Get Thee to a Nunnery

So, we’re Catholic. Really Catholic. I grew up attending Sunday School, memorizing my Acts of Contrition and finding excuses to skip out on Reconciliation every year. It was great (heavy on the sarcasm–sorry Mom!), and when I started researching my genealogy, it came as no surprise that there were not one, not two, but dozens of nuns in the family tree. But one family, in particular, caught my attention this week. Why? Half of the sisters–three of the six–chose to become a Sister of Saint Francis: Sister Mary Leonora, Sister Mary Felicia and Sister Mary Maristella. And what are the odds?

Prayer Card
Mary Prayer Card // Diocesan

It all started with the matriarch of the Wagner family, Mary Wilhelmina (Mead) Wagner; she was born on March 12, 1864 in Alden, New York to C. Daniel Mead and Mary Frances Reinhard. Daniel was born in Ireland–while Frances hailed from Germany–but both grew up in devoutly Catholic households. The couple passed down their commitment to faith to their daughter, Wilhelmina, and she and her husband, Matthias, did the same for their own family. Matthias and Wilhelmina had nine children–Mary Eva (b. 1887), Joseph George (b. 1889), Charles David (b. 1893), Frances Clara (b. 1894), Lauretta (b. 1897), Anna (b. 1898), Emma Matilda (b. 1899), Martha (b. 1902) and Matthias Lawrence (b. 1904)–and they made their home in Darien Center, New York.

The first sister to become a Sister was Mary Eva; she was born on April 22, 1887 in Alden, New York, and I’ve found her ricocheting between neighbors’ houses throughout her teenage years, working as a household servant in exchange for room and board. Eva was named after a long line of Mary’s–her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother and great-great-great-grandmother were all named Mary Something–and she was expected to devote her life to the church. She took her perpetual vows–marking her total commitment to following in the footsteps of Christ–on July 3, 1919 under the name Mary Leonora. Sister Mary Leonora died four years later–at the age of 35–on September 7, 1931, much too soon.

Wagner2
Sister Mary Leonora, Sister Mary Felicia & Sister Mary Maristella Wagner

Then there’s Frances Clara, who turned out to be the most revered and deeply-respected nun in the family; she was born on April 13, 1894 in Alden, New York, and by the age of 16, she had left school to help support her siblings. She took her perpetual vows on January 2, 1920–under the name Sister Mary Felicia–and immediately resumed her studies, showing a lifelong devotion to both the church and education. After completing her preparatory courses, Sister Mary Felicia was assigned to teach at St. Mary of Sorrows’ primary school in Buffalo; she later taught at St. Mary’s on the Hill in Lancaster before serving as the local superior and principal at St. Cecilia’s in Sheldon. In 1955, she had the honor of being named the principal of St. James School in Buffalo and became the first superior of the convent only two years later. She passed away on January 29, 1988 at the age of 93, leaving hundreds of students to mourn her:

As we gather here this morning our hearts are filled with gratitude, for the life of Frances Wagner, known for the past seventy-three years as Sister Mary Felicia. Her early family life with her parents, her five sisters, and three brothers, must have been the source of her deep faith, her joyful spirit, and her sensitive concern for others.

As an educator, she possessed the ability to recognize the gifts and the strengths of each child. Her fun-loving nature permeated the classroom as she employed interesting methods and strategies of teaching in a pleasant and relaxed setting. I witnessed this, as she was my teacher in two different grades.

In later years, all of us remember her radiant smile, her ready wit, and her enjoyment of the simple things of life. She was kind to all and very grateful for the smallest favor. It was evident that she was always present to her God in the here and now events of daily life. It appeared that her greatest joy was to give back to God her rare and precious gifts.

Even in very recent times in her weakened condition, her innate courtesy was always present. It seemed that her openness to God and to all creation gave her the freedom to be gentle, peaceful, and joyful in the Lord.

