An early morning bike ride turned deadly for a beloved Religious Sister of Mercy on Thursday, August 17, when she was struck by a car in Alma, Michigan. Sister Joseph Marie Ruessman, 64, was wearing a helmet and reflective clothing when a motorist struck her bicycle near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Williams – just down the street from the Religious Sisters of Mercy convent – then sped off without stopping.

A citizen's tip helped Alma police to identify the driver suspected of being responsible for the crash: Justin Thomas Fell, a 33-year-old Alma man who had filed a report the same day as the accident, claiming that he'd hit a deer while outside the city limits. Police reported that damage to the vehicle is consistent with the damage that would have been sustained in a collision with a bicycle; and investigators at the scene recovered a dark-colored piece of bug guard which had broken from the passenger side of the vehicle. Fell is currently being held in police custody, as the investigation into the accident continues.

 

An Accomplished Professional

Sister Mary Sarah Macht, who lives at the order's motherhouse in Alma and became friends with Sister Joseph Marie, talked with the Register about her friend. “She was very smart, very schooled in the law. She also had an M.B.A. – and she was quite a financial wizard,” Sister Mary Sarah reported. Before joining the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 2000, Sister Joseph Marie had become a civil lawyer and a canon lawyer, and had earned a Masters in Business Administration.

In February 2012, Sister Joseph Marie was among signatories on a protest letter from Catholic leaders to the Obama Administration. The letter, titled “Unacceptable”, was sharply critical of the HHS Mandate and its requirement that employers pay for abortion-causing drugs and other services. It was drafted by Harvard's Mary Ann Glendon, Princeton's Robert P. George, Notre Dame's Carter Snead, Catholic University of America's president John Garvey, and Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

 

Her Catholic Roots Bore Fruit: A Commitment to Prayer and Service

Sister Joseph Marie was born Madeleine Ruessman, one of eight children in a devout Catholic family. Another sibling, her brother John, is a Maryknoll priest. Madeleine attended St. Hugo of the Hills School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, then the all-girl Marian High School, where she served on the student council and was inducted into the National Honor Society. Taller than her fellow students, she earned a reputation as an athlete, excelling in basketball.

Madeleine experienced her call to the religious life in her late 40s, entering the Religious Sisters of Mercy founded by Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley. She wore a habit and a ring in which was engraved the motto “Greater love hath no man.” As her obituary said, she strove to live her life in that mystery.

As a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, Sister Joseph Marie was hardworking yet quiet and prayerful. Her primary role was as Secretary to the Generalate of her Order. She also served as assistant to the novice mistress, teaching ecclesiology to the novices and postulants.  She had recently been named Financial Administrator of the Institute. Because of her background in law, she was legal counsel for the Order, helping Sisters with immigration and other issues; and she made herself available to other religious communities seeking advice in matters of civil or canon law.

“She really loved her bike,” said Sister Mary Sarah. She used it primarily as a means of transportation, pedaling from the novitiate home, where she lived, to her job at the Motherhouse down the street. When she was struck on Thursday morning, August 17, Sister Mary Sarah believes that she was headed to the motherhouse for Mass in the main chapel.

Sister Mary Sarah viewed the tragic accident with hope. In Sister Joseph Marie's death, she said:

We can see the providence of God, even in the midst of tragedy. When she was taken to the first hospital, before being transferred to the larger hospital in Midland, her fellow Sisters were with her, offering the Prayers for the Dying. It was a joyful death and a beautiful experience for the community – to be able in the fullest way that we can, to be really present with one of our Sisters, in life and in death.”

The Religious Sisters of Mercy have already forgiven the man who bears responsibility for Sister Joseph Marie's death. “We hold no animosity,” said Sister Mary Sarah Macht. “It was truly an accident. We pray for him and for everyone involved.”