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Sister Mary Assumpta
Batting 1.000 for Seniors

We've all seen Sister Assumpta; the fun-loving Indians fan. But there is a lot more to her story than baseball.

She was born Helen Rachel Zabaskiewicz on July 20, 1945 in Portage Pennsylvania. She was, literally, a coal miner's daughter.

Sister Mary Assumpta - Helen Rachel Zabaskiewicz - With Parents Easter 1946

Sister Mary Assumpta - Helen Rachel Zabaskiewicz
With her Parents on Easter 1946

Her teaches and peers thought she must be of very high intelligence as a child - after all she was able to spell Zabaskiewicz! She has an older sister (Patricia) and an older brother (Joseph). Her brother died in 1993.

A mere six weeks after little Helen Rachel was born her mother had a stroke. When Helen was only 6 her mother died and her father left them.

She went to Chicago to live with her aunt and uncle. Around age ten she saw an obituary for her uncle in the paper and was able to locate her father, who was living in Akron. She went to live with him for the next two years before he died of cancer.

Sister Mary Assumpta - Helen's First Communion with Sarah McGowen - May 10, 1953

Helen's First Communion with Sarah McGowen
May 10, 1953

From there she went to live with her sister and brother-in-law back in Portage. Her brother-in-law was laid off and unable to find work near home. He did find a job in Cleveland and the three of them moved here.

By the time she moved to Cleveland she was a junior in High School and enrolled at Hoban Dominican. She actually graduated from Marymount High School because in the middle of her senior year she joined the Sisters of the Holy Spirit.

Sister Mary Assumpta - Senior Year - October 1962

Senior Year - October 1962

It was actually during Christmas break, December 28, 1962, that she answered her calling and started the process of becoming Sr. Mary Assumpta.

It was an easy decision for the young woman to make. She recalls, "I can trace my calling back to when I was about 4 years old. A sister in our parish would visit my mother. My mother had lots of company; many people came to visit her. But there was something about the sister's visits that always left a feeling of peace and joy. I knew way back then that I wanted to do that for other people."

She had thought of other careers: a research chemist, an executive secretary who marries the boss's son; a Broadway singer and dancer or maybe even a professional writer. But it always came back to "What about being a sister"?

She volunteered at the Jennings Center while attending Hoban Dominican and fell in love with the sisters there. She knew for sure then that it was not only her calling, but also what order she should join.

Her family was very supportive of the idea, but had some reservations about her age, thinking maybe she should wait until she was a little older. She has two cousins who are nuns, so the family was happy about everything but the timing. But she knew it was the right decision and there was no reason to wait.

"I have never questioned that decision. That's not to say I've never had a bad day. But I've always known this was the right decision. This is what was meant for me".

In terms of theology, Sister Assumpta sees herself as "conservative". This, however, does not carry over into her personality. In her own words, "I guess you could say I'm just nuts!" but she comes by this in a beautiful way.

Sister Mary Assumpta 7-16-1963

Sister Mary Assumpta July 16, 1963

Her favorite saint is Teresa of Avila. St. Teresa viewed the role of Mother Superior as the one "to bring mirth into the community." Says Sister Assumpta, "I feel strongly that I am a servant to the community and a joy bringer. That is my role."

She has taken an Enneagram test and she falls into Section 7; The enthusiast, or as she says, "party animal." The test actually describes people in this category as "The Busy, Fun-Loving Type: Spontaneous, Versatile, Acquisitive, and Scattered" She joins such people as John F. Kennedy, Benjamin Franklin and Leonard Bernstein in this category.

It is an accurate description as far as it goes. She believes a lot of personality has to do with the freedom she shares with all Children of God. "I have always seen myself as not my own master. I am open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and that brings freedom. With that freedom brings joy, appreciation of life, wonder and awe. Everything is a miracle."

In fact, Sister Assumpta looks at her own life as a miracle. In retrospect she should have wound up in dire straights, on the wrong side of the tracks. Instead she says "With the Grace Of God our lives were filled with success."

She does not believe in chance meetings, but rather that everyone in her life, for whatever amount of time, is a gift. Therefore, she is sure to treat people with respect and dignity.

She is also very inquisitive about her meetings asking herself why this or that person has come into her life. This fills her every waking moment with expectancy and enthusiasm as she wonders what will happen next. This not only makes it easy for her to sleep peacefully at night, but also allows her to wake each morning anxious to see what is waiting for her.

Sister Assumpta taught at Cleveland Central Catholic from 1968-1972 and at Lumen Cordium in Bedford from 1975-1982. In 1982 she received her license in Nursing Home administration, so that she could be a back up to the Sister doing the job at the time. In 1986 she became the Mother Superior, an elected position.

