Published March 5, 2015
VILLA MARIA, Pa.—Humility of Mary Sister Damian Schirmer, 83, died Jan. 25. The daughter of Frank and Catherine Schirmer, she had been professed for 61 years.
She was a pioneer in parish team ministry in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, serving from 1967-75 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna, and at Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Jan. 29 with the Humility of Mary community in Villa Maria, Pa.
In August 1967 Sister Damian, along with Sisters Mary Ann Brennan and Elizabeth Lee Heisler, came to Smyrna to serve with the pastor, Father Richard B. Morrow, at the then year-old St. Thomas the Apostle Church. Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan had directed Father Morrow to establish a strong educational component in the life of the new parish, a rapidly growing, vibrant community.
A form of parish administration, later recognized as a pioneer model and named team ministry, sprang from the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and began to take shape with the arrival of the sisters. As parish associates they shared a meal each day with Father Morrow, built community as a pastoral team, and identified and planned for the needs of the people. Reflecting on those early days, Father Morrow recalled, “The sisters taught me the importance of greeting the people as they left after Sunday Mass. I learned some important pastoral skills from them. Their community was committed to facilitating lay participation.”
Father Morrow’s spirit of mission led him to visit as many Catholics as possible in the homes and hospitals. He discovered pastoral needs, and the sisters followed up on them, bringing people into the new community of St. Thomas.
They organized the school of religion, a religious education program for parishioners from kindergarten age through adult. They trained catechists, creating the theology and methodology courses needed in this new Vatican II time. The sisters taught adult convert classes. Neighborhood circles were initiated, and the sisters helped these groups become strong communities of faith and service in the parish. A parish council was begun, enabling the people to help shape the flourishing parish. The sisters, as parish associates, mentored the parish’s various committees.
This collegial structure of leadership became a model for the consistent participation of the parishioners. In Father Morrow’s words, “The people did everything.” Sister Damian was an integral part of the development of St. Thomas the Apostle parish until 1972.
In 1971 another new parish, Corpus Christi, began in Stone Mountain under the care of Father Joseph J. Beltran. Sister Damian moved to continue her work as a parish associate, along with Sister Linda Valasik, HM, in August 1972, forming a parish pastoral team with Father Beltran.
Sister Damian influenced the establishment and foundation of both Atlanta area parishes through her contribution to parish team ministry. She also worked in the ministries of education, spiritual care and hospice in the dioceses of Cleveland, Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh.
Memorials may be sent to Sisters of the Humility of Mary, P.O. Box 534, Villa Maria, PA 16155.
Sister Linda Valasik contributed to this article.