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Jeanette Kopel Picture

Sister Jeanette Kopel

September 26, 1933 - March 26, 2024   |   Passed On

From the tribute prepared for Sr. Jeanette’s funeral.

Jeanette Angeline Kopel was born on September 26, 1933, to Wilbert A. and Celestine Neuroth Kopel in Haverhill, Iowa. She grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa, where the Sisters of Humility had been since St. Mary’s School was founded in 1878, the first mission established outside Ottumwa. She attended St. Mary’s Grade School and graduated from St. Mary’s High School in 1953. She was Valedictorian of her class. Already into reading and writing, she was on the staff of High Lines, the school paper, and the yearbook too.

Jeanette, along with classmate Myrna Ehrhardt, followed many earlier graduates of St. Mary’s High School to Ottumwa Heights College in Ottumwa, Iowa. After receiving her Associate of Arts degree in Home Economics in spring 1953, Jeanette entered the Congregation of the Humility of Mary on January 6, 1954. This time she followed Myrna Ehrhardt, who had entered that previous September. Jeanette received the habit that summer and her religious name, Sister Mary René. She professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in July 1956, and made final vows in 1959.

Sister René had continued her education at Marycrest College when she was a postulant and senior novice. That meant commuting by car a couple of days a week during the academic year, and participating in regular novitiate activities in Ottumwa as well. These trips included Sisters Joann Kuebrich and Cathleen Real who are her surviving classmates. Since all three were close to finishing degrees, they continued fulltime study after vows, becoming members of the first “Juniorate” class at Marycrest. Sister René completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in Home Economics in June 1957.

Sister René’s first teaching assignment was to Dunlap, Iowa, where she taught 7th and 8th grades for three years until 1960. She then taught Home Economics at Central Catholic High School in Great Falls, Montana, for three years. She is pictured in a white habit, demonstrating a pastry procedure, in a local newspaper there in December 1963. She then went “south” to Lewistown, Montana, where she taught home economics and was librarian at St. Leo’s High School until spring 1966.

At St. Leo’s the Humilities began introducing changes following decrees from the Second Vatican Council. Chief among the changes were flexible times and manner of prayer and other spiritual practices, and the ability to engage more freely with their families and professional peers. Individual sisters chose when, if at all, to “come out of the habit and wear street clothes” of black, brown or blue, at first. No longer was “a companion” required on local or other trips and opportunities for personal and professional travel increased. These changes led to new understandings especially of the vows of poverty and obedience. Changes in ministries often required the need to have and spend money, which had previously required permissions from superiors.

This experimentation was done pursuant to the Council document, “Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life”. As adaptations were made in practice, then policy, community members changed their Constitutions and sent them to Rome for approval. The choice to resume her baptismal name, Jeanette, came from the Council’s emphasis on the “initial sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist and Confirmation”.

It was in Dunlap that students would run up to give Sister Jeanette her gloves that she had dropped without noticing. She also began to experience dizziness at the chalkboard, and had to brace herself against the ledge for support. Doctors in Great Falls diagnosed multiple sclerosis, M.S. Soon she found that, if she were to continue teaching, it would have to be while seated. She considered pursuing a degree in library science and discussed the matter with community leadership. She continued limited teaching, and added library work, in Lewistown and Council Bluffs until she could begin fulltime study.

In the fall of 1970 Sister Jeanette went to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, where she studied library science. It was becoming common for sisters to study at public institutions whereas, in the past, such a step might require permission from the local bishop. Sisters might live on campus or in a local convent, to save money. Sister Jeanette graduated with a Master’s of Science in Library Studies in February 1972. In addition to her class work, she had acquired direct experience from two assistantships during that period.  

With degree in hand, Sister Jeanette went back to the Diocese of Davenport, to Iowa City where she taught and was librarian at Regina High School for two years. The scope of her work broadened when she became librarian for the entire Iowa City Catholic School system from 1974 to 1980.

Because sisters were now exercising freedom to choose their own place of ministry, an opportunity in San Angelo, California, appealed to her. After two years at St. Catherine’s grade school there, Sister Jeanette realized the physical demands, even of fulltime library work, were “sapping her strength.”

Sister Jeanette said it best, “God opened a door at a recording library for the blind and physically handicapped in Texas”, Midland, Texas, to be exact. She became coordinator of volunteers, evaluating their skills and giving them recording assignments. She monitored their work and reviewed the recordings for final acceptance. She enjoyed that position for ten years but, again, found a change necessary for health reasons.

Of course, Sister Jeanette would not make a change without having an idea of other work she might do. In 2001 Sister Jeanette moved back to Iowa, now to Humility of Mary Center, the community’s “motherhouse” in Davenport. Research had put her in touch with the Iowa Department of the Blind. She completed an “audition tape” to demonstrate her own skills at recording. She “passed” and began as a “reader”, making audiotapes of books, magazines and other print materials.

Her setup was unique – the “office” was the large walk-in closet in the “living room” of her two-room apartment. Each room had once been one of a 15-bed infirmary, with its own bathroom. Voila! One bathroom became a walk-in closet. Never mind that she had clothes, shoes and other “collectibles” there too. Moving them “just so” made room for a small table and chair. On the table were a tape recorder, clock, and stop watch, used for page turns so the listener wouldn’t hear the rustle. The “office” was away from fans, phones and other competing sounds, and the clothes served as insulation. You can be sure that it soon got “stuffy” too. She recorded textbooks and literature of all kinds, as well as magazines. In less than a year at the work, she was one of the recipients of the Iowa Governor’s Volunteer Award on its 20th anniversary in 2001.

Sister Jeanette was a regular leader for daily community prayer, as well as proclaimer of the Word at liturgies at the Center. She kept the local librarians busy on their monthly trips. She had visits from family in the area, especially a niece with several children. They could be found doing activities at the large table in the dining room across from the Mechanical Room. Her brother, Jim, also came, especially when Sister Barbara Kopel was living at the Center too. Barb often invited him for barbecued ribs, usually for lunch on Wednesdays. Jim was also a “bearer of gifts” -- Whitey’s ice cream for all at the Center to enjoy, as well as special chocolates from Lagomarcino’s on holidays.

Sister Jeanette transitioned to Bishop Drumm Care Center in October 2012, after a fall in her room, the very evening following a visit from the local family. She had struggled so long to delay the eventual move but, being who she was, she made the change gracefully. Staff at Bishop Drumm said she was always thinking about others. After getting a response to her own request, she would wonder about those who could not “communicate their needs easily” like she did. She kept things as simple as possible and avoided creating trash, a “true steward of our earth” they said. She managed her motorized wheel chair well, maneuvering easily through tight places. Naturally, she had an account with the local library for years, reserving books online. Indeed, at the time of her death, Sister Jeanette was the last CHM at Bishop Drumm who used a computer to keep in touch with family and friends via email.

On March 6, Sr. Jeanette was admitted to hospice care, with the belief that the rest of her journey would be short. Family members from Colorado and Iowa visited for the last time. Several CHMs were happy to see Jeanette just days before her death. They were so pleased that she spoke to them and smiled.

Is it any surprise that Sister Jeanette’s body would continue “giving”? That is, as a result of its gift to the Des Moines University Department of Medicine & Health Sciences?

Sister Mary Rehmann, CHM