"Gypsy Sisters?" That sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? One of the fundamental obligations of both men and women religious is stability: they stay put. So how could religious sisters be gypsies? It's easy.
When Bishop William K. Weigand was ordained for the Diocese of Salt Lake City in 1980, he came from the Diocese of Boise, which is a largely rural diocese similar to this one, in which priests minister to small flocks in farflung areas remote from large urban centers. When he first arrived in Salt Lake City, his local advisors informed him (though he scarcely needed to be reminded) that Catholics in the remote corners of the diocese often felt isolated, and were in especial need of pastoral care. So, as a symbol of his awareness and concern for them, even before he visited the populous and well-established parishes of Salt Lake Valley, he journeyed to places like Vernal and Richfield and Kanab, assuring people there that they were part of the Utah Catholic community and that he would see that, insofar as resources allowed, they would be ministered to.
But how to do that? Priests were already stretched thin in those areas, traveling sometimes hundreds of miles each week to bring the Gospel and the sacraments of the Church to Catholics in widely scattered missions and stations. Some deacons were available, though not many, because the diocese had only begun ordaining them in 1976 following the revival of the permanent diaconate after the Second Vatican Council.
The southern part of the diocese, from Delta to St. George, and from Richfield to Kanab, was particularly needy. So the bishop did two things to try to help Catholics there to feel like they were still under the umbrella of the Church: one was to institute the Southwest Conference. Periodically, pastors were told to suspend Mass in their parishes and missions and travel instead to Cedar City, where Bishop Weigand himself would celebrate Mass, followed by a potluck lunch and a question and answer session, in which he could become aware of local feelings and needs. The conferences also had the effect of bringing widely scattered Catholics together to get acquainted and to realize that they were not as isolated as they may have thought.
The other thing he did was to recruit two Holy Cross Sisters, Patricia Riley and Eileen Dewsnup, to move to southern Utah and establish a roving presence among the parishes and missions as they traveled around from a base in Cedar City. At first, the two sisters were baffled by the assignment.
"What do you see us doing in Southern Utah?" they asked the bishop.
His response did little to clarify things: "You know, I really don't know. Why don't you go to each of those towns and spend a few days and get the parishioners together and see what they need?"
It was the perfect assignment for a pair of Holy Cross Sisters, for the charism of their Order is simply, as Sister Patricia put it, that "we meet needs."
That was 1981. For the next two years, they did just exactly that: they provided music for special Masses in churches that had no organist; they taught religious education classes and taught others how to teach religious ed; they ran RCIA classes; they took the Eucharist to people who rarely if ever saw a priest; and they ran a traveling bookstore carrying religious literature on consignment from Maxine Kaiser's diocesan bookstore in the Pastoral Center in Salt Lake City. Although their base was a mobile home behind the church in Cedar City, they learned that their best ministry was to accept hospitality from Catholics in isolated communities, living in private homes for perhaps a week at a time to establish a sustained ministerial presence that could do more good than hit-and-run visits on Sundays.
Their roving ministry caught the imagination of southern Utahns, Catholic and Mormon alike. The Spectrum, the local weekly newspaper in St. George, called them first of all "the Flying Nuns," and then "the Gypsy Sisters."
In time, Sisters Patricia and Eileen were gradually assigned to other ministries in the diocese, but they were replaced by other sisters who carried on their work. It became the most imaginative rural ministry since Bishop Scanlan had sent Holy Cross Sisters to the mining town of Silver Reef in Washington County in the mid-1870s to run a school and hospital.
Over time, of course, things have changed in southern Utah. Beginning with the burgeoning retirement community in St. George and the population expansion in Cedar City following, among other things, establishment of a major state university there, the region has become much less rural and isolated than it was in the days of the Gypsy Sisters. Although Monsignor Michael Winterer still runs up the numbers on his odometer to reach the missions and stations under his jurisdiction, he is assisted now by only one Holy Cross Sister, Yvonne Hatt, who is located in Cedar City. A beautiful new parish church in Cedar City has replaced the private home that once served as both rectory and chapel, and a Catholic presence has been established in such once unlikely communities as Beaver, Hurricane, and Beryl Junction. The Catholic Church in southern Utah is coming of age, and much of its maturity can be traced directly to the ministry of the "Gypsy Sisters" in the 1980s.