There were 15 Sisters of the Holy Spirit when Sister Assumpta joined the order - the highest number they ever had. There are now only 9, and all are always at The Jennings Center, where Sister Assumpta has lived since she joined the Order. She has a very close family relationship with the other 8 sisters, and they have carried that family feeling over to the mission of the Jennings Center.

Sister Mary Assumpata on the Jennings grounds

Sister Assumpata on the Jennings grounds

The Jennings Center was built by the Diocese of Cleveland in 1942 and was named for Monsignor Gilbert Jennings the founding pastor of St. Agnes parish. The building was destroyed in a fire in 1946 and rebuilt on the original foundation. What started as a center for 68 residents has grown to home and refuge for 450 people who are cared for every day and a staff of 350 people.

"The next thing we are looking to increase is the religious community." They are building a new motherhouse and a major fundraising campaign will kick off this summer. "We were told we couldn't do it, that none of our goals were feasible. But the money comes from the Holy Spirit and anything is possible"

A fundraising feasibility study estimated they might be able to raise $320,000 in a past campaign. They raised 2 million. They were told they would never get a HUD grant. They did. They were told they would never get a tax credit. They did.

"It was never my idea to do the things we've done. It was merely recognition of need and Guidance from the Holy Spirit. When God plants a seed, He will make it grow. We just need to cooperate."

Cleveland Indians Baseball reminder on the Jennings grounds

Cleveland Indians Baseball reminder
on the Jennings Center grounds

Her love of baseball goes back to the days when she was very young and sat with her invalid mother. She spent every minute of her childhood at her mother's side. Her mother kept score of the baseball games with a lined tablet. Although her mother never actually taught her how to score, she was a natural and "just knew it".

When she came to Cleveland she got to go to many of the games because of the Cleveland Press Straight "A" ticket offers. The one skeleton in her closet was that having lived in Chicago she saw many of the White Sox games. But she quickly came to be an Indians fan.

"I've always had a penchant for shortstops from Venezuela," she adds.

Omar Vizquel with Sister Assumpta

Sister Assumpta with a
"shortstop from Venezuela" Omar Vizquel

While she was teaching, Sr. Assumpta helped out at Jennings. One of the resident's daughters was the manager of Service America, the company who serviced the stadium. The company often gave their tickets to "the good sister taking care of her mother." That is how Sr. Assumpta so often sat behind home plate, along with the player's wives.

She started a fan club of sorts at Jennings, called "Adopt A Player". The residents adopted the player of their choice and then sent them a certificate letting them know, They then followed up with cards and letters, special notes after games, for birthdays, etc.

Sister Assumpta at the Cleveland Indians game

Sister Assumpta at the game

Sister took approximately 50 of the residents, all in wheelchairs, to an Indians game. The tribe was still playing at Municipal Stadium at the time, which was not handicapped accessible. Benedictine High School loaned them 2 busses and they went to the "behind the fence" picnic area where the wheelchairs could get in. In order to convince one resident who was bordering on depression that she should come along, Sister promised her that she could meet Mel Harder.

Not knowing how she was going to keep this promise, but determined to do so, she knocked on a door marked "Authorized Personnel Only" thinking it may be the clubhouse. It was. Mel Harder came out and talked to them and then made arrangements for meetings with Joe Carter, Brook Jacoby, Andre Thornton and others.

To thank the players for being so considerate, the sisters made them chocolate baseball players and put their individual numbers on the caps. The start of the next season they made them chocolate chip cookies to welcome them back, and the cookies became a trademark.

Brook Jacoby and Cleveland Indians coaches with Sister Assumpta

Brook Jacoby and Cleveland Indians coaches
with Sister Assumpta

Sister Assumpta even arranged to have the residents sing the national anthem before the game in the 87-88 season. 1988 was Sr. Assumpta's 25th Anniversary in the community. Her friends from Pennsylvania sent the sisters money to buy her something really special that she wanted badly but would never buy for herself.

Her choice? An Indians starter jacket. She has been seen nationwide in that jacket, which along with the cookies became a trademark.

When the movie, Major League, was being filmed in Cleveland the studio supplied about 14,000 mugs as give-aways at the stadium. Since only about 8,000 people showed up there were a lot left over and Sr. Assumpta had arranged with Rick Minch to pick up some of them.

When she got there the producers saw her walking in the parking lot in her starter jacket and they asked her about it. Her response was "The Pope requires us to wear this." The producers asked her if she was willing to be in a crowd scene, and of course, she was. She was later used in a collage of Cleveland, where she can be seen feeding pigeons.

