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St. Petersburg nun celebrates 70 years of service

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Published:   |   Updated: April 15, 2013 at 06:08 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

For 70 years, Sister Eugene Marie Schneider has risen with the sun, donned her nun's habit and carried out her morning prayers.
 
The petite 87-year-old nun celebrated 70 years of service Sunday at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. Schneider was just a teen when her mother died and she and her sister Emeline Schneider were sent to live in a convent in New York. The sisters fell in love with the way of life.
 
Now, Eugene Marie and Emeline, who has been a nun for 72 years, are among a decreasing number of women who have dedicated their life to the church. But not once, they say, have they questioned their decision.
 
“Every day I've awakened and asked, 'What can I do for the Lord?' My life is like an adventure,” Eugene Marie Schneider said. “Girls don't realize how wonderful and fulfilling this life can be and so filled with joy. Never for a minute would I want to do anything else.”
 
For 49 years, Schneider was an educator, serving as a teacher, principal and substitute in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, California and Florida -- spending at least 20 years at St. Paul's parish. She is still an active presence in the church, from washing the altar linens to teaching a class of 75 first-graders in one room to helping priests from Poland, France and Vietnam learn English.
 
Her dedication is what truly strikes a chord with the parishioners, said Monsignor Robert Gibbons. After the 7:30 a.m. service, they came in droves to leave letters, share a smile or kiss her cheek.
 
“For me, personally, she's my source of encouragement,” Gibbons said. “She always is giving me a pat on the back, telling me, 'Good job, keep going, keep doing what your doing,' and probably she realizes from her own vocation how important it is for people to encourage you to keep going on the right path.”
 
Schneider was principal of Incarnation Catholic School for 25 years, watching the Town 'N Country area grow from a farming community to a paved-over metropolis. Even though it has been nearly 40 years since Michael Keen was an 8th-grader at the school, he still remembers the way he and his four siblings feared ending up in her office.
 
“In 8th grade I was suspended for a few days for getting in a fist-fight in class,” Keen said. “I had kind of sweet-talked Sister Emeline, she was my teacher, and convinced her that it wasn't that big of a deal and to let me off. But just as I had her almost convinced, I remember Sister Eugene Marie coming over in the hallway and just saying, 'Immediate suspension.'”
 
Still Eugene Marie Schneider was always able to balance her strictness with kindness and laughter, Keen said, becoming a beloved “icon” for both the school and the church.
 
“She literally helped lay the bricks of this church and the school,” he said.
 
Parishioners Cheri and Geordie Jenner said their five children view the sisters as “great aunts,” who always make sure to greet the children with a smile and exhibit an almost other-worldly patience – especially when their 3-year-old Caden tries to pull the veil of Eugene Marie Schneider's habit off during church services.
 
“We'll be yelling at him like, 'No! You can't do that,' and she'll be doing her 'God, protect me' prayers completely oblivious and very reserved and quiet,” Cheri Jenner said. “He's doing a good job, because he hasn't managed to pull it off yet.”
 
Since she became a nun, the world has become a very different place, Eugene Marie Schneider said. Nuns now have the option to wear regular clothing and live outside the parish. Girls are encouraged to go to college and try a career before they decide to take their vows. Seldom are services performed in Latin.
 
But Schneider prefers her traditional way of life, donning her habit and spending her retirement working just as hard for the church as she did when she first began.
 
“They've even modified our habits to make them look more modern, but I prefer to stay identified – like a police officer,” Schneider said. “I'm working for the Lord and I want people to know that I am and be able to come up to me if they need anything. Every day goes so fast I don't know where they go, but when you work for the Lord there is never a dull moment.”
 


adawson@mail.usf.edu

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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