Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sister Saint Anthony

Sister and I, Dallas, July, 1963
My great aunt (my mother’s aunt), Margaret Kennedy, was born in Buffalo, New York on July 3, 1890.  Her mother and father were first–generation Americans, both children of immigrants who came here from Ireland during the “potato famine” in the mid–1800's.  She was one of five children; she had two brothers and two sisters, including my grandmother, Mary.

In 1906, when Margaret was 16 years old, she entered the convent of the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur, a Belgian religious congregation of women.  The Eastern Province of the Congregation had its motherhouse at Mount Saint Mary in Buffalo, so Margaret was at least geographically close to her family during her time as a postulant and novice.  When she entered the Congregation as a novice in about 1908, she was given the religious name, Sister Saint Anthony, after the Franciscan Saint Anthony of Padua.  After she made her profession of temporary vows around 1911, she went back to school for two years to prepare to be an elementary school teacher.   She made her perpetual vows in the Buffalo motherhouse about 1916, after which she was sent to the Congregation’s Western Province, whose motherhouse was Our Lady of Victory Convent in Fort Worth, Texas.  The Sisters had been in Texas since the 1870's when Texas was considered a mission territory.  They followed the railroad as it was built through the Northern part of the State, building convents and schools along the way.

The habit Sister wore when she went to Texas
When Sister Saint Anthony got to Fort Worth, she found a large and busy convent that not only was the Provincial motherhouse, but also the residence for Sisters who taught at Our Lady of Victory Academy, a high school for girls that the Sisters still run.  Sister Saint Anthony wasn’t qualified or prepared to teach at the high school level, so she was assigned to work in the laundry of the large house.  Sister told me that this was her very first experience of life outside of Buffalo.  She felt as if she were a world away from her family and all that was familiar to her.  The weather in Texas was so hot and humid during the summer that, for the first several years there, Sister suffered greatly from the heat.  Born and raised in Buffalo, her experience of summer was that a heat wave was two or three days of 80–degree weather, so the long, hot  Texas summers were a shock to her.  She told me that the habit that the Sisters wore at the time (see photo) was extremely uncomfortable in the heat, and that she and some of the other Sisters suffered from frequent headaches because of the tight–fitting bonnet they wore at the time.  Sister suffered also from homesickness and had a generally difficult time adjusting to life as a laundress in the large house.  I asked her if, during that adjustment period, she ever thought about chucking it all and leaving the convent to return home.  She said that she never thought that.  For one thing, she had made perpetual vows, and those vows were the central focus of her life.  For another thing, she said, Sisters in 1920 just never thought about “abandoning” their vocation.  So Sister sweated and missed her family and the cool Buffalo summers and went about her washing and ironing.

In 1926, the Sisters were asked to staff a school in Saint Anne’s Parish in Porterville, California, a town in California’s San Joaquin Valley.  Sister Saint Anthony was chosen as a member of the founding faculty and, during the Summer of 1926, traveled to Porterville to establish the convent and the school.  Sister taught first, second and third grades at various times during her years in Porterville, and discovered to her delight that she loved teaching and loved her pupils.

In the 1930's, Sister was ordered back to Texas, where she spent the rest of her life.  She was assigned to teach third grade at Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Dallas.  The convent for that school at the time she was assigned there was a great mansion that the Marsellis family had donated to the Church.  In the 1930's it was one of the grandest homes in Dallas.  Sister taught third grade at that school through the early 1960's.  She retired from teaching when she was about 75 years old.  She stayed at Our Lady of Good Counsel after her retirement until her deteriorating vision (she had severe cataracts in both eyes in the days before cataract surgery) made it impossible for her to get around.  She then moved back to the house where her life in Texas had begun, Our Lady of Victory motherhouse in Fort Worth.  Sister lived there, lovingly cared for by her Sisters, until her death on January 18, 1993.  Sister was 103 years old at the time of her death, and less than six months away from her 104th birthday.

