Sister Mary Esther Lane (formerly Sister Francis Gertrude)
“Fear not, I am with you always.”
—– A reading from the Prophet Isaiah
Once, when asked her favorite passage from scripture, Sister Mary Esther Lane quoted that passage from Isaiah, said Sister Margaret Quinlan in her commentary for Sister Mary Esther, formerly Sister Francis Gertrude, who died Saturday, Nov. 19, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was 101 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 83 years.
Let’s listen to it again.
Fear not, I am with you always.
This seems to be an appropriate way to begin our remembrance of her.
Sister Mary Esther was born in Loogootee, Indiana, on April 11, 1915, to Emma Kuebler Lane and Dr. Andrew Lane. She had three brothers, Claude, Herbert and Ralph, and one sister, Maureen.
In an autobiography which Mary Esther wrote in 1960 for a class assignment at Butler University where she was working on her master’s degree, she wrote “I have always been eager to learn. We had a well-equipped, home library, and all in our family were scholars. I had good example to follow … we all loved good music, made our own, read good books, studied hard and stayed close to home.”
Mary Esther attended elementary school and high school at St. John’s in Loogootee. She earned her degrees at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and at Butler University. She entered the Sisters of Providence on Aug. 15, 1933, and made her final profession in January of 1942. Her religious name was Sister Francis Gertrude before she returned to her baptismal name.
In her autobiography, she described her first year at teaching, 34 seventh-grade boys, as a year of “perplexities, doubts, trial and error methods, but valuable experience which one can glean only from actual practice in the battlefield.” In her long career, beginning in 1936, Mary Esther taught seventh- and eighth-grade and then high school in 15 different schools in Indiana, Illinois and California. She taught mostly English, guided young people in speech contests, and for two summers, took 35 seniors and college students abroad to eight different countries. Her students described her as “super nice, but strict.”
In 1979, she began ministry at a Retreat Center in Orange, California, and later at Serra Retreat House in Malibu, California. In 1983, she began working at St. Elizabeth, in Van Nuys, California, in the health office, weighing, measuring and testing the eyes of the children there and keeping the records, sending notes to parents about taking the children to the doctor.
In 1995, she returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, where she ministered in community service. Part of that community service was to assist the sisters from Vietnam who were students in the college, helping them with English pronunciation and grammar. Sister Martha Wessel said she “really drilled them,” but Sister Jan Craven, whose bedroom was across the hall from the room where they worked, remembered the laughter she could hear as they worked. Jan added that Mary Esther loved humor and that was how she taught.
A co-worker once described Mary Esther as “competent in teaching, sewing, cooking, directing choir and plays and games, with good judgment and common sense, which made her welcome in every circle.” Another co-worker at St. Elizabeth described her, in 1983, when she was almost 70, as “always neatly attired, walking with a purposeful stride, puzzling to any age-guesser.”
When Mary Esther was in grades one, two and three, when people would ask her what she was going to be when she grew up, her answer was “a priest.” Their reply that she couldn’t be a priest was “a cruel blow,” as she described it. She wrote once that “I prayed: ‘Dear Lord, help me to know and follow my vocation, but don’t let it be as a nun.’” But, of course, her call turned out to be just that. Years later, she wrote “I love being a Sister of Providence. It is truly a gift from God.”
Several years ago, the local fire department here said that all the roads in the area had to be named and labeled so that properties could be located in case of emergency. For one little street in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Village, with maybe eight houses in its total length, the neighbors decided theirs should be named “Mary Lane.” However, the fire department insisted that it couldn’t be “Lane,” that they should all be named “Street” or “Road.” So, the street sign now says “Mary Lane Road.” I understand that Mary Esther loved taking visitors over there to show them the road that is named after her.
Mary Esther was a good friend to many, including her friend, Joe, who brought her flowers each Sunday morning and brought her over to liturgy in her wheelchair. He will miss her, as we all will.
Blessings, Mary Esther, and remember, “Fear not, God is with us always.”
Funeral services for Sister Mary Esther took place on Monday, Nov. 28, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A Wake took place from 9 to 11 a.m., followed by Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m.
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