Sister Terry Wassinger sits on the swing near the circular driveway at Heartland Farm. Beside her sit Lily and Lennie, brother and sister farm dogs. It is her favorite place to sit and rest. But soon, she will be say goodbye to the farm that has been her home for 21 years. She’s heading to Kentucky on Sunday, Sept. 15, the day after Heartland Farm celebrates its 25th anniversary.
The decision to move someplace else came gradually. With new people with new ideas coming to the farm, she could see they were hesitant to bring their ideas forward due to her extensive years of experience. She caught herself from time to time stating an idea wouldn’t work, or that it had already been tried.
“I thought, if I moved out of the way, It would be maybe easier for people,” she said. It’s not the first time she’s made this decision.
Years in Nigeria
For the first 25 years of her vocation, she served as a nurse and midwife in Africa. There, she trained native Nigerian women to become midwives, and eventually take over their mission. Eventually, they succeeded, but still the women she trained were reluctant to take charge of the mission because they perceived her to be superior. It was at that time she began to discern a calling to come back to Great Bend, where she had taken her final vows.
“I was white and they were black and because of the way things were there, they felt white people were better and smarter. And they weren’t. They’ve done wonders over there,” she said. “So, I’ve had that past experience of knowing it’s good to move out and it’s good to move on and let the thing roll.”
It was 1990. Four years earlier, Sister Betty Jean Goebel brought her vision of Heartland Farm forth, and became the first Dominican Sister of Peace to reside on the farm. She had a vision for the place, but would not be the one to see it become fulfilled. She had received confirmation her cancer was back, and as she shared her vision for the farm, Wassinger agreed to carry it forward. In January 1992, Goebel died, and in May, Wassinger said goodbye to Nigeria and returned to Great Bend.
About a month after she moved to Heartland Farm, Wassinger began nursing part-time in the OB ward at Central Kansas Medical Center. She chose not to get her midwifery license upon returning because she was ready to give up control of delivery to the doctor.
“I missed labor and delivery,” she said. “I love being with a woman in labor. There’s no more satisfying type of nursing to me because it’s a challenge and it’s a privilege to be with a woman having a baby. It’s a challenge to help her believe it’s all going to come out okay, and it’s a privilege to be there and share in the joy of a new life.”
She continued to work there until the hospital closed. Today, when she tends Heartland Farm’s booth at Great Bend’s farmers market, it’s not uncommon for women to come to her and tell her she was with them during the delivery of their children.
In Kentucky, she will once again work as a nurse on a part-time basis.
“I am a nurse. That’s what I’ve always been and what I always want to be,” she said. She will be living at St. Catherine’s convent outside of Springfield, Ky. She will assist the full-time nurse there, and will also drive her fellow sisters to doctor’s appointments in neighboring cities. She’s looking forward to a year with no responsibility. She jokes, “I’m going to have an irresponsible year.”
The convent is connected not only to a nursing home for retired nuns, it is also connected to a college. It plans to roll out an interdisciplinary organic farming program, sponsored by the Berry Foundation and Wendell Berry. She credits Barry’s naturalistic writings in the 1970s and 1980s for sparking Sister Betty Jean Goebel’s original vision for Heartland Farm. She will be acting as a sounding board for the chairman for the new program. They hope to include a 12-credit-hour internship in which students will work on organic farms owned by the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
“I’m very interested in it, and what’s happening at the college,” she said.
She brought alpacas to Heartland Farm in 1999. Many people who have learned she is leaving have asked her if she is planning to take them with her. She laughs, of course.
“They aren’t my alpacas,” she said. “They belong to Heartland Farm.”
But thanks to a warm friendship made with a couple that has been trading with the farm for a handful of years now, she won’t be far from an alpaca experience whenever she likes. About five miles from the motherhouse is where Shawn and Lori Leroy live. They run an alpaca farm and cottage mill. Lori is a fiber artist, and Shawn travels to sell alpaca products. Wassinger has promised them that she can look after their alpacas should they decide to take some trips together.
At 72 years old, Sister Terry still takes no medications and considers herself very healthy. She looks forward to her time in Kentucky, and has already moved the majority of her things there over Labor Day weekend.
During her last week, she’s enjoying walking out to the pasture, sitting in her favorite swing, and playing cards with the sisters. She also has two boxes of photos she needs to go through. She doesn’t plan to take them with her.
“They’re things from my past, and if and when I die, and I will die someday, somebody else would have to discard them,” she said. “So, I thought, why don’t I discard them myself, so that is what I’m doing.”
Still, she is scanning some photos into her computer in case she decides to write about something later. It feels good, she said, to see things running smoothly at the farm as she takes this step back.
“I’m not going to retire, though I could,” she said. “There are a lot of things that are going to excite me.”