Sister Saint Anthony's 100th Birthday, July, 1990
Sister had various health problems in her later life.  In the 1940's and 50's, she suffered from bleeding ulcers and was hospitalized four or five times.  Twice she was thought to be near death and was given Extreme Unction, “the last rites.”  She recovered both times and outlived her ulcers.  In the 1970's and 80's, she was found to have breast cancer in two separate instances.  She had radical mastectomies in both cases and recovered well after both.  In the mid-1970's, she found an ophthomologist who was able to restore some of her sight by doing an early version of cataract surgery on both her eyes.  Sister had to wear thick darkened lenses, but she was able to read and watch television, and she was able clearly to see the people and things around her.

I met Sister Saint Anthony only twice: in July of 1963, on a family vacation, we visited with her for several days in Our Lady of Good Counsel convent in Dallas.  In 1975, I flew to Fort Worth and spent a week with her in Our Lady of Victory motherhouse.  Throughout my growing–up years, into my life as a husband and father, Sister and I exchanged long and fascinating letters.  I learned about her life from these letters and from my visits.  I also got to know the woman who was the Sister.  She was an indescribably gentle person.  She also had the gift of simplicity, a trait much valued in religious life.  Having taught first, second, and third grades for almost fifty years, her manner of speech was child–like, but her thoughts and sentiments were anything but child–like.  She was a woman of prayer and of faith.  She and I talked a lot about prayer and she gave me a few “tips” that I found especially helpful when I was learning to pray as a Franciscan.  She told me always to remember that the Jesus to whom I prayed loves me more than anyone else ever could, that He understands all my problems without my having to bore Him with the details, and that, like all men (she said this with a smile), He likes to hear how great He is!  I loved this woman!

I lived most of my life in and around Washington, D. C.  Whenever any of Sister’s fellow Sisters, former students, or friends would come to the D. C. area, Sister would ask me to get in touch with them.  I met a dozen or so of her former students, all of them priests or Sisters themselves.  They all spent the time of my visits with them telling me about the “real” Sister Saint Anthony.  I think all the people I met had her as their third grade teacher, but her impact on them was lasting.  All of them talked about her impish sense of humor.  She loved to play practical jokes on her Sisters and on her students.  She got in trouble frequently with her superiors for playing such jokes.  One time, during the Second World War, it was her turn to answer the convent telephone in the house in Dallas.  One night, the phone rang, and a soldier asked to speak with his sister, who was a Sister just recently assigned to the Dallas convent.  Sister Saint Anthony went into the recreation room, where all the Sisters were listening to the radio, reading, sewing, or playing board games.  She called out that Sister So–and–So had a phone call from a man claiming to be her husband.  The whole room—about 25 Sisters—erupted in confusion and concern.  Poor Sister So–and–So almost fainted.  She protested to Sister Saint Anthony that she had never been married.  Sister Saint Anthony said, “Oh, did I say husband?  I’m so sorry, Sister, it’s your brother on the line.”  This is one of the times that Sister was reprimanded by the superior.

Her former students also told me what a great teacher she was.  One of them, a Sister herself, told me that her second grade teacher, another Sister, had been a holy terror, cuffing students when they gave the wrong answer, using her ruler to get a day–dreaming student’s attention, and frequently screaming at the class.  When this Sister started third grade with Sister Saint Anthony, she was shell–shocked and lived in fear of Sister Saint Anthony’s first temper tantrum.  That tantrum never happened.  This former student told me that, of all the Sisters with whom she had studied, Sister Saint Anthony was the kindest, the most light–hearted, and the most effective.

Sister Saint Anthony has always been one of my heroes.  She lived her life for others.  She gave or herself to a cause greater than her own comfort.  She walked the walk of religious life as a woman of faith and, most importantly, prayer.  When I was getting ready to enter the novitiate, Sister sent me a book of Gospel meditations.  In her letter that came with the gift, she wished me well, told me to leave if ever I came to know I shouldn’t be in religious life, and said her only rule for me was that I was to pray all the time.  She wrote on June 13, 1966 (her feast day):  “Don’t use other people’s words when you pray, Eddie.  God will know they’re not your words.  Use your own words, and go through your day just telling God how much you love Him.  Tell Him how grateful you are for the life He has given you as a Franciscan.  Tell Him how beautiful His world is.  Just talk to Him, but do it all the time.”

I come from some really good people, and Sister Saint Anthony was at the top of the list!

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