Sister Agnes Arvin (formerly Sister Agnes Virginia)
“Keep me safe O God, I take refuge in You. I say to You, You are my God. My Happiness lies in You along. My happiness lies in You alone.”
“I will bless Our God who give me counsel, Who even at night directs my heart. I keep you, God, ever in my sight. Since You are at my right hand I shall stand firm.”
“And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad. Even in safety shall my body rest. For You will not leave my soul among the dead. Nor let your beloved know decay.”
“You will show me the path of life, The fullness of joy in your presence, At your right hand, at your right hand. Happiness forever.”
“O God, You are the center of my life. I will always praise You. I will always serve You. I will always keep You in my sight.”
—– Psalm 16 – Center of My Life
I can think of no words from scripture that better capture the essence of the life of Sister Agnes Arvin than these words from Psalm 16, said Sister Marie McCarthy in her commentary for Sister Agnes Arvin – formerly Sister Agnes Virginia – who died Wednesday, April 8. She was 93 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 75 years.
Agnes Arvin was born Nov. 19, 1921, to Dellas and Gertrude Brewer Arvin in Bedford, Indiana. Agnes had three siblings – a brother, William, and two sisters, Amy and Rosemary – all of whom preceded her in death. Tragedy came to the family early in Agnes’ life with the death of her father in a tragic stone-cutting accident. Her mother moved the family to Indianapolis where she secured employment at St. Vincent’s Hospital, working night shifts in order to support the family and to be home to see the children off to school each day. Despite this tragic early loss and the hardships that ensued, the small family prospered, held together by the love of their mother and the strength of her faith.
Agnes attended Cathedral grade school in Indianapolis and the Providence Juniorate at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She entered the Congregation on Jan. 5, 1939, and received the name of Sister Agnes Virginia. Agnes made her first profession on Aug. 15, 1941, and her final profession on Aug. 15, 1947.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College on the 20-year plan (!) and went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Indiana University.
Agnes spent 25 years ministering in elementary education in Chicago, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Terre Haute. Many of those years were spent teaching seventh- and eighth-grade, and six of those years were spent as the principal of Saint Jude’s school in Indianapolis.
Agnes was elected to the General Council of the Congregation in 1966. As she concluded these years of service, she was elected as a Co-Provincial for the Saint Joseph province. At the conclusion of her ministry in elected leadership, Agnes took up her ministry among developmentally disabled adults, a ministry she continued in for nine years. Following a well-earned year of sabbatical, Agnes joined Catholic Charities in Chicago, spending the next five years ministering to women and children in the family shelters.
By now you might be thinking retirement comes next? No, not for Agnes. She spent the next four years serving the Congregation as an area assistant for holistic health care, and at the end of these four years, volunteered to go to Christ the King High School in Antigua, West Indies.
Agnes gave two years of service to the West Indies before returning to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, where she engaged in volunteer ministry, first at St. Ann’s Clinic in Terre Haute, and then in our own health care. The last several years of her life, as you know, Agnes spent as a resident in that health care.
These are the facts of a remarkable life, but what of the woman behind these facts? To know the woman, we must return to the opening Psalm. For Agnes, God was the indisputable center of her life and everything flowed from this. As I was thinking about Agnes, I could not help but think she was the perfect embodiment of what Pope Francis calls The Joy of the Gospel. And Agnes was a lover par excellence. Joy and love permeated everything that she did.
Agnes loved you, her family deeply – each one of you. She loved going to visit and be with the family. She enjoyed her brother Bill, her sisters Amy and Rosemary – and she adored her nieces and nephews. She loved and cared for each of you with a particular love and affection. She knew who you were. She cared about your struggles, your sorrows, your joys, your accomplishments. She looked forward with eager anticipation to her trips to visit you and to welcoming you here to visit her. I know that each of you knows without a doubt that you had a champion on your side in Agnes.
Agnes loved each person she met, accepting and receiving each without judgment. She loved her sisters. She loved her students. She loved the adults with disabilities among whom she lived and ministered. She loved the families trying to get on their feet and find a way out of danger and poverty.
She always took each and every person just as they were and loved them into fuller life. I remember with absolute clarity my first meeting with Sister Agnes Arvin. I remember the date, the location and the first words Agnes ever spoke to me. It was Aug. 16, 1965. I was all of 23 years old, standing outside the old novitiate, along with all the other sisters headed for southern Indiana, waiting for the bus that would take me to Holy Family New Albany and my first ministry assignment.
We were all still in full habit and it was the days of traveling with one suitcase and a winter box. I was waiting for the bus with my one suitcase, my winter box, several boxes of music, a guitar and a violin. Agnes took one look at me, and without a moment’s hesitation, said, “And what are you going to be like when you’re an old nun?!” Those words were the beginning of a long and lovely friendship.
During the turbulent years from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, Agnes regularly reached out to younger members who were struggling and searching. Many of us know that we are who we are and where we are today because of the love and support that we experienced from Agnes.
Agnes had absolute trust in the God of Providence and was not afraid to try new things. While a member of the General Council, she was among the first of us to begin wearing contemporary clothes. She never allowed the rules or regulations to eclipse real people and their need and she had a knack for knowing what was essential and what could be let go of for the sake of the flourishing of life.
Any among us who have had the privilege of ministering with or living with Agnes know that she loved life. She loved to sing. She loved to dance. She loved a good party and she loved people.
And that love was anchored, always, in her love for the God of Providence. One story that captures for me the essence of Agnes’ absolute reliance on Providence came later in her life. Agnes had always had a real fear of memory loss. She had watched her mother, in particular, suffer from it and was frightened by what this might mean for her.
When she moved to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 2000, she was already experiencing some early signs of memory loss. Rather than moving into denial or isolating herself from others, Agnes began volunteering regularly in the memory loss section of health care, spending time with the residents there, visiting, taking them for walks, seeing to their various needs. She went directly to that which frightened her most and befriended it. Only someone who knew, without a doubt, that she was the beloved of God could do this and do it so gracefully.
Through her final years in health care, Agnes never lost her good sense of humor, her graciousness, nor her social skills. These final years have been difficult for all of us who have loved Agnes. And she continued through these years to teach us.
I am convinced that there is no better way that we could honor the life of this remarkable woman than to do as she did. To live our lives with energy, joy and enthusiasm, open to whatever lies ahead, loving with abandon, knowing that the God of Providence leads us on the path of life and will bring us home safely.
Services for Sister Agnes took place on Friday and Saturday, April 10-11, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A wake took place from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., on Friday, April 10, with Vespers at 4:30 p.m.
Mass of Christian Burial took place at 11 a.m., on Saturday, April 11.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Agnes in the comment section below.
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