In Memory

Sister Phyllis Vater

Sister Phyllis Vater

Sister Phyllis Vater


Born:  April 4, 1936
Died:  October 18, 2015

Dorothy Ann Vater was born on April 4, 1936, in Milwaukee to George and Phyllis (Winkowski) Vater.  She is survived by her brother, Michael; her nephew, Jeremy; Aunt Shirley, cousins and friends, and her School Sisters of St. Francis community with whom she shared life for more than 60 years.   She was received in 1955 and given the name, Phyllis, after her mother.  Phyllis’ canonical novitiate was briefly interrupted as she went home to care for her ailing mother.  Upon her return, she was placed with the next reception class to complete novitiate and made her First Profession with them in 1958.

Phyllis attended Alverno College, majoring in chemistry and minoring in physics and math.  Her first assignment was at St. Joseph High School, Kenosha where she taught for ten years. During those years she attended summer school at the University of Notre Dame and earned a Master’s degree.  After leaving St. Joe’s, she continued teaching, this time at her alma mater, Pius XI High School, Milwaukee.  In the mid-1980s, while still teaching, Phyllis started working part-time in the U.S. Province Institutional Sponsorship Services office.   

In 1987, Phyllis was elected to the U.S. Provincial Team and served two terms.  This past week it was shared with me that she truly lived “the grace of office.”  After a brief sabbatical, Phyllis was elected to the School Sisters of St. Francis Generalate Team as Vice President, serving one term.  Phyllis also served on several boards, including Sacred Heart Southern Missions.  She often referred to the sisters in Walls [Mississippi] as her second living group.

After her time in elected leadership, Phyllis continued ministry in varied ways. She served the sisters living at Marian Hall, eventually helping them transition to new places of residency when Marian Hall closed.  She became Mission Director for St. Joseph Center - Milwaukee campus, and she worked as a spiritual director. In 2009 it was time for Phyllis to move from active ministry to one of prayer and presence as Alzheimer’s began to take her mind and body, but never her spirit.

Reflecting on her time in leadership Phyllis wrote: “I was a very happy high school chemistry teacher for 27 years before Sister Agnes Marie Henkel invited me to explore working with our sponsored institutions. ‘Just one day a week’ she said, ‘see how you like it.’ Agnes Marie had a reputation for being a good mentor, so I gingerly explored leadership in that area under her guidance for the next three years. She helped a serious introvert find her voice and use her gifts in new forms of service. I would have never been open to congregational leadership if she had not mentored me.”

Phyllis learned well the lessons Agnes Marie taught.  In her own words she says:  “I believe we need to call others forth. We need to support them, mentor them, and not give up when there are mistakes, or even failures. They need support and encouragement along with the wisdom and experience of others who have accepted the challenges of serving in community leadership. All of us can empower others to lead by recognizing their gifts for leadership.” 

Dot adored her brother Mike, eight years her junior. Mike shares stories of Dot “hanging out” with him, and says she was his soul. And Dot had stories of adventures with Mike that would make any parent scream. She influenced Mike with her reading of Merton and Catholic Worker publications. Dot was Mike’s strongest supporter during his most difficult times. As they aged they became close friends and these last years, Mike was the one who “hung out” with Dot.    

Dot was also the proud aunt of Mike’s son Jeremy. Every summer Jeremy came to town to visit, and spending time with “Auntie Dot” was a priority. They had a special bond and I found Jeremy’s birth announcement among Phyllis’ remaining treasures.  Many years ago Jeremy gave Phyllis a stuffed Kermit the Frog.  Anyone who was ever in her classroom or any of her offices saw Kermit.  Phyllis’s province secretary even made Kermit seasonal clothes.  It is only appropriate that Kermit joins Phyllis now; he will be buried with her. 

I first knew of Phyllis when I was a student at Pius XI in the late 1970s.  She was the chair of the science department and THE chemistry teacher. We called her “Darth Vater;” it was the time of the original Star Wars movie. I didn’t take chemistry because I was scared of her, something I reluctantly admitted to her many years later, and she would playfully remind me of from time to time.

Fast forward 20 years and I found myself in a living group with Phyllis and teaching in her former classroom. She teased she would haunt me, in the best sense of that word; ghost confetti, ghost note paper, ghost socks, etc., would appear from time to time.  It is very appropriate she left us around the time of All Hallows’ Eve.  As Agnes Marie did for her, Phyllis did for so many, including me.  I was nudged and encouraged and challenged, I’ve met sisters from around the world, and have connections with people I’ve never met and places I’ve never been.

We all have stories of Phyllis. We all knew her in different and unique ways. Let her own words speak a final time: “I experienced local, provincial and international community in ways I will always cherish. It was profound to know the spirit and charism of my congregation through an aged sister tending a huge organic garden in Germany, through a young sister nurse in a remote village in India, through an agile teacher with street children in Nicaragua, and in my own province as I daily learn from the youngest and oldest that ‘the needs of the times are the will of God.’”

Phyllis, we come now to celebrate you and say good bye. Continue to mentor us. Phyllis, pray for us.



Sister Phyllis Vater was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has a bachelor of arts degree from Alverno College in Milwaukee, a master of arts degree from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and a master of science degree from the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana.  In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, she taught at St. Joseph High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin (1959-1969), and at Pius XI High School in Milwaukee, served as teacher (1969-1983) and as teacher and department head (1983-1985), served as coordinator of Institutional Sponsorship for the U.S. Province of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee (1985-1987), served on the Provincial Team for the U.S. Province of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee (1987-1991), and served as Provincial for the U.S. Province of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee (1991-1995).  She served as Vice President for the School Sisters of St. Francis Generalate (1996-2000), as house coordinator for Marian Hall in Milwaukee (2000-2002), as mission director (2002-2003) and as mission coordinator and spiritual director (2003-2007) for the School Sisters of St. Francis campus in Milwaukee. She served as spiritual director in the Milwaukee area (2007-2010).