Sister Verona makes hard work a beautiful habit

Meet a Franciscan:

Sister Verona makes hard work a beautiful habit

Sister Verona Kurtzman 

Sister Verona first heard God’s call when she was five years old and she looked up to see four Sylvania Franciscans walk through the chapel doorway. Their full religious habit and aura of peace and joy drew her to them immediately and completely.  From that time on, she wanted to be just like them.

Christened Nancy Marie Kurtzman, Sister Verona was the youngest of five siblings who lived in a pretty brick house in the small town of Crestline, Ohio. Her father died when she was quite young. Nancy had been counting on being able to enter the convent after eighth grade, but after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer all plans were put on hold for a year. A year later her mother granted her youngest her wish and allowed her to begin school at St. Clare Academy.

Sixty-five years later, Sister Verona  is a striking woman living at Rosary Care Center. She suffers from a myriad of serious health issues. Some days are better than others. Today she’s sitting up in her chair and is dressed in a blue Sylvania Franciscan polo with a grey sweater and sharp black slacks.   Her room is a warm and tasteful balance of family and Franciscan, each framed with careful attention to composition, color and texture. It’s impossible to tell if she’s having a good day or a bad day, because as soon as she sees visitors, her face effuses with delight and she welcomes her guests with smiling warmth and pure pleasure.

Her 'simplicity of heart' and joy are present in everything she does and with everyone she meets.  "I remember when I first met Sister Verona," says her friend Sister Marge Zacharias.  "She was outside and had this beautiful dark hair tucked under a red cap and she was smiling and shoveling snow.  She looked so happy that she made the chore seem wonderful."

Sister Verona made First Profession in 1966 and started what would turn out to be a long ministry in caring for her community and parish in the roles of Housekeeper, Cook, Food Service Manager and Director of Food Service.  She also served as the Housing Coordinator for ten years, spent several years as a Nursing Assistant and another eight years as the Housekeeper and Cook for Bishop Blair in Toledo.

Classmates Sister Verona and Sister Faith Cosky at a picnic.

Sister Verona's Franciscan joyfulness, attention to details, love of hard work, appreciation of beauty, willingness to help people and essential love of the Franciscan Community suited these roles perfectly.

Organization is part of what she has most enjoyed about convent life. The orderly lifestyle suited her deeply. “Everyone was in habit and everyone knew what to do all of the time,” she says fondly.

Preparing food for the entire Motherhouse filled with students, postulants, novices, and Sisters.

In her early days of ministry in food service, the Community ate together in St. Joseph’s hall with a simple, although labor intensive, process of serving the meal table side. Everyone was given the same meal, which made it less complicated, but it was still a huge undertaking to feed everyone living at the Motherhouse in those days.  Sister Verona loved it.

“When the Sisters would file in for dinner, it was simply so beautiful.  The novices would serve dinner back then and it was a particular honor to be selected to serve the leadership table,” she recalls.   At that time, talking during dinner was forbidden and the dining room would be a sea of serenity as women of all ages performed the ritual of sharing a meal each day.

Sister Verona Kurtzman sitting in front of Mary of Immaculate Conception in the Rosary Care Garden.

For Sister Verona, the religious habit never lost its sense of beauty and holiness. The impact of those first Sisters of St. Francis framed in the doorway of the church never faded.  After Vatican II, increasing numbers of Sisters were opting out of the long robes and veils.

“I was just about the last one to wear the habit,” Sister Verona says smiling.  “I just loved them!”

Later, looking at her photo album, she points to a woman clad head to toe in religious habit and cries out with exasperation, “Now tell me!  How could anyone not think that is beautiful?”

She brushes aside the argument that they look quite uncomfortable and gives a sniff of impatience before smiling acknowledgment.

She finally stopped wearing the religious habit, not from peer pressure or in an effort to modernize, but because it had become increasingly difficult to find anyone who could sew them for her.  Historically, all of the religious habits worn by the community were hand-sewn, including the veil. Novices entering the community were encouraged to become seamstresses, but it didn’t turn out to be one of Sister Verona’s many talents.

When she was studying to become a nursing assistant, she received scores of 'Excellent' in every category.  “People would stop me all of the time and tell me how great my patients always looked,” she recounts.  She admits that those under her care did look better.

“I would always be sure to get my patients dressed in a nice outfit and I’d do their hair as they liked it and even add a little blush to them,” she explains.  “Everyone felt better then.”

Perhaps because her thinking is so organized and straight-forward, she has no idea how unusual it is to take these special steps.  For Sister Verona, it’s just logical to do certain things.

As a ‘big city girl who grew up in small country town,’ Sister Verona thoroughly enjoyed living in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Detroit, Steubenville and Washington, D.C. while in ministry and was pleased to live in downtown Toledo while working for Bishop Blair.  She lived in the beautiful old Park Lane Hotel and the other Sisters still talk about her lovely apartment where she hosted luncheons and everyone gathered to watch the July Fourth firecrackers.

"Sister Verona's apartment was always tasteful, charming, and inviting.  And invite she did!  It was the setting for many special occasions and lovely visits," remembers Sister Magdala Davlin.

While living there, she adopted the Park Lane Hotel flower gardens and transformed them from weed patches to showcase flower beds that earned her first place recognition from the Toledo Botanical Garden and she was featured in The Blade.

Sister Verona poses downtown Toledo at International Park with petunias piling out of the massive planters from the Motherhouse.

"If she sees something that she feels will help someone or a situation, she figures out a way to do something about it and just goes ahead and does it," says Sister Marge.  She laughs and adds "And sometimes she gets it done by just skipping all of the red tape of asking permission!"

Her ministry in city beautification continued along the water front. While walking one day in International Park she decided that she was tired of looking at so many weeds, so she started pulling them.  Over the next weeks, Sister Verona would return and rip out more weeds. A Council person stopped her one day and thanked her profusely for her work. She remembers that he officially asked her to continue the project and offered her a small stipend in return.

“I think it was five dollars or something,” says Sister Verona with a laugh.  The money was immaterial. She was already planning to finish weeding, tending and planting International Park.  In the end, she also arranged for the sale and transport of several immense planters from the Motherhouse to International Park.

Sister Verona has a knack for making things … better.  Nicer.

“I took a test once,” she says, “and it showed that I am highly and unusually skilled at organizing details.” She holds her hand above her head to show the level the test indicated. Her other hand moves at least a foot lower to indicate where normal is.  She smiles and shrugs as if to say ‘whatever that means!’

In reality, Sister Verona attributes her achievements to simply being a Franciscan.

She says that she’s been trying to figure out how it is that the Sisters are often so thorough and get so much done – and they do it so well.

“I guess I just came to the conclusion that God gave us a gift to help us carry through with all that needs to be done,” she says.  “That’s why we have always been able to do so much.”