Still doing good: Sister Mary Frances Serafino, SSMN, celebrates 70 years in religious life
FORT WORTH — The angelic voices of children rising from the choir loft inside Holy Family Church seemed an entirely fitting way to honor Sister Mary Frances Serafino, SSMN, during the Sept. 28 Jubilee Mass marking her 70 years in religious life.
One of her early assignments as a Sister of St. Mary of Namur was helping students at St. Alice School (now Holy Family School) learn Mass hymns. After teaching second and sixth grade, the young educator was quickly named principal of the growing campus in west Fort Worth.
“In addition to being principal, she taught choir,” explained Sister Gabriela Martinez, SSMN, provincial of the congregation’s western region. “She played the organ and sang Gregorian liturgies with them. So it’s very appropriate that the children’s choir is singing today.”
Father Hoa Nguyen, pastor of Holy Family, concelebrated the Jubilee Mass with Father Richard Flores, who gave the homily.
A large portion of Sr. Mary Frances’ adult life was spent teaching youngsters in Catholic schools across the Diocese of Fort Worth and the Diocese of Galveston-Houston (now an archdiocese). Ironically, she attended Catholic school as a student only once. After graduating from a public high school, the Duncanville resident enrolled in Our Lady of Victory College, operated by the Sisters of St. Mary. It was a year that changed her life.
Sitting in a quiet, reflective room she created for spiritual contemplation, the jubilarian recounted for the North Texas Catholic the events that led to her religious vocation seven decades ago. It’s a journey that started with a large gathering of Sisters of St. Mary converging on the college to make a three-day retreat in 1948. Undergraduates were invited to join them.
“In those three days of silence, praying with the sisters, I could feel the energy of it,” Sr. Mary Frances recalled. “I felt filled with a sense of God from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. It was powerful and it stayed with me.”
Overwhelmed by what happened, the college freshman tried to “run away” from the feeling and transferred to North Texas State Teachers College for her sophomore year.
“I didn’t know anything about the life of a nun and I never thought about becoming one,” she admitted. “I love beauty and putting the right things together. I wanted to be a fashion designer or interior decorator.”
When the feelings persisted, she sought advice from a religious sister who taught her catechism when she was younger.
“She said, ‘I think you have a vocation,’ and I began to realize that more and more,” Sr. Mary Frances continued. “Two days before my 19th birthday, on February 2, 1949, I entered the Sisters of St. Mary. My parents couldn’t believe it. They didn’t see it coming.”
Years later, a second daughter, Sister Charles Marie Serafino, would also join the congregation and pursue work as a missionary.
During her years of Church service, Sr. Mary Frances coordinated religious education for parishes and Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fort Worth and worked as a pastoral associate or religious education director at several parishes. In 1989, she founded the Dolphin Tales bookstore and began a ministry that continues today — spiritual direction.
“I listen to their story to help them listen to their story,” emphasized the 89-year-old, who meets with about 15 different women once a month at the OLV convent. “There’s something stirring in them. The women are seeking God and find Him at a deeper and deeper level.”
It’s that willingness to walk with others through the peaks and valleys of life that make the Sisters of St. Mary so special, Fr. Flores said in his homily.
“Today’s Gospel reminds us of our obligation to one another. You cannot be a follower of Christ and live in a vacuum,” he told worshippers at the Saturday afternoon liturgy. “Every human life deserves the dignity of our attention.”
For 200 years as a religious community, the Sisters of St. Mary have revealed Christ to others through prayer, education, health care, and outreach to the abandoned and forgotten. Eventually, they saw needs beyond their home in Namur, Belgium and crossed the ocean to the New World.
“In 1873, the sisters came to Texas hoping to do a little good,” Fr. Flores continued. “Sr. Mary Frances saw they were doing more than just a little good. These religious women were a visible presence when Catholics were a small, often misunderstood minority here in Texas.”
During her 70 years as an SSMN, the jubilarian accomplished much, he said, noting that during her time in the classroom, she taught more than just reading, writing, and math. Wearing her order’s dated habit, the one-time second grade teacher also coached eight-year-old boys in football. Her ability to model good sportsmanship and throw a pass was featured in a November 1953 article in Parade magazine.
“Today we highlight something that is good — the Church at her best because of the work of Sr. Mary Fran and her fellow women religious,” Fr. Flores said in closing. “They do work that often goes unnoticed and underappreciated. Through their lives many have been given the gift of dignity.”