(EDITOR'S NOTE: Sister Jeanette died at 1 p.m. Jan. 31.)
The year was 1912. The day was Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day. After Christmas Day, it may be the second biggest “bragging rights” day on which to say you were born, unless, of course, you’re Irish and were born on St. Patrick’s Day.
But 101 years ago this St. Nicholas Day, Jeanette Mary Denslinger was born to Frank and Mary Catherine Doran Denslinger of Greenville, Pa.
This year’s birthday was a double celebration and milestone shared by Mercyhurst University and the Sisters of Mercy who came to Erie from Titusville in 1917. Jeanette Denslinger, RSM, has lived longer than any other Sister of Mercy from Erie. Ever. She is also believed to be the oldest living alumna of Mercyhurst University. To mark the occasion, Mercyhurst University President Tom Gamble and his wife Mary visited Sister in the Mercy Care Center at the motherhouse on East Grandview Blvd., while the other sisters were enjoying a holiday reception in their community room that is hosted annually by the Gambles.
Bundled up in Room 34 of the Mercy Care Center and seated in an overstuffed blue recliner, she was flanked on the right by her oxygen tank and on the left by shelves of books and racks of CDs – all her best friends in their own ways. Sister Jeanette sat reading “Man of Peace, The Life of Pope Pius XII” and had just finished a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.
It came as a surprise when there was a knock on her door and a voice said, “Hello, Sister, it’s Tom Gamble. May I come in? My wife and I are here to wish you a happy birthday.” And so the conversation began. “Come in and sit down. I want to tell you about this book I’m reading,” she invited.
Still sharp as a tack, still an avid reader, still a lover of classical music, Sister Jeanette doesn’t let her hearing and sight impairments get the best of her – in fact, she carries on her tradition of celebrating life every day of the year. But this day was special to the white-haired fair lady: the president of her undergraduate alma mater had come to see her.
Jeanette entered the Sisters of Mercy on Sept. 24, 1944, at an age much older than most of the sisters of that era. She was 32 when she made the commitment to religious life. She was also older than most of her fellow students when she attended Mercyhurst, graduating in 1958 with a degree in music. Her religious ministry with the Sisters of Mercy was as a music educator at diocesan elementary schools in Punxsutawney, Pittsburgh, Greenville and Corry. In later years she taught music to the youngsters at the Mercy Center of the Arts. Until 2009 she continued to give private music lessons at the motherhouse.
Until just a few years ago, you would see Sister Jeanette briskly walking the halls of the Erie motherhouse, standing tall and walking proudly, pushing her walker at a pace faster than those half her age. Today, she has finally taken the advice of the Sisters and nurses who would repeatedly suggest to the feisty, diminutive one, “Slow down, Sister Jeanette, slow down.”
PHOTO: Mercyhurst President Tom Gamble and his wife Mary with Sister Jeanette Denslinger