Vickie Ryan, longtime director of religious education for the Assumption Church in Galloway Township, is not an intimidating woman. She speaks softly and slowly, and measures her words carefully. But cross her by, say, attempting to take pictures of children taking Holy Communion, and it's clear she's not to be trifled with.
Friends and co-workers say she has a way of getting things done, whether its providing counsel to a congregant in need or helping to organize one of the first special needs CCD's in the area. One memorable example of Ryan's influence saw her bringing livestock into the place of worship.
"We used to have the re-enacting of the Nativity at Christmas Eve Mass," said former CCD aide Kathy Shannon. "She convinced the priest that we were allowed to have Mary ride in on a live donkey. We would often slip that under the radar."
After 38 years of service - 18 years as a catechist and a CCD teacher, and 20 as religious ed director - Ryan is stepping down from her position for health reasons.
While the church has seen countless changes in her four decades, shuffling priests and changing locations, Ryan has been a fixture in the lives of generations of congregants.
Carol House, a CCD teacher who works under Ryan, said her longtime mentor is her idea of a model Catholic.
"To me, Vickie sums up everything that Jesus wanted us to be," House said. "I live my life actually trying to be like her, because she loves everybody else. She's caring, she's giving of herself over anything else."
It seems as though everyone at Assumption has a cherished memory of Ryan, or can point to a time in their life when her guidance has proven invaluable. When House's in-laws, who were lapsed churchgoers, lived with her and her husband, Ryan would visit to minister. Her mother-in-law, who could be icy, took to Ryan as though she were family and began attending church again.
When Joe Wanek, who was taught by Ryan as a child and now has two teenage kids of his own, was divorced a few years back, Ryan was instrumental in helping him manage as a single parent.
"I went through a lot of issues, and when I really had no one to turn to for advice on different matters, I called Vickie, and Vickie always made time for me," Wanek said. "She's helped me in so many ways, helping me raise my kids on my own, and given me a lot of guidance."
With Ryan, it's as much about the little things she's done as it is the big. When she first took over as religious ed director, she sat down with each teacher and asked what they'd like to see done differently. She lobbied for cubbies for teachers and has guaranteed their books are up to date - two little things that House said have made a big difference.
Ryan has served under several priests in her years at Assumption. The latest, Rev. Nicholas Dudo, joined the church just over a year ago. Having an established leader like Ryan, he said, has helped make his transition into the job a smooth one.
"There's been a lot of challenges in the ministry and different perspectives and different paradigms, and Vickie has been here through it all," Nick said. "When I came in, there were so many things going on, it was great to know as a new pastor at a new place, I didn't have to worry about religious education, because Vickie had it."
While she's earned unanimous respect in her nearly four decades at the church, her career there almost didn't happen. When she was first asked about the position, she turned it down. When asked again, she agreed, her reservations assuaged by the influence, she says, of the Holy Spirit.
Even then, the priest that hired her didn't have her on the top of his list - but it quickly became apparent she was the right woman for the job.
"He told me that I wasn't his first choice, but the following year, he gave me an enormous raise, and said to me, 'Remember, you weren't my first choice, but you were the best choice,'" Ryan said. "I've kept that with me all these years."
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