Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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After 16 years, Sister Sharon Bongiorno retires from St. Francis of Assisi, Walla Walla
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Aug. 24, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Stephanie Pung (left) and Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Sharon Bongiorno. (IR photo courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Walla Walla)
More than 16 years ago, Sister Sharon Bongiorno, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, was in her seventh year as Pastoral Associate at St. Edward Parish, in Keizer, Ore. In January, 1990, she informed her superior that she intended to stay at St. Edward for one more year. A couple of months later, Sister Sharon’s superior sent her a copy of the job description for the position of Pastoral Minister at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Walla Walla, along with a note commenting that it was too bad this position wasn’t going to be open one year hence.
As it turned out, however, by the spring of 1990 Sister Sharon had reconsidered and decided to look into the position in Walla Walla. Her parents lived in Spokane, and were getting older, and she wanted to be closer to them.
“Fortunately,” she said, “I had saved the job description, and I quickly dug it out and called St. Patrick Parish to talk to the pastor,” who at that time was Father Kevin Codd. “He was on retreat, but the secretary said she knew that the job had not been filled thus far.”
Sister Sharon also knew that another member of her community already lived in Walla Walla and had a two-bedroom apartment, which was attractive to her because, she says, “I prefer to live in community and not alone.” Immediately, she mailed a copy of her resumé to Father Codd, along with a note, explaining that she would be in Walla Walla the following weekend, so she could visit with him then. Since she stayed on until the following Monday, she “was able to visit with some Parish Council members from St. Francis.” Soon after her return to Oregon Sister Sharon was offered the position at St. Francis, plus the parish house to live in. She called the other Sister from her community, explained the situation, and the two agreed to share the parish house instead of the apartment.
“We arrived Aug. 1, 1990,” Sister Sharon said, “and I began work on Aug. 15.”
She immediately took on the day-to-day parish activities, such as setting up for Masses and performing routine parish office tasks, including record keeping, paying bills, preparing financial reports, answering phones, preparing the weekly parish bulletin, and supervising parish buildings maintenance. She also began taking responsibility for visits to parishioners confined to their homes and training Eucharistic ministers, lectors, and altar servers.
Her ethnic background is Italian, something she has in common with many of the St. Francis parishioners, so she felt “akin to them from the start.”
If that weren’t enough, that fall, St. Francis celebrated its 75th anniversary. As part of the celebration, Sister Sharon formed a choir for the anniversary Mass. The choir continues to this day, under her direction until just a couple of years ago, when a talented parishioner took over that responsibility. Sister Sharon also soon took over the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program for both St. Francis and St. Patrick parishes.
“As the years progressed,” she said, “more young families came to the parish and the baptism rate increased. Many more children’s activities began to happen. For example, St. Nicholas comes at the end of Masses the first weekend of December. The children put on Christmas programs. An Easter egg hunt is held after Easter morning Masses. Confirmation/First Communion is held in the parish, and our high school graduates are honored at that same Mass. And Children’s Sunday Adventures and Vacation Bible Schools are organized each year.”
In addition to being responsible for the RCIA program, which prepares adults for baptism and/or full membership in the Catholic Church, Sister Sharon also took on the Baptism Preparation Program for all three of Walla Walla’s parishes – St. Francis of Assisi, St. Patrick, and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For the past three years Assumption Parish joined the other two parishes for the RCIA program. She also has become involved with the religion programs in Walla Walla’s two Catholic schools, Assumption Elementary and DeSales High School. “Occasionally, I was asked to make a presentation in some of the religion classes,” she said. “I tutored students at Assumption and checked in students for the hot lunch program.”
A couple of years ago, “I felt myself slowing down and began to see that my limitations were getting in the way of my ministry,” she said. “But we had many projects ‘in the hopper.’” She told Father Kerst, pastor of St. Patrick and St. Francis parishes, that she would stay until the end of July 2006. By then, St. Francis Parish’s 90th anniversary would be duly celebrated and the parish’s “big paint job” would be completed. The end-of-fiscal-year financial reports would be complete, and Sister Sharon could feel that she would leave her successor with most of the loose ends tied up.
Arriving in July to take over pastoral ministry responsibilities from Sister Sharon was Stephanie Pung, a recent graduate of Carroll College, a Catholic college in Helena, Mont. In May of this year, Stephanie received two bachelor’s degrees: one in theology, the other in English writing. A native of Lewiston, Idaho, Stephanie’s parents still live there, as does her younger sister who attends the University of Idaho, in Moscow.
“After graduating from college, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in a theological/religious field,” Pung said. I applied and was accepted to two different graduate programs for theological studies, but I chose to defer for at least a year to get a bit of experience, preferably in ministry. When I saw the advertisement for this position in Walla Walla, I was excited. This position was an answer to my prayers. The parish of St. Francis is a small and welcoming community, graciously willing to help and teach me as I learn. Walla Walla itself is a beautiful city, not too far from my hometown of Lewiston, and one that offers a variety of ways to become a part of the community.”
Walla Walla’s Catholic community celebrated Sister Sharon’s years of ministry at a reception held on July 30 in the St. Francis parish hall. Over 200 people from the community, parishioners and non-parishioners, Catholic and non-Catholic, attended. Children from the parish, dressed in matching hats and sunglasses and shirts with Sister Sharon’s picture on them, serenaded her with song, including, “You Are My Sunshine.”
Addressing the crowd of well-wishers, Sister Sharon shared some of her experiences during her 16 years of ministry in Walla Walla.
“So thank you all for a great ride on my St. Francis experience,” she said in conclusion. “In the words of a Carey Landry song: ‘I can’t get you all into one sentence, / I can’t neatly package all you mean. / For lines of words can never catch completely, / all that you mean to me.’ God bless you and let us keep each other in our prayers.”
Father Pat Kerst then gave Sister Sharon a special blessing based on the Prayer of St. Francis, and everyone received bookmarks imprinted with Sister Sharon’s picture and the Prayer of St. Francis. Sister Sharon’s framed photograph will now hang on the wall in the entryway of the church, along with photos of the priests who have ministered at St. Francis.
Her 16 years at St. Francis of Assisi “have been a challenging but very much a learning and rewarding experience,” she said. “I have been at St. Francis now longer than anywhere else in my life, even my childhood home, so I feel part of the ‘family’ and hopefully, like children who leave home, I can show up at the doorstep now and then. I will carry each of the families in my heart and will keep them in my prayers.”
She makes a point of declaring that “the three pastors I have had the privilege to work with, Fathers Kevin Codd, Mike Savelesky, and Pat Kerst have been wonderful mentors and co-ministers. They let me do my job and trusted my judgments and actions. I really felt like a co-minister and appreciated their respect and encouragements of women’s roles in the church. It was also a great experience to work with all the newly ordained priests that were assigned to our parishes.”
Although her official title is Pastoral Minister, “I’ve found that this position includes a wide variety of responsibilities,” said Pung. “Sister Sharon … has touched so many. She continues to teach me that the work that I will be doing in the office comes second to ministry which I will perform in the community and with the people.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity that I have been given to work in St. Francis Parish,” said Pung. “I will do my very best to continue the work that Sister Sharon has been lovingly performing for so long, while incorporating my own unique touch and using my particular talents.”