By Barb Arland-Fye
Sifting through the mail at home, I was startled to find a letter addressed to me in my own handwriting. I had forgotten about sending a self-addressed envelope to a nun I’d never met, but hoped to hear from because of her close friendship with one of my teachers, the late Sister Michael Anne.
Thoughts of Sr. Michael Anne, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, have come to mind ever since she taught me and 38 other first-graders at Nativity School in St. Paul, Minn., in 1964-65. She was affirming and caring, but also strict. I can’t imagine having to manage a classroom with that many young learners!
I got in trouble for being a chatterbox, and in an otherwise fine report card Sr. Michael Anne noted that I didn’t always follow directions. But more often than not she stamped my worksheets with an angel imprint denoting excellent work. I wanted to do everything in my power to please her.
Three years later, Sister Michael Anne died of leukemia. We students processed into the convent to view her body in a casket. I was sad, but also in awe at being inside the convent for the first time.
Having met so many wonderful Sisters over the years, I’ve wanted to know more about Sr. Michael Anne’s history and her call to religious life. By happy coincidence, I learned that a friend, Kathy Berken, is pursuing a master’s in theology with a certificate in spiritual direction at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, and living with retired Sisters of St. Joseph.
“It’s a great experience learning their stories and discovering how dedicated they have been all their lives, even into their late retirement years as 80 and 90-year-old Sisters,” Kathy told me in an e-mail. She provided me with school rosters from my years at Nativity and searched for someone who might have known Sr. Michael Anne. To our delight, Sister Marie Smith, CSJ, was Sr. Michael Anne’s best friend.
I wrote to Sr. Marie, who responded several weeks later with a touching letter. She and Sr. Michael Anne had entered their religious community in September 1945; they made their first vows in 1948 and attended the Diocesan Teachers College to prepare to teach that September. They earned their bachelor’s degrees at St. Catherine’s while taking classes on Saturdays and at summer school.
Sr. Michael Anne was assigned to primary grades and “was a much loved teacher as well as a community member,” Sr. Marie wrote. “Many of the nuns here at Bethany (Convent) still remember and talk about how much she brought to community life.”
Sr. Marie had been assigned to the community’s mission in Japan to teach at a girls’ school. She was home on a visit in the spring of 1967, just a few months before Sr. Michael Anne became ill with what she thought was the flu.
“I was with her when she was told about the leukemia and spent a lot of time with her when she was hospitalized,” Sr. Marie wrote. The two friends were able to visit Sr. Michael Anne’s family in Wanda, Minn., for Christmas. But shortly afterward, Sr. Michael Anne returned to the hospital. Sr. Marie visited her dear friend daily, donning a surgical gown, cap and mask each time. Sr. Marie had to return to Japan in late February. “Saying good-bye was difficult.”
Sr. Michael Anne died a month later.
“Writing this to you has brought back many memories, happy ones and sad ones, but mostly happy ones,” Sr. Marie wrote. “She was the best friend I ever had and I am so grateful I was with her almost to the end. Thank you for asking about her and giving me this chance to write it all down … I hope and pray you have, or will have, as good a friend in your life.”