SISTER MARY FRAN AND THE CONSULTATION CENTER (EMILY BENSON PHOTOS)
SISTER MARY FRAN AND THE CONSULTATION CENTER (EMILY BENSON PHOTOS)
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On a recent afternoon, Sister Mary Frances Beck, SNJM, answered a ringing phone at the Consultation Center of the Diocese of Albany.

"Good morning, Consultation Center," she said softly, as she has for the past 39 years.

"I enjoy it," she said of her work. "That's why I'm here so long."

The Consultation Center, located across the street from the diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany, was created in 1969 as a Church-based office where priests and women religious could receive mental health treatment.

Almost 50 years later, the center offers therapeutic services in a Christian environment to clergy, sisters and laypersons. Additionally, the center has individual and couples' counseling, personal growth groups, spiritual direction, and lectures and workshops on mental health and personal growth.

As administrative director for four decades, Sister Mary Fran has become a kind of patron saint to the Consultation Center.

Compliments
"She's the backbone," said administrative assistant Kathy Stiffen. "This is her heart and soul."

"She really is, in many ways, the one who knows the most about the Center," agreed Rev. Thomas Konopka, director of the Consultation Center.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Sister Mary Fran always felt called to religious life.

"I always knew," she said. "I think my mother at one point wanted to be a sister, and everybody in my family was Catholic."

Sister Mary Fran played on her eighth-grade basketball team and was editor of her high school paper. After graduating in 1952, she said, becoming a sister was just "the next step" for her path in life.

She began discerning her vocation with the Sisters of the Holy Names in Montreal, Canada. Two years later, after taking vows, she returned to the United States to teach grade school.

"I taught everything but first grade," she recalled, laughing.

Something new
She taught in Tampa, in Washington and then in the Albany Diocese, serving at St. John the Evangelist School in Schenectady and the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany. She later served on the administrative team for her order's regional headquarters, based in Albany.

When it came time for Sister Mary Fran to take on a new position, she began looking for jobs in the Albany Diocese. That's when she found the Consultation Center.

"I applied and here I am," she said simply.

Sister Mary Fran does a lot of behind-the-scenes work for the center. She organizes the finances, deals with insurance claims, creates brochures, helps organize and plan workshops, manages and works with the staff, and answers the phone when needed.

As a representative of the center, she also attends an annual national conference of similar centers around the country. Last year's conference was held in Detroit.

"I'm basically a jack of all trades," she said.

"She takes care of the building," added Mrs. Stiffen. "There's not a job too small or too big she'll try before asking for help. She tries to do everything first."

Sister Mary Fran even used to have a vegetable and flower garden in back of the center. Now, she's helping to clean out the basement.

Center's evolution
"Things have changed, but there's always something to do," she said.

The center has changed over the years based on the needs of the clients, she said. She monitors which workshops are well-attended and which ones don't draw as many participants: for example, there's growing interest in spiritual direction and less focus on group therapy and counseling.

"In many ways, she's the archives of the center at this point," said Father Konopka. "She's gone through three directors since being here."

In her spare time, Sister Mary Fran enjoys grocery shopping, walking and cooking. With St. Patrick's Day coming up, the Consultation Center will soon be issuing its annual invitation for employees of the diocesan Pastoral Center to partake of her favorite creation: Irish soda bread.

Now in her 80s, Sister Mary Fran has no plans of leaving the Consultation Center anytime soon.

"She's very committed, very organized and she's compassionate," said Mrs. Stiffen. "She's a very amazing person, and she has a big heart."

"The people are great and the clients are, too," said Sister Mary Fran. "It's like a second home."

(Contact the Consultation Center at 518-489-4431 or see www.consultationcenteralbany.org.)