The swirling hues in the gemstone and crystal jewelry Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Edna Lonergan’s designs seem to be an extension of her compassionate soul. Whether it is a heart shaped pendant, teardrop earrings or delicately woven sterling silver wire and Swarovski beads strung together for a bracelet, her jewelry is exquisite and specifically created.
“I tell my hands to make it really good and just for the right person,” she said. “It is all a prayer.”
It is a prayer that Sr. Edna has prayed for the past 20 years each evening at her dining room table. For a half hour or so before bedtime, the 69-year-old Franciscan bends and twists wire, shaping it with the beads while reflecting on the good that will come of her efforts.
As president of the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, a community-based health and educational day care service for children and frail adults, all profits from “Sister Edna’s Creations” supplement funding for the underserved within the Milwaukee community.
Center reflects Franciscan mission
The center, which Sr. Edna founded in 1983, is sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Its mission reflects Franciscan values in meeting the spiritual, psychological, social and physical needs of all who participate, regardless of faith, culture or ability to pay. The intergenerational program brings clients of all ages together for planned and informal activities, and also serves as a resource and support center for caregivers.
According to Sr. Edna, children benefit from positive one-on-one attention from nurturing, caring adults, and the adults gain a sense of purpose by sharing wisdom and skills with children. Adults talk and smile more as they remember their own childhood and their children. They also participate more in activities and look forward to special moments as they share and learn from one another.
“We have babies here from 3 weeks old who have disabilities, but many are of typical development, and all ages in between to over 100 years old,” she said. “It is so fun. We laugh and watch the little kids in their swimming suits carrying their towels, and some even go to the pool with boots on. They are so excited to tell everyone that they are going swimming. Sometimes they go to the Shepherd House, which is for the people with dementia. They love the children and the children love them – it is so non judgmental.”
Sr. Edna has a million stories from years of working with the young and not so young, but recently, a conversation between two developmentally disabled young adults brought the focus of her ministry home, albeit with a humorous twist.
“One client was debating with the other client about prayer. She said, ‘You don’t know how to pray! This is how you do it. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spearmint. Amen!’” said Sr. Edna. “It was so clear that we had her repeat it and she said it the same way again. It was so neat to see that they were recognizing the importance of prayer, but it was fun, at the same time.”
Sr. Edna’s art in local boutiques
Her wearable art has captured the attention of brides-to-be, women wanting a unique style, and for those searching for a special gift. Some of her designs can be found at the Bucyrus International Museum Gift Shop, Zita Bridal Salon, Miss Groove’s Boutique and St. Ann Center’s Seasons of Life gift shop.
“Each time I make a pair of earrings, which sell for about $20, I know I can afford a bath for someone, or pay for their toenails to be cut,” she said. “I have a donor who purchases all the beads and supplies for me, and then everything, 100 percent of everything, goes to our clients. There are a lot of people who can’t afford a bath, or who can’t take a bath because they are blind and can’t ambulate or in a wheelchair. It makes me feel good to know that when I sell a piece of jewelry that I can afford to do something to make them feel better.”
Artistic ability discovered by accident
While she doesn’t wear it herself, Sr. Edna enjoys pretty jewelry and bringing out the femininity in women. She learned of her natural artistic ability by accident.
“I went to a National Conference on Aging in Washington, D.C., about 20 years ago or so, and one night there was nothing going on. Since I love to walk, I thought I’d take a walk and on my way, I ran across a pretty Y shaped necklace in the window of a store. I didn’t think I could afford it, but wanted to see it because I thought it would be nice for one of my friends,” she explained. “The lady who ran the store said that it wasn’t for sale, but I could learn how to make it.”
It was a quiet night for the small beading store, so the owner worked with Sr. Edna and taught her how to make the Y shaped necklace in the window. She was amazed that she enjoyed the process and felt happy making something functional and pretty.
“I bought enough supplies for three more of those necklaces and thought it might be a nice way to raise money for our clients,” she said. “We had been collecting used jewelry and selling it to raise money for our clients since 1984, but this was a new component to add to our boutique.”
Each piece takes anywhere from a week to a month to make, depending on the intricacies of the design. Sr. Edna completes most of the work, but she has two friends, including roommate Sr. Adele Thibaudeau, who help her string beads and provide her with some creative ideas.
Shoppers’ reactions often priceless
Working in the St. Ann Center gift shop for five years, Ross Veitch gets a kick out of the double takes of first time shoppers when they see the jewelry and realize that the trendy, elegant styles are made by a nun.
“They find the jewelry very flattering and contemporary,” said Veitch. “And when they see Sr. Edna, they expect to see a traditional nun in a habit. She is very attractive, dresses in regular clothes, has striking blonde hair and people are just amazed by her.”
Home jewelry parties offered
The amount of wearable art Sr. Edna creates varies from year to year, but it isn't important for her to keep track. However, she estimates raising $35,000 to $40,000 annually for the St. Ann Center.
“This year I hope to make more, and am trying to reach out by doing home jewelry parties,” she said. “So far, they have been very successful and I really enjoy them because I can play around with colors. I love to dress people up, figure out their season and what color jewelry would look best on them.”
In addition to home parties, and sales at the center, Sr. Edna also sells her creations at the East Town Farmer’s Market in Cathedral Square on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. from June 2 through Oct. 6.
“She has developed quite a following and has done this farmer’s market as long as I have worked here. People come from all over just to see her and purchase her jewelry,” said Veitch. “She does so well with her sales, and all of it has helped those who are in need of the services at the center. She is a very sweet lady too.”
Her desire to care for others as a religious sister began at just 3 years old. At 14, feeling God was calling her to become a nun and to serve the cognitively disabled, she joined the convent.
“My parents volunteered every Saturday at St. Coletta’s and they dragged all of us kids along,” explained Sr. Edna. “I started shining floors and moved up to peeling potatoes. That is an amazing place and I am fortunate enough to be able to use my expertise in gerontology to serve others at St. Ann’s and through our various schools for the developmentally disabled. I am really proud of our community and what we have done. We have never looked for the money – we just do it and the money somehow comes.”