By Barb Arland-Fye
MUSCATINE — Party planners were ready to start a farewell program for Sister Irma Ries, PBVM, but she was absorbed in conversation with a guest. Someone else approached to give her a hug and yet another conversation began.
Sr. Ries loves people and makes time for them. That’s common knowledge in the Muscatine community where she has served for more than a decade as an advocate of the poor and others who need help getting back on their feet.
The community reciprocated its love for Sr. Ries with a celebration March 30, her last day of work as executive director of the Muscatine Center for Social Action. The agency provides shelter, basic health care, education and vocational support services for the homeless and near homeless in Muscatine County. It also promotes community partnerships with other advocates who address those in need.
While she’s in good health and has plenty to offer, Sr. Ries, 68, thought it might be time to slow down a bit and also make room for a new leader of MCSA. Her plans are undecided, but she’s sure she’ll continue to serve people in need.
As each of several speakers shared memories of Sr. Ries’ work with MCSA and the impact she has had on their lives and the lives of those she serves, it was clear that her leadership will be deeply missed.
“You showed us that it was possible to call people to be responsible and to hold people accountable and still be compassionate and caring, but that requires people to be flexible and to celebrate small steps and not be discouraged by setbacks,” said the Rev. Paul Ostrem, a former MCSA board member and president. The former pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Muscatine, he now serves as assistant to the bishop of the Southeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
Mike Hagerty, another MCSA Board alumnus, said Sr. Ries took MCSA “by the bootstraps and made it work very successfully.” Providing a humorous example of what it means to work with Sister, he pulled a pair of rubber wading boots out of a cloth bag and described them as “tools” for the job. He wore them while responding to an urgent call from her about a water leak at MCSA.
“You have been the message of hope and love for so many,” added Mike Johannsen, director of county community services for Muscatine County.
Mary Martin, a former resident of MCSA, shared how Sr. Ries “has been a powerful influence in my life.” Sister helped Martin to realize she wasn’t physically handicapped, but instead had physical limitations she could learn to work around. Sister “treated everybody the same even though their circumstances were different. She’s a very generous person, loving and caring.”
Another former resident, Marsha Monroe, sang her own rendition of “Lean on Me” in dedication to Sr. Ries, and had the entire audience clapping along.
Afterward, Sr. Ries reflected on the appropriateness of celebrating her farewell party during Holy Week. “We celebrate how all of us together meet Christ in one another,” she said. “I especially want to thank the people who live here for being a part of this celebration today.”
She also was thankful for the presence of members of her immediate and extended family, her religious community — Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary — a couple of priests, other well-wishers and, of course, Nano, her 3-pound-4-ounce Maltese puppy.
Nano is named after the founder of Sr. Ries’ religious community, Nano Nagle, whose dedication to serving those most in need inspired Sr. Ries to work for MCSA. “For a good part of my life I have been drawn to people in greatest need and that certainly is the focus of the mission of MCSA: helping people to get back on their feet who are going through hard times.”
Her passion for serving others was nurtured in a family of 13 children headed by parents Matt and Julia Ries on a farm near Ryan, Iowa. Sister remembers how she and her siblings enjoyed preparing sack lunches for the occasional stranger who showed up at her family’s home in search of something to eat. Their mother reminded her children to include dessert. “I try to treat all the people I work with as my brothers and sisters,” Sr. Ries said. “It’s the unconditional love that we were taught from very young.”
Her greatest satisfaction at MCSA is seeing lives changed. But it’s a team effort, she stresses. “The breadth of skills on the board of MCSA has had a lot to do with the things we’ve been able to accomplish. They come from a variety of businesses and churches and agencies and it’s that working together, that interest in bettering Muscatine. They’re always willing to give of their time no matter how busy they are.”