Sister Gussie with her mandolin (Angela Cave photo)
Sister Gussie with her mandolin (Angela Cave photo)
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For Sister Augusta Ann "Gussie" Burgess, CSJ, retirement is a process. She recently cut just one day from her schedule at an early intervention program for children in Troy.

"Maybe next year I'll take another day off," she said, laughing. "I'm ready to slow down."

But the 70-year-old is already planning to fill her time with home visits to elderly residents in Washington County, where she's the only Sister of St. Joseph in residence.

She's also starting guided meditation and prayer programs at the parishes in her cluster. She is a eucharistic minister, pastoral council member, catechist, mandolin player and more.

"It's very hard for me to retire," she admitted.

Sister Gussie was raised in Greenwich and baptized at St. Joseph's parish there. She believes her vocation was decided for her when she was two: The family doctor had given a grim prognosis as she suffered from convulsions brought on by whooping cough, and her mother held her up to a painting of the Blessed Mother and asked for Mary's intercession.

"There's never a time I can remember that I didn't want to be a sister," Sister Gussie said. "I always knew I wanted to serve God."

CSJ days
The first time she actually saw women religious was at about age six, when she attended an older friend's First Communion. The girls making the sacrament "wore beautiful white dresses, but I was not impressed," she said. "I didn't think we needed to look like little brides."

But she was fascinated by the Sisters of St. Joseph sitting behind the children, dressed in religious habits and veils. "I'm going to be one of those," Sister Gussie remembers declaring to her father.

She attended catechism classes with the sisters and approached one about a vocation when she was a senior in high school.

"I just knew that I loved God and this was the way," Sister Gussie said. "She told me to pray for a while, and I told her, 'I've been praying for a long time already.'"

She learned that the sisters "laughed and had a lot of fun."

Teacher, here and there
She entered the convent at 18, attended The College of Saint Rose in Albany and began teaching first grade at the former St. Francis de Sales School in Troy, where she served for decades. Next came a school in Endicott, N.Y.

She reluctantly earned a master's degree in speech and language pathology, though she's glad now that her order pushed her to do so, and then worked with children who were developmentally delayed, deaf or otherwise speech-disabled.

In 1990, Sister Gussie moved to Japan to teach English at a mission school for girls in the city of Tsu. She had no knowledge of the Japanese language or culture, but gathered enough to get by at work and Mass and learned mandolin, silk work and brush writing.

"You get a different perspective when you live in a foreign country," she continued. "I always thought Japan was a place I didn't know about. But the foreign territory was inside me. My heart was being stretched to embrace a people and a culture with which I had very little in common."

She left after 10 years when her sister died and her father became ill; she's currently caring for her stepmother, but would like to retire in Japan. Her Japanese friends "always tell the sisters here that I'm on loan to them," she said.

Back in the states, Sister Gussie had a hard time "relearning" English and getting used to being without her Japanese friends.

"People would say to me, 'Aren't you glad you're home?'" she said. "And I wasn't. My heart was breaking."

To-do list
Things did get easier: For a dozen years, Sister Gussie has served the cluster parishes of St. Patrick's in Cambridge, St. Joseph's in Greenwich, Holy Cross in Salem and Notre Dame-Visitation in Schuylerville.

She also works at the Unity Sunshine program in Troy as an outreach speech and language therapist for pre-kindergartners in Washington and Rensselaer Counties, visiting families in homes, preschools and daycare facilities.

She often learns the families have other needs, like food, clothing or spiritual assistance - as do those she meets through community outreach in Greenwich to people "who slip through the cracks" in terms of assistance with gas, rent and other expenses.

All of her activities help her fulfill the Sisters of St. Joseph charisms of reconciliation and serving "the dear neighbor."

"However I can bring the people I serve closer to God, whatever it takes to make the kingdom known and in the process bring myself closer, [I'll do]," Sister Gussie said. "They may be serving me even more than I am serving them, when they tell me what their deep needs are. I'm very humbled to be a part of that; it takes great courage to share. They have shown me how to trust on a really deep level."

She added: "They also teach me to relax and to laugh and to take a break and to not take myself too seriously."