Today we celebrate the life and death of our Sister Kevin Bissell. Without the detailed autobiography that was in her file, this tribute would lack the broad scope of education and accomplishments that enriched her work and her life. In my opinion she was probably one of the five brilliant women in our community that I have known. And I am saddened by my belief that she was not well known by many of us. Kathryn Bissell was born close to Ottumwa to George and Anna O’Connor Bissell in 1926. We share her loss with her remaining sister, Mary Pester, and with her many nieces and nephews and their families throughout the country.
She celebrated her 90th birthday last November at Bishop Drumm Retirement Center. Relatives and friends came on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to celebrate with her there. Before she entered the community she had degrees from Ottumwa Heights and Marycrest Colleges. During her teaching life she earned five undergraduate degrees, two masters degrees and a doctorate in four fields. She entered the community in 1950, a Holy Year, and was professed in 1953. Survivors from that class are Sisters Rachel Beeson and Elizabeth Anne Schneider.
Sr. Kevin says that at some time she taught every subject except commercial courses, music and modern languages. Most of the time it was middle school students but she taught in high school at Catholic Central in Great Falls, Montana, and St. Joseph High School in Neola, Iowa. She made the familiar rounds of grade school teaching in Marshalltown, Des Moines, Centerville, Davenport and Dunlap in Iowa. She also was in Sidney, Montana, for a year.
Sr. Kevin began a new phase of her life when she did community development work among Eskimo communities in the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska. You can get a feel for the uniqueness of her work in the booklet she wrote about her Alaska experiences at the time of our 150th anniversary of being in the United States in 2014. From Alaska she returned to Davenport where she began work with the Latin American Bureau of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. This was in 1966, just after Vatican II had ended and the Humility sisters were beginning to implement changes. Also this was after Pope John XXIII asked religious communities to consider sending members to work in Latin America. She was soon to go to Washington, D.C. where she became the National Director of Research for Latin America at the U.S. Catholic Conference there. With Sr. Caridad Inda, who had also come to the D.C. area, she designed and presented courses on Vatican II to the women religious of five dioceses of southern Mexico.
Sr. Kevin’s organizing skills were applied to the design and implementation of large scale international research projects for, among others, the Justice, Defense and the Agency for International Development (AID) departments of the United States government. One project sounds like something that would be of value today, namely, research on the “Financial Impact of Third-Party payment on Drug Costs for HEW” (the Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare). One of the biggest projects for which she was both designer and chair was the International Women in Development Conference in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She designed an International Conference of Women Scientists in Vienna. For approximately eight years she was assistant to two commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), one being the Chairman. She also worked in the NRC Research Department in Probabilistic Risk Assessment and as the liaison for Commission-Level Correspondence at the NC Secretariat. She served as president of the NRC Women’s Association and was awarded the Mary Pinkerton Award, the highest national service award for federally-employed women.
Sr. Kevin was active in women’s organizations, both religious and lay, that were founded and prospered in the turbulent days of the ‘60s through ‘80s. She served on the Boards of NOW, the National Organization for Women, NCAN, the National Coalition of American Nuns, and Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). She and Sr. Caridad Inda were among the founding members of the PAX Community Organization, an experimental liturgical group of St. Luke’s Parish, McLean, VA, in the Arlington diocese.
Probably the most well-known and continuing project that Srs. Kevin and Caridad founded is CIRIMEX, The Center for International Resources in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. Initially housed in what was the Inda family home, Sr. Caridad and other local teachers provide one-on-one, total immersion Spanish language and culture training for Church and religious personnel, seminarians, priests and others from the U.S. and 26 foreign countries.The program is designed to meet the specific goals of each student, beginning where the individual is, as far as knowing Spanish, and continuing on the student’s schedule. Living with host families exposes them to the culture and enables them to practice their Spanish in a natural setting. Cultural exposure is also provided by visits to art, dance and theatrical venues. A visit to Tonalá is a must. There crafts persons create all manner of products of glass, metal, clay, paper, wood and all materials in between. Each student goes home with at least a piñata. They also visit Tlaquepaque, an upscale paradise for shoppers of handicrafts.
Sr. Kevin was the USA director for CIRIMEX, responsible for recruitment, fund-raising and finances. She worked from Bethesda, Maryland until 1995 when she went to Mexico to live and work. There she also demonstrated her gifts for designing beautiful glass cases for display of china, glassware and craft artifacts, leather furniture, book cases and who knows what else. Earlier she had designed the wrought iron furniture used at CIRIMEX as well as the new office.
When health issues made it necessary for her to return to the states, she moved to Humility of Mary Center. There she continued to function as the CIRIMEX director until her condition precluded those activities.
Sr. Kevin had a wonderful sense of humor, often resulting in laughter from a table in the dining room. She was a voracious reader and watchdog of TV news. On occasion she shared her knowledge of political history with the congregation and through letters to the editor.
We are happy that she is now free of the symptoms and conditions that made her life so challenging. Rest in peace, yes, REST IN PEACE, our dear sister.
Sister Mary Rehmann, CHM