The best part of all of this for Sr. Assumpta was meeting the producer, Chris Chesser. "He had never met a nun and I had never met a producer." They became fast friends and she thinks of him as an adopted little brother.

In 1990 the order decided it would be good publicity for a fundraiser if Sr. Assumpta attended spring training - so she did. A huge story in the Sun Press brought the attention to the Jennings Center that they were after. She also put together a Bowl-A-Thon giving the Jennings Center an opportunity to make money and giving the supporters a chance to bowl with the Indians. "Of course this was before players got paid such large amounts of money to make appearances." She remembers that Tom Candiotti was the very first on board.

On September 10, 1995 the Grand Opening of the new section of the Jennings Center was opened. On September 8, 1995, just two days earlier, the Indians clinched the division title. Chris Chesser came in for the building dedication. Channel 5 asked her to do a segment on television. She immediately thought Chris had set this up as a practical joke. But it turned out to be real.

They remembered the nun sitting behind home plate and thought this could be a new and better approach. They named the segment "Tribe Habit" and it ran throughout the playoffs. It was nominated for a local Emmy.

CBS then used her in an interview with Herb Score.

Sister Assumpta and Herb Score

Sister Assumpta and Herb Score

She was sent to Atlanta as a World Series Correspondent. She was on CBS This Morning all through the World Series and then did a weeklong series on Spring Training.

Sister Assumpta With the CBS This Morning crew including anchors Harry Smith & Jane Robelot

Sister Assumpta with the CBS This Morning crew including anchors Harry Smith & Jane Robelot

Since she was only hired to do specific jobs, she was not prevented from doing work with Channel 5 at the same time, and Tribe Habit continued on through May 1998.

Her celebrity status did not stop there. People magazine wrote an article on her in 1997 and Upper Deck Trading Cards made a card of her. To her knowledge she is still the only non-sports figure on an Upper Deck Trading Card.

Sister Assumpta Baseball Card

Sister Assumpta Baseball Card

Upper Deck told her that the publicity surrounding her card exceeded that of Michael Jordan. In fact, Michael Jordan requested a card from her, through a friend. She first made sure Michael had a sense of humor, and the friend assured he did. So she signed the card "To Michael - Go Cavs!"

Sister Assumpta Baseball Card - back

Sister Assumpta Baseball Card - back

Through her good friend, Chris, she was able to meet such people as Charlton Heston, Florence Henderson, Paul Newman and Charlie Sheen, to name a very few. Charlie Sheen commented when they met "Weren't we in a movie together?"

Sister Assumpta with Charlie Sheen

Sister Assumpta with Charlie Sheen

The Yankees Joe Torre's sister was a nun and the Indians and Yankees were in the playoffs together. Rosie O'Donnell invited Torre's sister and Sr. Assumpta on together. The night before the taping, Cleveland knocked out New York.

Rosie had written a song parody to the tune of "Take me out to the Ballgame" and the two sisters sang it with her. To her surprise she got paid for that appearance, because they sang!

The fame and celebrity she achieved is an important tool for Sr. Assumpta in her fundraising efforts as well as her mission to spread God's word. She did not attend the preview of Major League because she was on Retreat. Ironically, Sr. Assumpta was a shy child who claims to be basically an introvert.

"I am not reclusive by any means, but I am fed from inside. I've learned what I needed to do to survive in the public eye to help the cause. But being in the public drains me and I need to regroup and pull away."

The sisters now bake and sell cookies at Christmas. They start taking orders in October and offer three pickup dates. The special cookies are called "Nun Better" and they baked and sold 800 pounds last year! The entire Christmas season consumes Sr. Assumpta. Winter months are difficult for her, but come Christmas time she comes alive again!

Sr. Assumpta and her order still wear the traditional nun's habit and they have no intention of changing that. Not once in her forty plus years in the convent has she questioned her calling. She knows that the Holy Spirit has called her to this work, and she is happy to comply.

Sister Assumpta with group at the Jennings Center

Sister Assumpta with group at the Jennings Center

As we tour The Jennings Center, Sister greets everyone, and most of them by name. She has a smile of pride as she points out the features of the Center. It is surely something to be proud of.

Sister Assumpta at the Jennings Center

Sister Mary Assumpta at the Jennings Center

The Center represents all that is good about assisted living and the aging process. Sister Assumpta represents all that is good about caring for people, sharing the load and spreading the Word of God.

She is inspirational, not because she has become a celebrity, but rather because of the simple life she leads on a daily basis and the kindness and goodness she shares with the elderly and their families.

Click to view more photos of Sister Assumpta with Muhammad Ali, Jim Thome, Florence Henderson and more.

Profiled by Debbie Hanson

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