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Published: Saturday, 5/26/2012

Toledoan to serve 1 year aiding Philippines' poor

Dianne O'Connor. Dianne O'Connor.

If everything goes according to plan, Toledoan Diane O'Connor will be traveling by car, plane, jeepney (one of those famously colorful Filipino taxis), boat, and tricycle to arrive Wednesday at her new temporary home in Guimaras, on the island of Iloilo, Philippines.

And if there happens to be a delay, it will pale in comparison to the 40-some years that Ms. O'Connor has waited to serve as a missionary to the poor.

"Sort of all my life I wanted to do something like this. I kind of just put it off, like everybody does," said Ms. O'Connor, 63, who flew out of Detroit Thursday as the first participant in the Toledo-based Sisters of Notre Dame's "Missionary for a Time" program.

The new program gives laypeople a chance to experience what it's like to serve with the Catholic nuns as a missionary, either in the United States or abroad, for one year while they focus on the religious order's four cornerstone values of spirituality, service, simple living, and community.

Ms. O'Connor, who is divorced, has three grown children and eight grandchildren, the youngest of whom was born Wednesday.

"When my children were young I was a stay-at-home mom. In those days a lot of women didn't work and I always wanted to be a nurse," she said.

A native of Paw Paw, Mich., Ms. O'Connor moved to Toledo in 1987 and studied for her nursing degree while working at the former Riverside Hospital.

Since 1989, she has worked in home health care, a job she loves, she said, and also has volunteered with the Toledo diocese's Equal Access Ministry helping the visually impaired.

In 2010, Ms. O'Connor was invited to consider becoming a lay associate of the Notre Dame sisters, and after a year of prayer and study she took her vows last September.

Shortly after professing her vows as a lay associate, a sister gave her a brochure describing Notre Dame's new Missionary for a Time program.

"When I read the brochure, I had already been thinking about retirement and wondering what I was going to do with all this time. … My children are grown up and I wanted to discern what to do with my life," she said.

Ms. O'Connor is to be the school nurse and librarian at Notre Dame Academy in Guimaras.

She said Notre Dame's 150 lay associates in the Toledo diocese raised enough money to buy and ship two large containers full of books that are now making their way to the Philippines.

The nuns opened the academy in 2004 after learning that Guimeras had no schools. It now has five classrooms.

Ms. O'Connor is to live in a convent on the island with six Notre Dame nuns. The building has no sewer lines or running water and the island has no paved roads, no cell phone towers, and only sporadic electrical service. The island has no stores, and a trip to Iloilo to shop for groceries takes 2 1/2 hours, she said.

She said every financial need she's had for the one-year mission has been met, confirming to her that she is following God's will.

"It's been a miracle the way things have happened," Ms. O'Connor said.

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