Away from her work in the world, outside of caring for people ranging from victims to victimizers, Sister Arthel Cline works quietly in her cubby-hole office, a space as relaxed and unassuming as she is, at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas on North Fifth Street in Leavenworth.
She's an active woman — her missions are many — but there's a calm Sister Arthel has, and a motto hanging on her office wall may describe one reason why: "Let us be silent so that we may hear the whisper of God."
Earlier this week, the 75-year-old spent time behind the bars and inside the walls of Lansing Correctional Facility, meeting with prisoners, which she's done regularly for 27 years.
She's worked the last 12 years as coordinator of Catholic Charities' Friendly Visitors program in Leavenworth County, pairing volunteers with the homebound.
Sister Arthel has made a career-long habit of caring for orphans, the elderly, single mothers, and many more in nearly 60 years as a Catholic sister.
There's a reason she's done all of it, the trump card on why she chose this life of service, forfeiting a husband and children of her own, and she'll speak to that reason if asked. She says it's a rambling answer, though it's anything but.
"It's ultimate," Sister Arthel said. "It's just simply the belief that there is a supreme being that wills that we love one another, and that's a message that is difficult to communicate in the world we live in, but it needs to be communicated in as many ways that are relevant and possible."
Sister Arthel, originally from Billings, Mont., has been a sister for 57 years.
She made the decision to serve early in life, around the first grade, and it was cemented throughout childhood.
She grew up privileged, she said, and serving the Catholic Church was both a testament to the influence of role models who were sisters and an outpouring of empathy she felt for people who had less materially and emotionally.
"The Sisters of Charity were cheerful, happy, non-formal people … warm and welcoming, helpful to their students," said Sister Arthel, who had a Catholic education in K-12 and completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Saint Mary. "That was a role model I chose to be part of."
"When you're in high school, you do things that are sort of meaningless. … There was always a part of me that said, 'There has to be more to life than this. There has to be more significance and meaning.' I think that's what called me."
She came to Leavenworth after high school, and earned a bachelor's degree in education from USM and a master's in counseling from Emporia State University. Her work has also taken her to Missouri and Colorado, from suburbs to inner cities.
"I just kept coming back to this idea," she said of becoming a sister. "… I felt like I was branded to be a sister from an early age. It wasn't that I had fear of men or family or any of that. It was more a desire to share my life in a way that showed gratitude for all the gifts I've been given."
Two of her passions have been working with children and single mothers. She spent years working with abused and neglected children in Topeka, and assisted single mothers in a ministry program.
"I've had the opportunity to kind of form family with people who have no blood ties with me," Sister Arthel said. "I've had opportunities to help raise children. … I became part of many people's families through ministry."
Another passion has been working with prisoners. Experiences with children, mothers and prisoners, many of whom have difficulties in life, doesn't cause her to question faith as much as it does reinforce it, she said.
"I was (at Lansing Correctional on Wednesday) and we were talking about what a spiritual experience it is to go in there," Sister Arthel said. "The prisoners, they act so grateful we come in. But, they give us a bare bones faith that comes from great adversity and they're able to demonstrate faith in their lives in a place where you would think would just be a hell hole."
She concedes LCF prisoners who voluntarily participate in Bible studies perhaps aren't representative of the inmate population at large, but the men who do participate are reflective and appreciative of the faith they've discovered.
"One guy said, 'I'm so grateful I'm here because I would be on the streets, drinking and drugging and doing those same things, but I have a whole new vision of life here,'" Sister Arthel said. "It's almost like he was talking about the prison as a retreat center, and a number of them do."
"You have to feel that God is present even in the most abject situations."
Although her work has been meaningful throughout the years, branching off and touching lives in various directions, the day is approaching when the sister will voluntarily step away.
She's retiring from Friendly Visitors at the end of August. A replacement has not been formally selected.
Sister Arthel's short term is defined: She's going to spend six weeks in New Mexico on a spiritual retreat. The long term is not.
Friends and colleagues said Sister Arthel's departure will leave a profound void in the Friendly Visitors program and the community.
Katie Frandsen, a Leavenworth resident, had mixed emotions Friday. She was mourning the recent loss of a friend who died, but also celebrating the person who made the relationship with her late friend possible, Sister Arthel.
"She just has that remarkable instinct to put people together … to visualize and understand where a connection can be made," said Frandsen, a Friendly Visitor volunteer and advisory council member. "Sister knew that relationship was possible."
It was Cline who paired Frandsen with a homebound woman in the program. Frandsen and the woman spent time together for the past year, and the volunteer was close to her friend in the final days and spoke at her funeral.
The relationship was deeply meaningful, Frandsen said, and it wouldn't have been possible without the sister.
Frandsen said Sister Arthel's exit from the program is bittersweet.
"That will be an incredible void for us," she said. "She's sort of the heart and soul."
Sister Rosalie Curtin, a retired Leavenworth resident, has been a Catholic sister for more than 60 years, and she's known Cline for more than 50. She's also served on the Friendly Visitors advisory council for several years.
Curtin agrees with Frandsen's description of Sister Arthel as the Friendly Visitors' heart and soul.
"She's done a wonderful job, she's really taken care of the homebound people in Leavenworth," Curtin said. "… She really knows Leavenworth and knows the people here."
Still, as valuable as Sister Arthel's contributions have been to the community, and though her retirement represents an inevitable void, Curtin said the sister has more than earned time to herself.
She has many interests and deserves a chance to pursue them, especially while in good health.
"She's a very dedicated and zealous woman," she said. "…She has people's needs at heart. And, she has absolutely put other people first."
While faith is the source from which Sister Arthel's work derives, it's also a constantly evolving relationship, she said, far from a straight line.
Like most, Sister Arthel said she has times of doubt, though doubt can be a sign of true faith, citing some of the greatest saints throughout history as examples.
"I think people that never doubt have sort of an idealized vision of faith," she said.
"I think, really, people that haven't been tempted in their faith have missed an authentic part of the journey."
But, if doubt represents the valley of one's faith, reaching the other side to affirmation is the peak.
"The mandate of the Gospel — 'love one another just as I have loved you' — is my incentive to say, 'OK, I don't know where this is leading, but I do know the one thing I am capable of is finding people to love.' That lifts me," Sister Arthel said.
She said she has indeed been lifted, blessed even, to have worked with and on behalf of so many wonderful people.
Here, she mentions Friendly Visitors specifically.
"That program fulfilled my basic delights in seeing people get together in loving relationships," Sister Arthel said. "I was able to observe the overflowing of joy that came from two strangers meeting, deciding they were going to accept each other, usually as very close friends. … Sometimes the Friendly Visitor was the person who turned into the Hospice worker, the relative who couldn't be there, the family member that they never had. It was all so extremely rewarding."
Retirement has its question marks, that's true. But, it also represents an opportunity to take time for herself, enjoy her outdoor hobbies, and reflect and contemplate in prayer.
She'll continue looking for opportunities to serve as she's done throughout the decades, work that confirms what she believes true about her faith.
Another motto in her office says it plainly: "Caregiving because we care."
"I believe in the cosmic Christ," the sister said. "The Lord is present in our universe, and through all the evolution of time, that presence has been there, and our evolving consciousness of how that manifests itself has changed through the ages, but the remaining factor is love. … Despite the horrific things … there is enough undergirding of love to convince me there is a God who is present, despite many contradictory situations that we meet in life.
"Life overcomes tragedies because there is that capacity to believe in, and to have hope, that loves always beats out despair."