Sister Felicia, your life was a total response to a loving God. In your prayerful spirit, you were willing to love until the very end. May God’s final surprise be a sharing of His life with you. (Sister Grace Marie, 1988)

And last–but not least–is Lauretta; she was born on June 5, 1896 in Alden, New York, and her older sister’s sacrifice in the way of education allowed her to attend school into her teenage years. Like her sisters, she took her perpetual vows on July 7, 1922 under the name Sister Mary Maristella. Maristella–or “Stella Maris”–is a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary meaning “Our Lady, Star of the Sea,” and I think it’s an absolutely beautiful–albeit unique–choice. I don’t have any other information on Sister Mary Maristella’s life, as she passed away less than a year later on January 7, 1923. She was 25 years old, and her oldest sister, Sister Mary Leonora, died eight months later of the same illness; I cannot begin to imagine the void their deaths must have left in the Wagner family.

The Sisters of Saint Francis–the order my three 3rd great-aunts entered into–lived, worked and studied at 400 Mill Street in Williamsville, New York. The Sisters opened an orphanage in the city of Buffalo, and their main commitment was to caring for orphaned children and looking after their education. But they also opened a “Home for the Aged,” volunteered in local hospitals and started a junior college on their remaining property. Today, the Sisters have given up their habits, and their numbers are dwindling–but they’ve combined with two other orders in the area, and they are still committed to improving the lives–young and old–of the members of their community. Sister Mary Leonora, Sister Mary Felicia and Sister Mary Maristella’s commitment to working on behalf of others is inspiring, and I hope to be the kind of teacher that my own students remember as having “the ability to recognize the gifts and strengths of each child,” too.

It’s no wonder my great-grandmother–their niece–entered a convent in her early twenties. But that’s a story for another time.Jamie

21 thoughts on “Get Thee to a Nunnery

    1. My grandmother has terrible stories about the nuns who taught her growing up–her mother even took her out of the school, it was that bad. That’s why I loved reading about Mary Felicia–she seems like everything a teacher should be. I’m trying to live up to that, at least!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. It sounds as though the religious vocation provided the three sisters with a stable and meaningful life, albeit cut short for Mary and Lauretta. Is the Order of the Sisters of Saint Francis known for being progressive? My understanding is that there are differences among orders?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t say for certain, but based on everything I’ve read on their website and social media (as well as the articles I’ve found on their service), they seem to be more progressive.

      You’re definitely right, there are significant differences among orders. It’s surprising that the Wagner’s would join a more “progressive” order, though. My great-grandmother (their niece) was DEVOUTLY Catholic. Very, very religious–I was terrified of her sometimes. I thought they would be the same way, but Mary Felicia is so different!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard the name until I started the research for this post, either! It’s apparently an Italian name, and some nuns have reversed it and combined the two words (I’m guessing the nuns who aren’t Italian would reverse it–“my” Maristella was German). It’s beautiful!

      Like

    1. I’ve never heard anything like that before–you had a pretty cool math teacher! I had a history teacher once that I could see saying something similar–maybe that’s part of the reason why I love history so much.

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  2. I come from a very Catholic family too, well, normal number of kids, but I had to go to Sunday School and church every week, and I was an altar girl for a few years. I also have a great-aunt who was a nun and a teacher – we called her Auntie Sister. Your great-aunt must have been a wonderful teacher, because that is an amazing tribute to her!

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  3. Lovely profiles and what a wonderful photo of the three sisters! I enjoyed reading their stories 🙂 My dad was a very lapsed Catholic, but my babcia remained devout til the end. She almost had a heart attack when John Paul II was shot back in 1981!!

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    1. Wow, I wish I could meet your babcia too! We’re more lapsed at this point, too, but she sounds so much like my grandparents and great-grandparents. I mean, there’s at least one photo of Pope Francis in every room of my grandmother’s house right now. I get it.

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  4. Lovely piece! I found a second cousin in Ireland who is a priest, about 20 years younger than me. After all my research I told him I wasn’t surprised he became a priest since on his father’s (my side of the family) he had two aunts who were nuns and an uncle who was a priest. Then he told me his MOTHER youngest of 14 had 12 older sisters who were nuns! Only his mother and her one brother married!

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  5. Oh yeah, it was definitely in the cards for him. Three nuns in the family is the most I’ve found, and I thought that was a lot–I can’t imagine TWELVE! I bet they had the most interesting stories to share–I wish I could’ve met all of them, too, ha!

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