By Elizabeth Fisher

Special to The CS&T

LEVITTOWN – For 35 years, Betty Russell volunteered at Martha’s Cupboard at St. Joseph the Worker Parish. In a double garage next to the rectory in Fallsington, Bucks County, Russell stocked shelves with food and stacked baby furniture, tables and mattresses along the walls.

It was her concern for the poor that drove her commitment to giving.

At times, she would recruit her daughters to help distribute desperately needed food and household goods to the constant parade of families trying to get through tough times.{{more}}

But even as her work at St. Joseph the Worker gradually passed on to other hands, Russell had one more sacrifice to make: giving her daughter away to the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Blessed Mother Teresa.

Russell and other family members recently returned from Rome, where her daughter Donna, 42, took her final vows as Sister Marise Therese, M.C.

As a Sister of Charity, Sister Marise Therese has embraced a simpler life, emulating Jesus’ command to serve the poor and literally left her family behind. She’s allowed home only once every 10 years, although she can receive telechildren – two daughters and a son – are all married.

It was Donna that surprised them the most, her mother said.

Donna had a successful career as a nurse at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, N.J. She loved the single life: dancing, cars and the latest fashions. She was “very much in the world,” her parents said.

Sometime in 1997, Betty Russell was getting ready to attend a parish mission that was to be conducted by a Franciscan priest. She persuaded a reluctant Donna to go with her for at least the first night. The two went again the next night and every night for the rest of the week.

“After the mission was over, this daughter that loved life so much told me that she thought maybe the Lord was calling her. That was a big joke. I asked if she was kidding me. She enjoyed life too much; she wasn’t cut out for a religious vocation,” she said.

But, as it turned out, the carefree career 30-something girl was just what the Lord was looking for. Donna entered a Franciscan order, stayed two years then left – not to take up her old life, but to follow in the footsteps of Blessed Teresa, whose simplicity, faith and service to others became known around the world.

During her novitiate, Sister Marise Therese ministered to the poor in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and California. For now, she’s stationed in Rome, working in the missions and “literally picking people up from the street,” her mother said, while also working with the Vatican on Blessed Teresa’s cause for canonization.

The Russells manage to strike a balance between missing their daughter and bursting with pride at her vocation.

“I’d love for every parent to have the experience of giving a child to God,” Betty Russell said.

Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.