Sister Martha Steidl (formerly Sister Marie Aquinas)
As we gather today to celebrate the life of Sister Martha Steidl, it is impossible not to reflect on how appropriate the name Martha is for this remarkable woman. For like the Martha of the gospels, loved so much by Jesus, she was indeed busy all of her life about many things, and the service of God and God’s people was the cornerstone of her existence. But like Martha’s sister Mary, she never forgot the one thing necessary, and for her students and her many friends, Martha, like Mary, was a quiet, gentle, and kind presence, said Sister Joanna Golding in commentary written by Sister Janet Gilligan for Sister Martha Steidl, who died Monday, March 12, 2018, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was 92 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 72 years.
Martha Ann Steidl was born on April 26, 1925, in Paris, Illinois, to Don J. Steidl and Viola Walker Steidl. She was the sixth of eight children: Mary Ida, Charles, Raymond, Rose, Virginia, Frank and Walt. Five of them preceded her in death; her two brothers Frank and Walt are here with us today. Martha attended Saint Mary Elementary School in Parish and graduated from Parish High School in 1943. Of those years with her large family, Martha later said, “My early shaped so much of my life and where God led me.”
She followed her sisters to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1943 and in 1945, as her brother Walt left for military service, she entered the Sisters of Providence, “answering the call to serve as well,” she said, “just in a different way.”
She took the religious name Sister Marie Aquinas and professed first vows in 1948, final vows in 1953. She received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1953, and in the next five years, during her breaks from teaching, Sister Martha earned her master’s degree in music from Catholic University of America in 1958. “I couldn’t just sit around,” she said. “No grass growing under my feet.” In 1984, she earned a master of arts in religious studies from Mundelein University.
For 25 years, she taught music in schools in Illinois, Indiana, and Washington, D.C. In 1973, she joined the music faculty at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Her co-workers remember her as a wonderful colleague. At the college, she served for 30 years as instructor, assistant, associate, and full professor. In the early days of computers in the classroom, she was an eager student of this new technology and she developed a computer lab and music technology course at the college. She was instrumental in the development of the external degree program, and after her retirement in 2001, she continued to teach for 10 more years in this distance education program, leaving the program after 40 years of service.
Martha was deeply committed to education. She believed that the object of education is to develop persons in balance, persons who were fully alive, fully human. Students remember her as a wonderful teacher, dedicated to excellence, someone who made a positive difference for many people and touched many lives. They describe her as kind, patient, sweet, lovely, humble, humorous and compassionate. One recalled, “I just loved seeing her smiling face every single day I had class with her.”
Along with her wholehearted commitment to the college, Sister Martha, truly a renaissance woman, had a wide range of interests and talents. And all of her activities were clearly infused with a profound sense of the divine adventure, of the beauty of life.
She was a talented musician. In her master’s thesis, she wrote “Our very existence is accompanied by some kind of music.” She played the organ for religious services and served as a cantor in the village church and at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. “Music is so very important for the sacramental life of the Catholic Church,” she observed. “The liturgy is perfect for meditation and prayer.” She found in music a way to transform the world, to take us out of ourselves, for she believed that where beauty is, there is God.
In addition to her skill in teaching and performing, Sister Martha was a superb cook and an excellent seamstress. And she was also a lifelong student. In her later years, when asked how she wanted to be remembered, she said “As a woman who was always learning.” And indeed she was. During her many years of teaching, she continued her education in a wide range of subjects, and attended many conventions and workshops. She also loved to travel with her sisters, and from 1987 to 1997, they attended the ElderHostels in Michigan, West Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Vancouver, learning about such things as birds, plants, creative writing, stained glass, Frank Lloyd Wright and Southeast Asia.
Along with her teaching duties, her studies, her parish work, and her travels, Martha served actively on a number of organizations. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1983. Beginning in 1967, she was an active member of the National Teachers of Singing and a frequent adjudicator for Indiana music contests. She was a member of the National Music Fraternity Mu Phi Epsilon from 1982 to 2008, serving as a president of the alumni chapter, district director, Indiana governor from 1983 to 1988 and fifth vice president in 2003.
In spite of this impressive and exhausting resume, what her many friends remember about her is that she was a person who never wanted to be in the limelight, who would not even let anyone know when her birthday was. She was supportive and appreciative of young sisters, and she brought them a sense of balance. She was a quiet, gentle and kind presence. She was generous and would quietly do anything for you. She always had a twinkle in her eye and a droll sense of humor. She was patient and philosophical when things did not work out. She thought deeply, and never spoke off the cuff.
She was also forward looking and always wanted to keep up with local and world events. She believed that we must present ourselves to God and say, “Here I am Lord, help me to grow.” She wrote, “We must find time to take an interest in the whole wide scope of life, and what it has to offer; it would be sad to realize that we could ever become women satisfied with the small world in which we live. We must stretch our minds to encompass all that God has put before us.”
When asked to describe the effect her ministry has had, she wrote “Through dedication and responsibility, friendship and kindness, scholarship and musicianship, I am able to reach the people and offer support and aid. They call me forth.”
Martha continued to minister until 2015. Her health failed quickly in the next few years, although having always made her own clothes, she still insisted on choosing her attire. Finally on March 12, she went home to the God she had served all her life.
In an article published in 2016, Sister Martha said she has been able to teach and serve “where God allowed me to be. I love this community and my sisters. I was called to teach and by the grace of God, I served. I have engaged children and people all over in many places. I’ve always been treated kindly.”
We can be confident that Sister Martha will indeed be treated kindly as she goes into the presence of the God she served so well, and we share her joy as she enters a new stage of life, still singing a joyful song unto the Lord.
Funeral services for Sister Martha took place on Thursday, March 22, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Memorial contributions in Sister Martha’s honor may be made to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Martha in the comment section below.
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