the Sisters in touch with the students more directly," she said. "It was a way to build relationships with the students."
One of those students was then-sophomore S. Maribeth Wentzlaff, who was serving on the MMC pastoral council (which served as a precursor to the Catholic Leadership groups in existence today). She was in charge of collecting names of students who would be interested in having a prayer partner at the monastery while Maly gathered Sisters who were interested in being part of this new venture.
Through pairings chosen at random, Maly and Wentzlaff became prayer partners. This was around the time Wentzlaff was considering entering into the religious life.
"(The program) gave me someone I could talk to while I was in that discernment process of trying to figure out if this was what I wanted to do," she said. "She held my feet to the fire by saying, ‘Is this where God is calling you?’ A prayer partner should ask, ‘How are you getting closer to God?’"
By being involved with the program, students can meet with Sisters and, in turn, develop their own connection to their faith, she added.
Wentzlaff ultimately joined the Sacred Heart community her junior year of college.
The Prayer Partner program continued throughout the years, when in 2006, MMC’s current director of campus ministry, Jordan Foos, signed up for the program and was paired with the late S. Eileen O’Connor. Through her, Foos gained insight into living out the Benedictine beliefs.
"For students that are new to the campus, the Benedictine peace is maybe a little foreign to them and they don’t have a grasp of what it means," he said. "My interactions with S. Eileen helped me to understand what it means to live your life in a way that reflects the teachings of St. Benedict — a simple way to live where prayer is very important and where our work is sanctified by our prayer and vice versa."
Foos went so far as to become a Benedictine oblate (i.e. a layperson that has affiliated himself with a monastic community of their choice) during his time as a student. He also continued to have O’Connor as his prayer partner throughout his four years at MMC.
Prior to coming back to MMC as a staff member in 2014, Foos would stop by to visit O’Connor whenever he was in Yankton. She even served as a Eucharistic minister in his wedding ceremony.
Students who may initially be intimidated to have a Sister as a prayer partner need to remember that they are also regular people, Foos said.
"They watch baseball and a lot of the same TV shows that students watch, and they’re funny," he said.
He recalled O’Connor’s office being filled with VHS tapes of movies and books, one of which was "The Seven Storey Mountain" written by Thomas Morton, a book Foos had also read and that had provided both of them with spiritual guidance.
"(The Sisters) bring students to a spiritual depth and maturity that will help them navigate some of the difficult things they might be going through," he said. "There are lifelong relationships that get built from the Prayer Partner program that can provide a lot of support beyond a student’s years at Mount Marty."
This year, 85 students and approximately 35 faculty and staff members have prayer partners. Most, if not all, of the Sisters in the program have more than one prayer partner. Maly herself has five.
"God doesn’t say, ‘You can only take prayers for this many people,’" she remarked.
One MMC student currently feeling the positive effect of the program is senior Abby Keffeler, who has had Wentzlaff as her prayer partner for the last four years.
"Part of the reason I decided to come to Mount Marty was because of the Prayer Partner program," she said. "Being able to get to know the Sisters and connect with them was really appealing to me."
Having that connection with the Sisters — and Wentzlaff in particular — has been good for her, she said.
"(Wentzlaff) is so full of life and is always able to put a smile on my face," Keffeler said. "I can trust her and talk to her and know she’ll be there to support me in prayer, and vice versa. She helps me remember to keep my faith the most important aspect of my life."
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