Sister brings joy to others despite terminal cancer Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Cathy Lins, for the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Jun. 20, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

Sr. John Rose Acker

A personal note from Sr. John Rose Acker

When I received the doctor's diagnosis of my inoperable liver cancer, I pondered it over and thought, "why not?" With almost 80 years of good health with not much physical suffering, I knew my last chapter of life would have some pain. However, I never dreamed how much pain this would cause others!

I have been receiving hundreds of cards, visits, and telephone calls asking me to "hang in there." As one card read: "You face challenges . . . you don’t run from them . . . and I admire you for that. It makes you a survivor, with stories worth telling . . . and more stories to tell."

Like my Dad, I have been a storyteller. Like my Mom, I have shared many stories with much laughter. With such a combination, each chapter of my life has been a JOY. I have learned long ago to live only a day at a time and be present to the people of the moment. This lesson has served me well.

However, in my transition from teaching to being a caregiver for my Mom in 1986, I learned another more valuable lesson. Being in charge in the classroom, and not in charge with my Mom, proved quite a challenge. Mom believed certain aspects of the "old ways" of doing things were better than the "new-fangled" ideas. Scrubbing on your knees surpassed mopping the floor and emptying too much water in the sink filled the septic tank and should be carried outdoors. These two ways of doing things were my undoing!

Each Saturday our family had a meal together after which I would scrub the large kitchen floor . . . on my knees. BUT one Saturday after Mom retired to her Lazy Boy and was fast asleep, I decided to MOP the floor and did so with much enjoyment!

Finishing, I returned the mop and bucket to the basement. Mom had religious objects all over the house and hanging on the chimney in the basement was a large black crucifix. Passing in front of it, my frustrations came to a peak and I shouted at the crucifix, "God, I hate it here!" When I heard the sound of a man’s voice, I turned quickly to see if anyone had come in and heard me. There was no one! The man’s voice said gently, "That’s because you want it YOUR way." Oh my! I sat down on the steps, laughed and replied, "God, you got it right!"

St. Francis of Assisi was told to "Rebuild My Church" and I was only asked to change my ways. When Mom awoke, I explained how I knew this was her house and I would try to do things her way, and then added a small lie "because it wouldn’t make any difference to me anymore." After several more weeks, Mom decided I needn’t do everything the hard way. Life with Mom was very pleasant after that.

Why do I tell this story which I have shared with only a few people? Because of the lesson I learned and I hope others will, too. God's ways far surpass our ways, and the sooner we learn that lesson -- our worries are gone.

The many compliments and stories of what I have done for people, touch me deeply. I don’t even remember all of them. When titles such as "saint" and "angel" are applied to me, I remind myself that "I am what I am in the sight of God, nothing more, nothing less." When reading the lives of the saints, I am ashamed I have done so little. So, if you look for me in the Heavenly Kingdom, check where the ORDINARY saints are!

CROSS PLAINS -- There’s a special parking space in front of St. Francis Xavier's parish office -- a cone with lots of markings letting people know -- this spot is reserved for Sister John Rose.

In recent weeks, you could see signs all around Cross Plains asking for prayers and encouraging her to, "Hang in there, Sister!" I found her inside the church, moving around the facility, attending to visitors.  She was willing to take a little time to talk about her recent diagnosis.

Sr. John Rose Acker has been involved in pastoral ministry at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Cross Plains for 23 years, where she ministers to the sick, elderly, and dying. Prior to that, she was a teacher for 32 years. She celebrates 62 years as a School Sister of St. Francis this year.

A 'woman on the go'

Ask most people and they would tell you she is a woman on the go!  She explained that in her ministry work, she visits and advocates for parish members in 10 different nursing homes and multiple hospitals.  "I go where they are."  She reports that she currently visits 242 people.

She says that because health problems and funerals are just part of this kind of work, she tries to help people find something to laugh about in the midst of sadness. "The devil doesn’t like laughter. He wants us to forget the happy times," she said. Her goal is to "shake people up and say things that they least expect," to be joyful herself, and to try to bring that same joy to others. "I got that from my mom," she says.

"In my ministry with the sick and elderly, I cheer them up and cheer them on to finish the race of life."  With a twinkle in her eye, she tells about a woman she was working with.  "I said to her, I got my suitcase packed -- is yours?"  That has been the beauty of her works; helping people get ready to make the trip home to the Lord.

Her own health issues

When we talked about her own health concerns, she explained what she recently learned.  This past April, she experienced a strange pain in her side that refused to subside, so she headed to the emergency room.  She says that the nurses and doctors asked for her list of medications and she replied, "I forgot to bring along my M&M’s."

They were stunned that she was 79 years old and didn’t have any medications.  After running tests, finding a tumor, and noting her "yellow-colored skin," they concluded that she had inoperable liver cancer.

She said, "I accepted the news with such peace that the nurses wondered if I really understood.  I do!"  She's at a place where she felt she could say, "Accept what comes, if the loving God wants it."

Blessings and challenges

When asked about the blessings and challenges she's had since then, she stopped, and got quieter.  "I make people sad," she said.  "My greatest pain is to see and hear my family and friends begging me not to die."

Mail, emails, and phone calls have come in from all over -- from students that she taught, families that she has helped, and friends.  "I have no worries about my future because I am overwhelmed with the prayers and good wishes. The many signs in town calling for prayers for me will help me to go forward in confidence.  I will continue to remain in your midst as long as I can because 'I love you,'" Sister John Rose said.

"Your countless messages of a mixture of sadness and joy telling me how I have influenced you are almost beyond comprehension. In humility, I accept them but never realized what a great gift God has given me to be His servant in spreading the Good News. I enjoyed doing it because you always shared in my laughter, my stories, my 'off the cuff remarks,' and trying to be the 'real deal.'"

She said it’s easy to deal with her own health.  "I know that the doctors say I'm very sick, but I feel like a fake. I'm not in much pain."  Some people have lovingly referred to her as their "Yellow Rose of Cross Plains" because of her skin tone. She says she prays for perseverance until the end and hopes she doesn’t get crabby if there is more pain.

Will 'keep going' and do her work

"If I don’t have more pain or get more tired than I am now, I will keep going and keep doing my work."

She says that she has been able to train some people to continue her work, though she still has some small projects to take care of.  She joked, "My Easter candle isn’t out yet.  I tried to show how to live, and now it’s how to die.  It’s the same as living."

What she hoped that people understand and remember is "Give to others. You will live one of the most joyful lives that you could ever have.  It will all come back to you again."

She has made her funeral arrangements, including a tombstone that will read, "Pray, Love, and Don’t Worry."  She referred to Padre Pio and his comments on worry.  "If you worry, don't pray! If you pray, don't worry!"  Sister John Rose said, "Having served so many people who have shown me how to suffer because of their faith, I have that same faith and am at peace.  If there is a miracle in the future, so be it!  If not, so be it too!  Faith is the ability not to panic!"

What she finds best about the situation, is the number of people praying, some who never had before.  She shared a story about Padre Pio.

One of Padre Pio's spiritual children asked him if it was worth going on praying for souls who died many years ago.  He said, "Yes, because God considers at the particular judgment He makes at death, all the future prayers offered up for that soul."

Updates on Sister John Rose can be found on St. Francis Xavier Parish’s website:

Sister asks in the meantime, that we continue our prayers and live as best we can.

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