Born into a family of five children, Mary Ellen Howard’s choice to enter the religious life wasn’t entirely supported by her father, who responded to her declaration of vocation with “You’re not the type. Sisters are neat and organized and quiet.” Mary Ellen confesses, “I was none of the above.” But what she was–and still is–a compassionate and fearless woman who was called to serve the poor and support those in the world who have few, if any, advocates.
Sister Mary Ellen always thought of herself as a natural born missionary and her calling was inspired by the work of her aunt, a Sister and architect who built a hospital in Haiti. Sr. Mary Ellen wanted to go somewhere and heal people. Her passion for service was ignited by her postulate director, Sr. Dolores Julie (Catherine) McGrath, who taught postulants, “Whatever you do, and wherever you go, you will be happy and successful.”
In addition to earning a bachelor of arts degree at College of Notre Dame and a master’s in religious education at Ft. Wright in Spokane, WA, Sister spent nine years teaching in Notre Dame schools in California, Hawaii and Washington. But the formative experience of her life began when she was missioned to Africa in 1978. Her calling to go somewhere and help heal people was realized.
Sr. Mary Ellen spent the next 30 years in Africa, initially on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kisumu, Kenya, and then in a refugee camp in the Sudan. In Kisumu she was instrumental in the creation of small Christian communities where the goal was to facilitate Catholic education so that others could carry on the message. During her time in Kisumu, she trained the communities how to assist people living with AIDs. She was also drawn to Kisumu youth and created “Fish Groups.” These groups met to pray and plan Christian acts that could be carried out through the community each week. She also established workshops for young girls to help them improve their self esteem.
In addition to the work with youth, Sr. Mary Ellen established the Donkey Cart Ambulance Service: a response to her observing a woman (about to give birth) being taken to the hospital (a great distance) by bicycle! Sister trained the men to handle the donkeys, procured a cart, and the community’s first ambulance service was born.
In the mid ’90s, Sr. Mary Ellen was missioned to a refugee camp where she worked with the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” This experience prompted her to realize that although she “doesn’t have a fear gene,” it was easy to get discouraged there. It was also in the Sudan where her faith was continually energized.
The conditions in the Sudan were bad, and the needs were great. She recalls getting a call one day regarding a man who had dug his own grave, laid down in it, and refused to get out. He had escaped from the Ethiopian army. More than 150 people were gathered around this grave, praying, and screaming for him to get out. Sr. Mary Ellen went down in the grave, and talked to him. She pointed to those who had gathered, and said “you see all these people…they are praying for you, they want you to get out.” She said she just relied on her faith, and he just climbed out of his grave. Sr. Mary Ellen says of this experience: “There are just times when you just have to believe in God.”
Sr. Mary Ellen’s calling to help people did not stop with her work in Africa. Her work continued iin Sacramento, CA, as Outreach Director for Clara’s House, a no-cost medical clinic that serves the homeless and uninsured. Although Sacramento doesn’t look like the Sudan in terms of need, the poor are indeed underrepresented and Mary Ellen continues her calling everyday as she advocates for those in need of medical services.
She now serves as a Chaplain at the Los Angeles County Jail in Linwood, CA, working with some of the 2,000 women held there. She has helped many women enter the Church and continue their spiritual lives.
Sr. Mary Ellen Howard may not have been the most organized, the neatest, nor the quietest when she declared her vocation at age 18. But, after more than 50 years as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, she is definitely “the type.”