As a going away party for Sister Patricia Pfenning, a dessert potluck is set for Sunday, April 29, from 1-4 p.m. at St. Alphonsus Parish Hall in Dufur.
She is gratefully accepting donations for Dufur Outreach or her religious order, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
Sister Patricia is also doing a give-away as part of the celebration.
Sister Patricia Pfenning doesn’t look 78, and she certainly doesn’t act it.
A 20-year fixture in Dufur who is leaving soon, she quietly goes about finding help for those in need. But she is outspoken in every other regard.
She quickly shatters any image you might have of a placid, serious Catholic nun. Funny and unfiltered — and partial to colorful tennis shoes — she is liable to say unexpected things like, “A lot of religious art is bad.”
She describes her role thusly: “I show up and I hang around.” She is assigned to the parish of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church.
But Sandy Macnab, who has lived in Dufur since 2009, said it is much more than that.
He said he’s still learning how many things she’s been involved in. “I think she’s going to leave a hole in this community that people don’t know is there until it exists.”
She’s provided a non-judgmental, listening ear to many, while also imparting wisdom, Macnab said.
She’s been a regular at his Thanksgiving table. She brought food to share, but also always took away a plate for someone else who was alone.
He was always amazed how she knew everybody in town.
“She will be missed, whether she knows it or not,” Macnab said.
He appreciates her frankness. “She’s got some interesting ideas, and I think she’s reached the point where she can speak her mind and not worry if it’s politically correct or not,” he said. “I enjoy that.”
Thinking on her departure, Pfenning said she will miss the birds, the 150 kids that come for Halloween, and reading to students on Dr. Seuss’s birthday.
She has this to say about her youthful appearance: “I don’t get the respect I deserve. Nobody thinks I’m as old as I am.”
She credits looking years younger to genetics. “Everybody thinks it’s because I’m a nun. No, I can show you some very wrinkled nuns.”
The gold ring on her ring finger regularly prompts confusion. “I’m not married to God. I get that all the time.”
Rather, it’s her sign of commitment, given to her in 1968 when she made her final vows at age 31 with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary at Marylhurst College in Lake Oswego. Her education-focused religious order founded St. Mary’s Academy in The Dalles over 150 years ago.
She even taught at St. Mary’s for a year, and her students included Dufur native Kyle McCullough.
When she does leave — sometime in May — she will be heading back to the very facility where she took her vows, the place having since become a retirement community called Mary’s Woods at Marylhurst.
She said she’s not retiring, because nuns don’t retire. “They keep on ministering. Even when they’re bedbound, there’s always prayer.”
A party for her is set for April 29. (See sidebar).
Political incorrectness is actually nothing new for Pfenning. She was called “snippy” and “nosy” in her days at the convent.
After an argument once, she was chastised and told to show Christian charity. Pfenning sharply replied, “I’ll practice Christian charity when I have an example of Christian charity!”
After working in the metro area for years, she headed east 22 years ago when her order decided more representation was needed in eastern Oregon. After two years in The Dalles, she settled in Dufur.
Shortly after she arrived in Dufur, where she sees herself as a social worker, a food pantry was started at the parish. The community stocks it and the local churches each have keys to it to help those in need.
She’s massaged the feet of the dying and given comfort to anyone who has lost a loved one. “I’m comfortable around death. I can be there for people. I know I don’t have to say anything.”
She reads to kids, has worked as a teacher’s aide, and served on the school site council.
Dufur School Superintendent Jack Henderson counts himself a huge fan of Pfenning’s. “She’s done so many things. It’s amazing the amount of care Pat has poured into the area.”
She’s pitched ideas that the school has implemented, he said, but the biggest contribution was her instrumental role in developing the scholarship program for the school.
She helped people decide to name Dufur Schools in their will, and as a result, “she has probably unknowingly helped provide the scholarships to help Dufur students fund their post-secondary education forever,” he said.
Pfenning served a town, not just a congregation, she said. Indeed, her few personal contacts in town are mostly non-Catholic.
“It’s hard sometimes. I’m Sister Patricia.” In traditional Catholic thinking, “the greatest honor was to have the priest come to dinner — not the nun.” But, she added, “I guess that’s the life I chose, and that goes with it.”
One of her biggest impacts, she’s felt, is her time with the weekly senior potlatch meal.
She once wrote, “I’ve learned over the years that it is the small talk — the willingness to be with — that makes the difference in people’s lives.”
She loves being with people, and gives fully of herself to them. But she also loves being alone, to recharge.
About 13 years ago, she wrote an article about her work in a Catholic magazine — they told her, “You would’ve been on the cover, but the pope died” — and got numerous donations. She plowed them into the pantry and parish, buying things like books and films, and cards to send to college students.
She is subsidized by her religious community and a little bit of Social Security money, and lives in a rented trailer a few blocks from the church.
Her poverty vow means living as simply as possible and holding everything in common as a religious order. She feels guilty about the seven pairs of inexpensive colorful shoes she has, but says those and her earrings are her “statements.”
Pfenning believes God talks to her through dreams. One last May told her it was time to retire, and she began planning for it right away.
In another dream, years ago when she was only 40, she was up in a balcony with other seminarians — men studying for the priesthood — and they were all talking about when they had a call toward ordination. But when she gave her answer, nobody could hear her.
While she has long felt the call to ordination, she knew that something like the Catholic church allowing women to become priests would never happen in her lifetime.
But she got a sense of that work when she was the spiritual director for five years at a men’s religious retreat, where she gave talks.
For a time in Dufur, she was able to do communion services. Now, she takes “great pride” in how she reads from the Lectionary, which provides the weekly messages that form the topic of the homily, or sermon.
Her religious formation was a seven-year process, in which she made interim vows twice before making her final vows.
Pfenning took three years of college and worked for awhile before entering the convent. She remembers a friend in high school wondering if she should join a convent, and Pfenning surprised herself by replying, “Me too.”
She argued with God against the idea, but went to school prom and didn’t feel she belonged there either. She finally decided she couldn’t save her soul on her own and chose religious life.
Joining a convent wasn’t always welcome news to a family. One fellow nun was disowned by her father. Pfenning said families experience “a grief” because their daughter will never marry or have children.
She also had her moments of doubt about her faith. “Everybody does.”
She was in the convent during the passage of Vatican II, which liberalized the Catholic church. For their final vows, they refashioned their floor-length wool habits into suits.
By then she’d finished her history degree, with a minor in science, and began teaching. She only taught 11 years because of her fibromyalgia, which gives her more fatigue than pain.
“I wore myself out,” she said, but she loved teaching because she related to kids.
Pfenning was told the school district planned to thank her at their May 7 board meeting for having a hand in two major donations to the school.
But Pfenning simply reflected that credit right back to the community. “This place is generous.”