Sister Marian Ruth Johnson
“Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.”
—– John 21:1-3
Anyone who knows Sister Marian Ruth Johnson knows why this scripture reading was selected for her commentary, said Sister Janet Gilligan and Sister Maureen Abbott in their commentary for Sister Marian Ruth Johnson, who died Monday, Nov. 28, 2016, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was 90 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 71 years.
She loved life, she loved teaching, she loved the Sisters of Providence, and she loved nature. But perhaps most of all, she loved to fish with her good friend, Sister Mary Pat Peacock. Just as Jesus in this story prepares a fish breakfast for his disciples, Sister Marian Ruth would invite her friends to Saint Joseph’s Lake to share a delicious meal of the fish she had caught, filleted and cooked. Just as the disciples relied on each other in their daily toil, she relied on the support and love of her community, as she ministered in God’s kingdom with zeal and enthusiasm for more than 70 years.
Sister Marian Ruth was born Ruth Kathryn Johnson on March 29, 1926, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Earl Johnson and Ethel Heidrich Johnson. She had three sisters: Lucille, Marie and Marybel; and three brothers: Earl, Richard and Robert. She attended Precious Blood Elementary School and Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne, graduating in 1944. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1963, and a master’s of education from Marygrove College in Michigan in 1971.
Apparently, Ruth felt a strong call to enter religious life, for years later, she wrote a poem describing her feelings about her entrance into the community of the Sisters of Providence. Her mixed feelings are apparent in this excerpt:
The Woods Was Calling
“Come in, come in.”
It was the voice of the Woods calling to me.
I stood at the gate with fear and trembling.
They stood at the door
Whispering to me
“Come in, come in.”
Yet, their great stature against my littleness
Froze me into stillness.
Their names were Cleophas and Raphael.
And I would learn to stand in awe,
Waiting to be told
Where to go, what to do.
The years have passed, Oh so slowly, oh so quick.
My footsteps now falter. My mind is waning.
The Woods is still calling, and now I answer!
Though my voice if faint,
My heart says, “I am here.”
Like Peter’s leap into the water when he saw the Lord on the seashore, Ruth’s decision too, was a leap of faith. She described it as naïve and gutsy. She had never even been to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. In a 1987 interview for our Sisters of Providence newsletter, Community, Ruth said, “I didn’t want anyone to know I was going to be a nun, and my mother was opposed to my decision. I just got on a bus.”
During the retreat preceding reception of the habit, she was surprised by a visit from her mother, since no visits were allowed during retreat. She goes on to say, “There she stood, with a suitcase in her hand full of my clothes and she said, ‘Come on. We’re going home.’ It wasn’t until after I was on mission and began teaching that she saw I was happy.”
Ruth took first vows in 1947 and was finally professed in 1952. As her poem relates, she was indeed told where to go and what to do – teaching grades five through eight at Maternity BVM, St. Mark’s and Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago, St. Joseph in Lockport, Illinois, at St. Ambrose in Hollywood, California, St. Patrick in Fort Wayne, and St. Catherine’s, St. Patrick, St. Philip Neri, Middle Central Catholic, and St. Francis de Sales in Indianapolis. She served as principal of St. Francis de Sales and St. Rita’s in Indianapolis and then taught at Martin Center College from 1990 to 1993. Her colleagues and students remember her as an excellent teacher who combined humor with a firm hand. Only this October, a former student wrote to tell Sister Marian Ruth she was the best teacher ever, his inspiration, always ready to listen and offer faith-based life-lessons. He remembers the numerous times she would challenge him, saying “Eddie, you know you can do better than that. Let’s try it again and get that A+.”
She is described by those who knew her as a free spirit, a loyal friend, and a generous person.
She described herself as gradually becoming her own person, feeling most at home with plain, ordinary folks, just an old shoe.
She loved community. She wrote, “I’ve always been very happy in community. There were problems, but you know, when the grapefruit squirts, sometimes, it hits you in the eye.”
She had warm relationships with her family and was devoted to her many nieces and nephews.
In addition to her love of nature and fishing, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to know that she also enjoyed playing the slot machines at casinos. Once she had a very lucky day at the casino, winning $6,000. She treated her friends to a brunch before she handed it in to an astonished Sister Ann Casper in Mission Advancement.
As you can tell from these anecdotes, Sister Marian Ruth was also noted as someone with a sense of humor. After she had a heart valve replacement that involved the insertion of a pig’s valve, she liked to advertise this by saying, “Oink, oink.”
She wasn’t afraid to tackle new projects. When she took up knitting, it wasn’t anything small that she set her mind to, but rather, an entire afghan that Sister Charles Van Hoy still cherishes.
Although in her earlier years, as her poem tells us, she “would learn to stand in awe, Waiting to be told Where to go, what to do,” but later in life, she struck out on her own, choosing to work with the poor, volunteering at a soup kitchen, teaching at a women’s prison, and fishing.
In recent months, the poem written long ago proved prophetic as her footsteps faltered and her mind did indeed wane. In her final moments, she was surrounded by her beloved sisters as she slipped quietly away.
Sister Marian Ruth has a last message for her Sisters of Providence. She asked that it be read aloud to the Congregation at her Wake Service and again to the Congregation after the Communion Service of her Funeral Liturgy:
“To all my loved Sisters of Providence:
How much you have meant to me during all these years!
You have been my community and my family.
Never once have I ever regretted having you as my lifelong companions.
All my life, I have been so proud to proclaim to others, ‘I’m a Sister of Providence.’
I only hope that I have been a good representative for all of you.
Hang in there when it gets rough!
Cry out to the Lord if you have to, but don’t give in!
Know that I shall continue to love you and help you from my eternal dwelling place.”
Funeral services for Sister Marian Ruth took place on Wednesday, Nov. 30, and Thursday, Dec. 1, in 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 Wednesday, Nov. 30, with Vespers at 4:30 p.m.
Mass of Christian Burial was at 11 a.m., on Thursday, Dec. 1.
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