Retiring Sr. Choiniere ‘filled with joy’ after 65 years of service

Mary H. Murray | Special to The Michigan Catholic

Troy — Sr. Mary Choiniere, CSJ, pastoral associate at Christ Our Light Catholic Church in Troy — formerly of St. Alan Parish, which recently merged with St. Columban — is retiring at the end of this month after 20 years of service there and 65 years as a Sister of St. Joseph.

Throughout her career, Sr. Choiniere established and maintained many ministries in this community — as well as outreach to other ones — to the sick, poor and disabled, also working for the rights of women and the right to life. But she has also been cherished everywhere she has served for her love of music, joy and celebration.

Sr. Choiniere is the first to admit she has a lifelong addiction — to polka music. The “little French nun,” as her first students described her, says she finds God in an old Polka. “That’s where my God is,” she said. “Our God is in fun — in music and community.”

Sr. Choiniere has been a force of accomplishment in every community in which she has ministered, beginning with her family. The third of six children, her mother was sick for many years. By age 7, Mary was doing the washing, ironing and caring for the younger children. They lived five blocks from Detroit’s St. Phillip Neri Parish, and Mary would go and sit in the chapel and talk to Jesus. She told her sister and brother, “Pray for me to be a sister someday.”

Mary’s father did not support her decision, halfway through her senior year of high school, to become a nun. “It would be a prison,” he told her. “You are too lively and full of life to be in a convent.”

But the night before she left for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Nazareth, Mich., Mary and her father sat side-by-side on the piano bench, where she played “Silent Night” over and over again. The next morning, at the last moment, he gave her $50 in patrimony money, that, as an expression of his disapproval, he had been withholding.

As a young nun with the bestowed name of Sr. Genevieve Marie, she taught in many community schools, including St. Benedict in Highland Park, St. Francis Home for Boys in Detroit, St. Veronica in Eastpointe, St. Joseph in St. John, and Boys’ Military Academy in Kalamazoo. After majoring in chemistry and biology at Nazareth College, further education at Central Michigan University and Madonna College led to masters’ degrees and degrees of education specialist, as well as in theology, pastoral ministry and special education.

Her many positions in the community allowed her to be a whirlwind of change and influence at every level. In working with schools, Sr. Choiniere did everything from making sure an individual student received a much-needed hearing aid to, as archdiocesan director of special education, igniting “The Happening,” the Archdiocese of Detroit’s form of the Special Olympics.

In her 27 years working for the archdiocese, she also lobbied through the Michigan Catholic Conference for busing and aid to non-Catholic schools. And she takes credit for converting Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka to her dearest cause: serving the handicapped, the “most powerless people in the diocese.”

After introducing the cardinal to some of the needs of the disabled, he became such a great advocate that Sr. Choiniere began calling him the “patron saint of the handicapped.”

Sr. Choiniere has rubbed elbows with lawmakers and archbishops, but one of her most moving experiences was when she was dressed as the Alhambra Easter Bunny, a joyful service she performed for 20 years. A woman with special needs, who had trouble speaking, rubbed Sister’s bunny arm and lovingly uttered a happy cry.

“My life is filled with joy,” Sr. Choiniere said. “I am glad and thankful to have been everywhere I have been, doing what I have been doing,” she added, reaching behind her to turn up the volume of the radio, playing her favorite polka.

Mary H. Murray is a freelance writer from Oakland County.