How did Sister Francella Vyverman find her niche at Washington Street Mission?
Photography by Aaron Tebrinke.
Sister Francella Vyverman traffics in lap robes.
It comes with the job of pastoral minister to the sick and elderly of Cathedral Parish, her beat since 2002.
On a piercing cold day last fall, she was stymied about what to do with a surplus of the volunteer-crafted quilts filling her back seat. “I’d already given away as many lap robes as I could to the Cathedral parishioners convalescing at home, in the nursing homes, and in the hospitals,” she explained.
“I’m coming down Fourth Street saying to God ‘OK now, send me the right way’” she recalls. Just then, she passed Springfield’s historic Washington Street Mission.
Founded by the famed evangelist Billy Sunday in 1910, the mission has anchored Springfield’s homeless community ever since, though it only spent its first eight years on its namesake street.
“I saw people out in the cold, even a lady with two babies,” Sister Francella continued. “I stopped the car and told somebody, ‘I need to talk to your boss.’” The chaplain appeared at her car window.
“I’m going to show you something. You can have it if you want,” Sister Francella remembers the moment. She pointed to the back seat. The chaplain’s eyes brightened. “’My God,’ he said, “’Do you know what this means for us?’” He relieved her of three bags of quilts and invited her in.
“When I saw the people inside, I wanted to help and asked if I could come back. I was told I was welcome anytime to pour coffee and wipe tables,” Sister Francella recounted.
Call it chance, or the work of the Holy Spirit, this volunteer ministry started serendipitously but has become a cherished part of Sister Francella’s week.
Her compassionate heart is the key to her success as busser-of-tables at the mission. But don’t underestimate the donuts.
Not many people who know her would have thought this would be the niche Sister Francella would find for herself in her 75th year. Born in Taylorville, Ill., to Frank and Mary Vyverman, she boarded at Sacred Heart Academy and joined the sisters at 17. Soon she was teaching first and second graders at on Chicago’s South Side. She hung out in primary schools for 33 years before moving on to hospital chaplaincy and pastoral ministry.
If she’s faced a challenge in her days at the mission, it’s been learning not to judge, Sister Francella says. “One day a lady threw a donut at my back and got frosting in my hair.” She recalls that Jim Medley, the kitchen manager and volunteer coordinator, brought her back to the kitchen for a touch-up. “It will take me one minute to clean it off” he said as he tended to the sticky mess with a damp towel. “Are you afraid?” he asked. No, she said, she wasn’t. “Some people would be very afraid.” he told her.
Why was this genteel woman—who came of age in boarding school and presided for decades over first-grade classrooms—so obviously at home at Washington Street Mission?
“I saw people out in the cold, even a lady with two babies,” Sister Francella continued. “I stopped the car and told somebody, ‘I need to talk to your boss.’”
“I had seen so many other things,” she explained, starting with experiences in hospital emergency rooms and neurology units. “I saw some very scary things. I just had to learn to cope.” Then, digging deep into her own story she explained her mother’s struggle following brain surgery and the illnesses that ensued. “And after holding my own mom in my arms after many grand mal seizures, I guess I could do anything,” she said.
Sister Francella’s compassion for people who suffer was forged in her childhood and nurtured by the witness of her father’s gentleness and patience. Frank Vyverman was faithful to his spouse, and supportive of his children. Sister Francella cared for him, too, after he suddenly became blind in 1989 until his death four years later.
Her compassionate heart is the key to her success as busser-of-tables at the mission. But don’t underestimate the donuts. For years, a local shop has provided her with a couple dozen donuts to share with parishioners as she makes her communion rounds. Since learning about the addition to her morning routine, the shop owners let her take as many day-olds as she needs.
On this damp April Friday that meant five boxes—ten dozen donuts—piled into the passenger seat of her dusty grey Taurus.
“Her alone gives this place some balance,” he says, waving his arms in the general direction of everywhere. “She’s got enough positive about her to wipe out all the negative.”Mark
Once at the mission Sister Francella honked the horn. Guests ran to greet her and relieve her of her sugary burden. They were happy for the donuts and equally pleased to see Sister Francella, who greets patrons gently as she walks through the pungent corridor into the kitchen.
She fills a carafe with the first of gallons of coffee she’ll pour this day. Other helpers whisk donuts onto dayroom counters to fortify the dozens of people who’ve anticipated breakfast since they arrived from their various resting places in Illinois’ capitol city’s shelters, alleys, and doorways.
A man with full head of gray hair naps at a table, head buried in a Cardinal-red jacket. Another huddles on a staircase, telescopic white cane folded under his legs, a small dog on his lap. “It’s scary being blind and homeless, man” he says, and asks for a prayer for his safety.
A woman—not more than 35, certainly—with an appealing, open face and a smile that reveals a lack of dental care, races through a list of institutes of high education where, she insists, she gained her educational credentials that prepared her for a distinguished military career.
Sister Francella approaches two friends at a table. “Good morning, gentlemen, would you like another cup?” When they decline, she asks, “Where will you eat today?” prompting a conversation between them as she moves on. She stops pouring to sit beside Michael and chat. They look for all the world like old friends. Later she says that Michael, distinguished-looking and gentlemanly, is sitting away from the crowd because he is new at the mission and not quite comfortable there.
Under a shop-window-size, gilt framed proclamation: “NOW is the Day of Salvation,”—a white-haired volunteer plays old-timey gospel tunes, lost behind laughter and loud conversation. In an adjoining space Mark and Amber Rose enjoy their coffee and donuts in what Mark called the “quiet room.” The patrons are noticeably calmer in here. Christian pop music plays through the speakers. An amicable buzz permeates the room. I explain that I’m with Sister Francella. Mark immediately calls her “a blessing.”
“Her alone gives this place some balance,” he says, waving his arms in the general direction of everywhere. “She’s got enough positive about her to wipe out all the negative.”
“Yes, that’s right, a blessing,” chimes in Amber Rose.
Balance and blessing seem to be the words of the day. Danny Yocum, the men’s ministry coordinator says Sister Francella brings a “motherly balance,” noting that her very presence calms the spaces in the cavernous building—a 1920s auto dealership—where guests hang out.
On her way back to the kitchen for a coffee refill, Sister Francella is stopped by a gentleman to whom she introduces herself.
“I can tell you are a sister and a volunteer” he teases, “Because you are not a regular.” Then he asks “Do you have a nickname?”
“I do,” she says, “but I’m not telling you what it is. That is for my brother to call me only.” Then she leans in closer and confides affectionately “But some people around here call me The Donut Sister.”
This story was updated 5/12/17 to correct an error regarding the history of Washington Street Mission.