Sister John Mary Rifner
Cecilia Ann Rifner was born to Oliver and Anna Barth Rifner in New Castle, Indiana, on April 1, 1929, so her death a week ago was just days short of her 90th birthday. Perhaps God will be saying to her on April 1, “No foolin’, you are in heaven celebrating your 90th birthday,” said Sister Ann Casper in her commentary for Sister John Mary Rifner, who passed away on Thursday, March 21, 2019, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 89 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 66 years.
Sister Ann continued: Cecilia Ann, as did Mary (Martha Ann) and her deceased siblings, John and Aggie, attended Weir Public School and New Castle Senior High School, from which she graduated in 1947. She and Mary got to know the Sisters of Providence when their father drove three sisters from Richmond every Sunday to teach afternoon catechism, followed by benediction. After St. Anne School opened in 1951, the sisters told them to come by anytime they wished. And they did, enjoying every opportunity to spend time with the sisters and do little tasks for them.
That next summer, Cel and Mary took a two-week vacation in southern Indiana to tour swimming pools and churches! They ended here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, where they experienced all the sisters home for the summer processing to the St. Anne Chapel. They were hooked! Six months later, both entered the Congregation as postulants, and Cel was given the religious name of John Mary. She pronounced first profession of vows in 1955 and perpetual profession in 1960, both on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15.
Sister John Mary earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, and her master’s degree in elementary education from Indiana State University. Her degrees were put to good use for 30 years, teaching elementary grades one through six. She ministered in four states, most frequently in Indiana, as well as in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. She taught for three years in her hometown of New Castle, even teaching her niece, Susan, while there. Her longest assignment was 12 years at St. Susanna in Plainfield. She had the rather unusual experience of following her first graders through to their graduation from high school.
Her first assignment was in Malden (Massachusetts), where she was somewhat taken with the big snowfalls. She and other young sisters asked if they could go “play” in the snow, thinking they would be able to dispense with their cap and veil. Not so! They made snow angels anyway and sent all the sisters into such peals of laughter when they appeared in chapel for evening prayer – with such badly misshapen head gear – that they could not continue the prayers.
Sister Ruth Ellen Doane, who lived with John Mary at St. Athanasius in Evanston, Illinois, shared this story: “The convent was less than a block away from Northwestern University’s football stadium. Often, after school, John Mary and Joseph Patrice would walk over to watch the team practice. Ara Parseghian (later of Notre Dame) was the coach at the time. After a while, he offered the two of them seats on the 50-yard line, if they would come to the games because he had observed that, every time they came to practice, the team won the next game. Of course, we couldn’t do that then, but I’m sure they were drooling at the thought.
“The marching band also practiced at 5 p.m., in a field very near the convent and, when the weather was warm enough to have the chapel windows open, we prayed to the tune of the Northwestern fight song.”
Martha Ann relayed one of her favorite anecdotes. When John Mary taught first grade, she was trying to explain the Trinity, using the traditional three-leaf shamrock approach. Then, she had a great insight. She had each little first grader hold up his or her first finger and bend it slightly. “See, she told them, you have one finger, but it has three parts, just like God has three persons.” One little fellow raised his hand and when called upon, faced his classmates and asked, “Does anyone know what sister’s talking about?!”
Sister was asked to come to the Woods in 1985 to be a driver. In a matter of a few years, her sister Martha Ann became the director of transportation, who made all the assignments. I asked Martha Ann how that worked for them. And she was quick to say that John Mary would get a little peeved if she did not get what she considered her “fair share” of driving runs. To which, Martha Ann replied, “I know I can call on you for anything, anytime.” John Mary remained a driver for 26 years! That’s a lot of trips to doctor’s and dentists’ offices, to Indianapolis appointments and the airport, as well as many trips just running errands for her sisters, which she always offered to do. She served as a driver until 2011, when an eye problem made driving impossible. She continued to volunteer as a phone room operator for another three years, until her health no longer cooperated with her generosity in serving.
The Rifners, as we sisters often referred to John Mary and Martha Ann, for years, would journey to New Castle and on to Fort Wayne for the Thanksgiving holidays. The car was always packed full of homemade goodies – box upon box and tin upon tin as witnessed by anyone who helped load the car. The family remembers well their specialties of homemade candies (turtles, peanut clusters, Heath chocolate pieces and caramels), which also appeared for their Christmas visits. Anytime they visited in fact, they seemed to have a candy treat for the kids. Jolly Ranchers, usually.
One family member recalled, “Every time Aunt Cel came, she taught the kids a new card game, accompanied by much laughter, so intense that it often bordered on tears. They would also babysit for our children. We all remember the special addition to the meal prayer they taught us all. ‘Whether we eat or whether we drink, …’”
John Mary is recalled by her family as the “feisty” one, always ready to give her opinion, whether you wanted it or not. Perhaps that explains why she loved IU basketball and their coach, Bobby Knight. She taught one of the star players, Kent Benson, so he was always special to her.
When they were no longer able to travel distances, members of the “Rifner clan” would often come here, similarly laden with goodies. And “clan” meant any number of their 15 nieces and nephews, 36 grandnieces and nephews, and 68 great-grand nieces and nephews. The Activity Room, where they usually gathered, was hoppin’ for sure! And it thrilled them that all 15 nieces, nephews and their spouses came to celebrate their Golden Jubilees. The family remains faithful and dedicated to Aunt Cel and Aunt Mary, as we witness today.
Besides John Mary’s love of baking, games and swimming – and let us not forget BINGO and all the times she won! – John Mary was an avid reader and when her eyesight began to fail, she availed herself of the Talking Books program.
The sisters remember John Mary as one who enjoyed life, who had a generous spirit and one who was just fun to be with. Her family cherishes her with gratitude as a loving aunt who invested a lot in their three generations, taking part in family events and spreading joy and laughter at each occasion. Each visit ended with, “Know of our love for you and that we pray for you daily.” And we can all be sure that Sister John Mary, Aunt Cel, will keep that promise for all eternity.
Funeral services for Sister John Mary took place on Thursday, March 28, 2019, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. A Wake took place at 9 a.m., followed by Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m.
Memorial contributions in Sister John Mary’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 John Mary in the comment section below.
Sister John Mary Rifner
Teacher for 30 years in schools in Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland
In Indiana: St. John, Evansville (1962-63); St. Anne, New Castle (1966-69), St. Susanna, Plainfield (1969-81); St. Simon, Indianapolis (1981-85).
In Maryland: Holy Redeemer, College Park (1963-65); Ascension, Halethorpe (1965-66).
In Massachusetts: Sacred Heart, Malden (1955-56).
In Illinois: St. Athanasius, Evanston (1956-59); Maternity BVM, Chicago (1959-62).
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