Sr. Mary Frances Seeley, OSF, Ph.D. ’64

In a clandestine location in the Joliet area, alumna and member of USF’s founding congregation, Sr. Mary Frances Seeley, OSF, is doing God’s work… and she’s doing it all over the phone. After all, “God has a toll-free number,” according to the Upper Room Crisis Hotline.

Seeley, founder of the Upper Room, received a degree in history and minor in education from then-College of St. Francis in 1964. She went on to earn an M.Ed. from DePaul University, did independent studies at Loyola University, and earned a Ph.D. in Law and Policy from Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.

It was in 1970, while Seeley was living in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, that she was introduced to the hotline concept through exposure to the Palm Beach County Hotline. She got involved, worked there for four years, and remained fascinated. She began focusing her energy and studies on hotlines.

Seeley returned to the Joliet area in 1975 and started the Crisis Line of Will County, which she ran for 14 years before leaving to pursue her doctorate in Boston. Her doctoral studies also heavily focused on hotlines and related policy. She has since spent the majority of her life studying and promoting phone hotlines as a way of assisting those in need with on-call encouragement and spiritual guidance. She has lectured about hotlines on every continent except Antarctica, “but that’s okay, because penguins don’t use telephones,” she laughed.

In 2000, Seeley was elected to a leadership role on the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate’s Governing Board and was soon approached by three priests from the Chicago Archdiocese about the possibility of starting a hotline for Catholic priests, deacons and vowed religious Brothers. On January 1, 2008, the Upper Room Crisis Hotline was launched for that audience, offering a listening ear to clergy and religious who often carry heavy burdens as they minister to struggling parishioners, families, and community members.

The hotline, registered as a 501-C-3 in Illinois, didn’t (and still doesn’t) offer therapy, just “nonjudgmental listening,” says Seeley.

Eventually, lay people of all denominations started to find out about Upper Room through internet searches. The hotline was being sought out, and Seeley felt the hotline needed to service all types of callers. Today, calls come in to the hotline center from all 50 states and 18 foreign countries. Upper Room volunteers take between 500 to 1,000 calls a month from individuals of every religious background including Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, agnostic and self-identified atheists.

The hotline is 100% volunteer-based. There are 35 volunteers who take shifts at all hours to staff the phones 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. They must first go through a rigorous eight-week training, where twice a week, they learn about normal and abnormal psychology, drug and substance abuse, suicide prevention, occult topics, relationship issues, communication tactics such as role playing, personal screening, motivational speaking, and prayer. Those volunteers also help Seeley with office maintenance, marketing, fundraising and more.

The hotline also has a secondary program called “The Sunshine Program,” in which volunteers make well-being calls to priests who are elderly, ill, or living alone. Seeley thinks this program could make a great transition to local parishes, where volunteers could check in on the elderly, ill or lonely in their parish families.

Upper Room is currently seeking an executive director and is doing its best to raise funds to cover operations. In May, volunteers and friends of the hotline sold Monks’ Bread products—premium-quality sliced bread and specialty foods such as biscotti, cheese crisps, jams, honey and coffee made by Trappist monks from Genesee Abbey near Rochester, NY. The sale was successful, and may be held again at holiday time, but the hotline also depends heavily on donations made by those who know about the hotline and who believe in its mission of bringing comfort to those facing spiritual need.

The Upper Room’s impressive Board of Directors includes Seeley as president and special advisor, and local leaders including Robert J. Baron, J.D.; Philip J. Barone; Jeff Budz, Ed.D. (2015 USF graduate); Charles Beutel (USF Vice President Emeritus) ; Mel. A. Gray, Jr.; Jean Haas; John Leach, emeritus (namesake of the USF’s John & Cecily Leach College of Nursing); Rev. James Lennon; Marjorie Marion; Michael Murray; Val Rand; Michael Rittof and Michael Vinciguerra, Ph.D. (former USF president).

Said Seeley, “The dictum God has given us all is to help others—do to others as you would have them do to you. Mother Alfred Moes, the foundress of our order, always said, to ‘find where there’s a need and fill it.’ We sisters are allowed to go where our skills are needed, and I feel I have been called to use my skills to do this work. Every call we take at the Upper Room is a gift to others and the Lord.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. To support Seeley’s work and the Upper Room Crisis Hotline, there are three things you can do.
1) Most importantly, distribute the hotline number to anyone in need: 888-808-8724.
2) Become a volunteer or donate– visit the Upper Room website at catholichotline.org for information.
3) Please “like” the Upper Room Facebook page at facebook.com/Upperroomcrisishotline and share messaging. You never know when it might just save a life.