At age 16 and cementing her decision to join an order of nuns in Springfield, Ill., Sister Charitas Prince hadn’t convinced at least one member of her family: her father, William.

At age 16 and cementing her decision to join an order of nuns in Springfield, Ill., Sister Charitas Prince hadn’t convinced at least one member of her family: her father, William.

Known then by her birth name — Charlotte Prince — she wasn’t even a high school graduate. The farthest she had traveled from her Cooks Valley, Wis., home was 25 miles to hand out trays and make beds during two summers at a hospital run by the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis (the Franciscans).

Sister Charitas found out that her father, a farmer, had little faith in her choice. An older sister told the future nun about overhearing a conversation in which William assured other family members that the teenager would “be back in two weeks.”

Her reaction?

“I thought, ‘I’ll show him,’” Sister Charitas says, chuckling. “Eventually (he and my mother, Mary) supported my decision.”

Showed him? And how.

The 99-year-old Sister Charitas of Springfield recently marked 80 years since she professed her vows as a Hospital Sister. Brian Blasco, the order’s director of communications, said no one in the international congregation’s history, dating back to 1844, has ever reached that milestone.

At least one other religious sister with local ties — Sister Mary Jerome Goeckner, a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ — is also celebrating her Ruby Jubilee this year. Sister Goeckner is a former administrator at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Taylorville and is living in Ruma (southeast of St. Louis).

Sister Charitas and 14 other Hospital Sisters, who combined have more than 900 years of professed life, will mark their jubilees together June 19 at a private gathering at the Springfield motherhouse.

The revelry continues for Sister Charitas later this year: she’ll mark her 100th birthday on Oct. 19, a dual anniversary, she says, that will require “two cakes.”

Nurse, teacher, inspiration

Sister Charitas spent most of her professional career as an instructor at St. John’s Hospital School of Nursing in Springfield and as a nurse. In her early 60s, she fulfilled a lifelong dream of serving as a missionary at the congregation’s Star of the Sea Clinic in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where she also taught conversational English.

For generations of Springfield nurses, “practicum exams” — analogous to oral exams — were part of Sister Charitas’ teaching stable in courses in microbiology, anatomy and physiology.

“The classes weren’t easy. They were challenging,” recalls Mary Jo Wasser, who graduated from the College of Nursing in 1967 and is the director of mission integration and social care services at St. John’s Hospital. (Sister Charitas also taught Wasser’s mother, Dorothy Price Skube, who was in the Class of 1936.)

“Teaching was clearly in her bones.”

“She was very just, and she was very fair,” recalls JoEllen Bretz, a 1962 graduate who later joined Sister Charitas on the faculty. “She always accepted your best. If you tried your hardest, that was fine with her. She treated the ‘A’ students and the ‘C’ students the same.”

Sister Charitas — the name comes from the Latin word “caritas,” meaning “charity,” and may have been suggested to the community by the School Sisters of Notre Dame who taught her in grade school and high school — says she didn’t set out to be an instructor, but was more interested in being a nurse.

“My provincial (superior) told me I’d only have to teach five years,” jokes Sister Charitas, who spent four decades in the classroom.

There was also the pull of the foreign missions for Sister Charitas, who was stoked by magazine stories of the Hospital Sisters’ care, particularly for lepers at a hospital sponsored in Jinan, China.

In a recent interview at the Springfield motherhouse, Sister Charitas vividly recalls taking care of a patient at St. John’s Hospital who was suffering from cancer of the mouth and face. She volunteered to take care of the man, who eventually hemorrhaged to death.

“I did it in a friendly way,” she remembers. “I was very sympathetic for the man. I was preparing myself to take care of the lepers in China.”

But the hospital closed in 1948, due to the Communist takeover. It wasn’t until 1972 that she made it to Taiwan, where she worked at the mission and taught English, including a seven-year stint at the Ursuline Language College.

“It was conversational English,” Sister Charitas recalls. “They knew their grammar. They knew their grammar better than I did.”

One of the groups Sister Charitas assisted was the Kaohsiung Toastmasters Club. Y.H. Chen remembers how she used to come to meetings regularly by ferry and bus.

“I admired her kind-hearted spirit, consistency and endeavor to correct our grammatical errors so that we could use proficient English to communicate with one another,” Chen wrote in an e-mail.

Former students, such as Mary Jo Wasser, say they still talk about the lessons Sister Charitas imparted on them.

“I could tell the benefits of my education (at St. John’s) right away,” Wasser says. “There is still awe and gratitude, that she made a difference in our lives.”

Sister Charitas still makes it to the College of Nursing from time to time. Recently, she was presented its first Distinguished Alumni Award, and a classroom there was dedicated in her name. The college’s Alumni Association established the Sister Charitas Prince Endowed Scholarship Fund. Gifts given to this endowment will be used for scholarships for nursing students and faculty at St. John’s College, Department of Nursing.

‘God has been very good to me’

Mostly, these days, Sister Charitas sits with sisters who are dying and assists with other tasks around the motherhouse. She takes a daily shift in the Adoration Chapel, praying for the needs of the church, especially in mission lands.

Physically, she needs the use of a walker and is losing vision in her right eye, ailments she says she lives with.

“I know what’s going on, and I accept it,” she adds. “I don’t rebel against it.”

As for her upcoming jubilee, Sister Charitas says above all she’ll be thankful.

“The day means that God has been very good to me and inspired me, through the holy ghost, to do what he wanted me to do,” she says. “It means that I’m in God’s grace, and that I am a sister. I’m very grateful for this vocation.

“It doesn’t seem like (80 years). If it wasn’t for the calendar, it’d be hard to believe.”

State Journal-Register writer Steven Spearie can be reached at spearie@hotmail.com.