Little Sisters, big family

Love of dogs. Blue eyes. Having the name “Marie.” Hometowns. Faith.

These were just a few of the topics of conversation between teenage girls and residents of Mullen Home for the Aged as they worked together on St. Patrick’s Day crafts March 8 at the monthly Hospitality Club gathering.

“We found out we like a lot of the same things,” said teenager Erika Diaz, a student at St. Vincent de Paul School, as she and her mother Michelle Diaz, helped resident Marie Wrona, 92, make an Irish cross to brighten up her room in honor of the saint’s upcoming feast day.

“We have a lot of fun here,” said Wrona who has lived at the facility since moving here from Chicago two years ago to be near her daughter.

Seventeen young women—from 13 to 20—participated in Hospitality Club. The community meets at Mullen Home in the Highlands neighborhood of north Denver the second Saturday of each month, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., where they do crafts, games and projects with the residents, as well as attend Mass and have lunch together.

Some members have ministered to the elderly for years.

“I’ve been involved in Hospitality Club since sixth grade,” said Marie Lilles, 16, who is home-schooled, adding that she started volunteering at Mullen Home in first grade with her mother.

“I love working with the residents,” Lilles said. “To hear their stories; it’s incredible to learn about the things they’ve lived through.”

She also enjoys working with the Little Sisters of the Poor; the congregation that has run Mullen Home since 1917.

“I really love working with the sisters,” she continued. “They’re so open and loving. When I’m here and working with the residents or watching the sisters with the residents, it’s like I’m seeing Christ in both.

“When I come here, I feel like I’m at home.”

That’s a phenomenon that Sister Joseph Marie Cruz, one of nine Little Sisters at Mullen Home and coordinator of the Hospitality Club, understands well.

“The legacy of our foundress (Jeanne Jugan) is family spirit,” Sister Joseph said. “Anyone who walks in the door is part of our family.”

She walked through the door in the 1960s.

“I’m from a family of six girls, I’m the baby,” explained Sister Joseph, who grew up three blocks away at 3325 Mead Street. “My sisters would volunteer and they’d stay till all hours of the night because at that time the Little Sisters didn’t have employees.”

Her mother, Julia Ortega Cruz, was the first employee and worked in the kitchen. Today there are some 80 employees.

“(My sisters) would say: ‘Oh Mama, we did this with the sisters and we did that with the residents,'” and she would plead: “Oh Mama Mama, can I go?”

But at 9 years old, she was too young. Finally one day Mother Superior “Mother Rose” said she could come if she stayed in the kitchen near her mother.

“I didn’t like that,” she said. “Any time my mom turned her back, I’d walk out the back stairwell of the kitchen to be with the residents. I liked to comb their hair and feed them … as time went on, I got hooked.”

After serving in South America, France, Spain and other homes in the United States, Sister Joseph was happy to come back to Mullen Home and its 78 residents last May.

“When I came back to the U.S…. I was never ‘home-home,'” she said. But now she is. “I receive my joy in giving my life totally to God in caring for the elderly.”

That family spirit is what attracted Courtney Goodrum, 16, and her mother Vivienne Goodrum, parishioners of St. Thomas More in Centennial, to join Hospitality Club.

“We decided to come together and we’ve really enjoyed it,” Courtney said. “I love spending time with the residents and getting to know them individually. It’s helped me to love people more.”

In addition to the monthly gathering, they serve lunch to residents every Saturday.

“It’s been really fun,” she said. “Most of all, I’ve learned to be open to taking care of others, and to reach out to others.”

The outreach extends both ways.

“You come to help,” said Michelle Diaz. “But you find out you’re the one being helped.”

Hospitality Club
What: Young women 13-20 spend time with senior citizens
Where: Mullen Home for the Aged, 3629 W. 29th Ave., Denver
When: 9 a.m.-2 p.m., second Saturday of each month
Info: Call 303-594-7420 or email vcdenver@littlesistersofthepoor.org

Feast of St. Joseph March 19
St. Joseph is the patron saint of the Little Sisters of the Poor, dating back to foundress St. Jeanne Jugan.

“Whenever we need something we ask St. Joseph as the father of our little family,” said Little Sister Joseph Marie. “Just as Jeanne Jugan confided in St. Joseph when she needed anything.”

Additionally St. Joseph is the patron of a happy death.

“We accompany our residents from the moment they come into the door until the moment God calls them home to himself,” she said. “We have that fourth vow of hospitality which means that our goal is to never leave a resident dying alone.”

The Little Sisters give residents celestial sendoffs, singing the “Salve Regina” and “Hail Mary” as they near death.

“It’s just so beautiful and every Little Sister wants to be there,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re called at 2 a.m., 3 a.m.; every Little Sister wants to be there.”

It is a tradition on St. Joseph’s feast day for priests all over the country to serve in homes run by the Little Sisters. In keeping with the tradition, 14 priests of the Denver Archdiocese committed to serve lunch and spend time with Mullen Home residents March 19. The home also has a chaplain, Father Timothy Kremen, O.S.M.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”