“…eyes open and ears attentive to the sufferings of the world…spirit alert…sleeves rolled up for ministry without excluding the more humble, the less pleasing, the less noticeable.”
Father Marius Nepper, SJ
The life of Sister Phyllis Hilbert, SSJ, is a testament to her father, Joseph (Tex) Hilbert, a police officer, and her mother, Mary, a nurse. Their lives of service inspired her to religious life and have kept her answering the call every day for the past 60 years.
Members of the Sisters of St. Joseph and her own brother, the late Father Tex Hilbert, also served as strong examples of faith in service to God.
“My SSJ community, my family and friends have supported me in whatever ministry I chose to serve determined by the needs of the time,” she says. “I believe that when I love my neighbor, I am loving God and that continues to be the center of my spirituality as an apostolic religious woman.”
Sister Phyllis was born in Erie and attended St. John the Baptist School. She graduated from Villa Maria Academy and attended Fordham University in New York, and Villa Maria College and Gannon University, both in Erie.
Her call to religious life was first affirmed during a class retreat in her junior year of high school. Msgr. Wilfrid Nash, the retreat director, was talking about vocations when she felt that God was perhaps inviting her personally.
“This experience has always remained with me,” she says. “The call was nurtured by the example of my parents’ lives of service to us and anyone in need. This strong invitation has always remained with me and has been the determining factor as I continue to listen to the Spirit.”
Formerly Sister Joseph Therese, she taught at Our Lady of Peace, Villa Maria Elementary and Blessed Sacrament schools, all in Erie; and at St. Leo in Ridgway. She also taught religious education at four Crawford County parishes: St. Agatha, St. Brigid,and St. Mary, all in Meadville, and St. Bernadette, Saegertown. She was the parish religious education coordinator at Holy Rosary Parish in Erie, and served as associate director of religious education for the diocese.
Her missionary zeal revealed itself when she left Erie for East Africa. She served for five years as a missionary in Arusha, Tanzania, serving as the director of religious education for that diocese.
During her stay there, she trained and mentored an African sister to the position of director of religious education.
Upon returning to the Diocese of Erie, she focused on the needs of women at Community House for Women, a ministry founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph, while serving as part of the leadership team for the Sisters of St. Joseph. She became co-director of Bethany Ministries and founded Erie DAWN (Dwelling Advocacy for Women in Need).
Ten years later, in 2006, she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network (SSJNN) as housing/family advocate, a ministry she continues today.