Sister Mary Lee Mettler (formerly Sister Irma)
A reading from Romans 10:13-15
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Sister Mary Lee came to mind when the scripture passage from Romans appeared at last Monday’s reading at daily Mass. Her varied ministry career involved “bringing good news” as a teacher for 14 years — all elementary grades except first — then switching to high school for five years. She was also called upon to fill internal positions: Provincial clerical assistant for two years and printer operator at the Motherhouse for four years. A major shift occurred in her “bringing good news” after she earned her master’s degree in religious studies. She then spent 13 years in various aspects of parish ministry: Asdirector of religious education, in Lay Leadership Development, as Pastoral Associate … She was also on the move those 32 years, her feet carrying her to bring good news in Illinois, Texas, Maryland, Indiana, Montana, Mississippi and Tennessee, said Sister Ann Casper in her commentary for Sister Mary Lee Mettler, formerly Sister Irma, who passed away on Nov. 24, 2020, at Signature Health Care in Terre Haute, Indiana. She was 88 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 69 years.
Sister Ann continued: Mary Lee Mettler was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Omer and Leone Jordan Mettler on Aug. 7, 1932. Even though her birth name was Mary Lee, she was baptized Mary Leone. She grew up with her two sisters Connie and Irene. Irene preceded her in death last year. She was educated by the Sisters of Providence at St. John the Baptist Grade School and Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne.
Mary Lee attributed her calling to the Sisters of Providence to reading the book “Irma” in fifth or sixth grade, which was the biography of Sister of Providence Sister St. Francis Xavier, as “associate foundress” and soul friend of Mother Theodore. “I knew immediately I would be a Sister of Providence,” she said. However, Trisha, her niece, shared that “Mary Lee told me that her parents had dedicated her to God before birth and she knew at 7 years of age that she would be a nun.”
After graduation from Central Catholic High School in 1950, she entered the Sisters of Providence July 22, 1951. She professed first vows and perpetual vows on Jan. 23, 1954 and 1959, respectively. Appropriately enough, she was given the religious name Sister Irma. Later, she returned to her birth name, Mary Lee. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and her master’s degree from Indiana University, both degrees in English. Later, she earned a second master’s in Religious Studies from the University of Dayton. The three degrees blended well with her love for writing, especially essays and articles with a religious theme and meditative writings for use in parishes during the seasons of Advent, Lent and Easter.
Mary Lee had a sharp mind, or as her brother-in-law expressed it, she was “one smart cookie!” Sister Gloria Memering recalled, “I first put a name with a presence one summer post-Vatican II at one of Sister Barbara Doherty’s classes. Mary Lee stood up in the crowd and made a comment that related to Barbara’s presentation. I was rather awestruck with Mary Lee’s wisdom in knowing enough to ask a question and respected her for it.”
Her dear and long-time friend, Rev. Gerry Janzen, an Old Testament scholar and educator, remembers especially the theological conversations he enjoyed with Sister Mary Lee. “On one occasion, we explored together what is meant by the Communion of Saints. Her mind was so lively and clear thinking; and she was the living reality of what we talked about.” His wife, Eileen, who team-taught with Mary Lee at Ladywood-St. Agnes High School for four years, remembers “her love and respect for the literature she was teaching.”
Sister Mary Lee also must have had a way with children, for her friend Eileen recounted: “My two children adored Mary Lee and loved the occasions when she would visit our home. They would play board games, and she would read them stories.”
Mary Lee’s cousin Peggy recalled her favorite memory, also involving children: “Around Christmas time when I was in the seventh grade, our mother became very ill and was hospitalized. In order for my dad to keep working in his busiest season. Mary Lee was allowed to come and stay with my siblings and me. It must have been a steep learning curve for her to hit the ground running and start caring for five kids, and she did an excellent job. She helped me research, write and type up an English paper that was due before Christmas. I will never forget her enormous act of humble giving for the benefit of my family. It was a good example for me to emulate.”
Once Sister Mary Lee moved to the Motherhouse in 1998, her ministry revolved around her talents with the sewing machine and her penchant for creating craft projects, either for sale at the Bazaar fundraisers, at Linden Leaf Gifts or for the pure joy of sharing the end result with her sisters and their families.
Her niece Laura shared a memory from a family Christmas gathering which included Mary Lee. “That year Aunt Mary’s gift to each of us was a handmade crazy Christmas stocking. Mine is Purple and Red and it is in the shape of a woman’s fancy boot with a buckle. I still have that stocking today many years later, and I put it out every Christmas. This Christmas, when I take out that stocking, I will once again think of Aunt Mary and my memories of her.”
Beth Collins, our Clinical Care Coordinator, shared that “Mary Lee’s urge to create was strong even as her Alzheimer’s disease progressed. She always had a project going in her room, cabinets, drawers and tables speckled with colorful crafting materials, and pieces waiting to be sewn. She frequently showed me the marked pages in books and magazines of something she was planning to make. She loved to cut and coordinate hundreds of pieces of material for her next quilt. She had quite an eye for color, pattern and composition to which the huge quilt hanging in the Havlik Center attests.
“Mary Lee also loved socks! She had a themed and matching sock for every holiday and every outfit! And if the outfit was an ordinary one, she’d find a unique pair of socks to spark it up!”
Sister Evelyn Ovalles recalled Mary Lee’s great love of photography and the many excursions they had together, with Mary Lee acting as her guide, suggesting the best places to photograph natural beauty in the area.
Sister Jody O’Neil also mentioned a photography connection with Mary Lee. “When Mary Lee departed her bedroom in Providence Hall, I was alerted to the fact that she had left behind a significant amount of packaged photo paper should I be interested and find a use for it. That was my impetus in trying my hand at creating origami cranes.” Thanks to Mary Lee’s photo paper (and Jody’s talent, of course), 400 of the 500-plus white origami cranes form the mobiles currently suspended in the church. The crane is a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times and can remind us of both Mary Lee and of our pandemic situation.
One sister shared, “After several years of our paths crossing at meetings, LGUs, and living here in the Providence Hall community, I realized the awful mental anguish Mary Lee lived with and how she tried to cope with such a mystery. It seemed she found no joy in all the gifts she had and shared prayer services, quilting, anything she created on the sewing machine; artistic articles for the Gift Shop, love of nature and beauty in any form, music, dancing, photography.
“On the day at prayer when she announced that her doctor confirmed with her that she indeed had Alzheimer’s disease, she seemed more peaceful … the mystery was explainable. When the announcement of her death came, I could only let out a sigh of relief and gratitude that she is at peace at long last.”
Sister Joann Quinkert walked the journey through various stages of cognitive loss with Mary Lee and was a faithful and frequent visitor to Signature Health Care. She recalls one time when she brought Mary Lee home to the Woods for a visit. “Mary Lee’s non-stop smiles showed how happy it made her when the sisters stopped by the table to greet her. Although she was not able to express it, I always felt that Mary Lee appreciated the care she was given.”
When Minister of Care Sister Claire Hanson visited Mary Lee pre-COVID days and brought the Eucharist, she said, “Mary Lee did not know me but as soon as I took out the pyx, she would sit up straight, fold her hands and begin saying the Our Father. Her faith and love of God was there when her cognitive abilities failed her. It was a lesson to me.”
Many evenings Mary Lee would be looking for car keys or packing her clothes to go home to Fort Wayne because her mother and father were waiting for her. Now she is home with her God and with her mother and father and her sister Irene. Mary Lee, we rejoice with you and we know you are now really at peace in God’s eternal embrace.
Funeral services for Sister Mary Lee took place on Friday, December 4, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.
A Virtual Wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by the Funeral Liturgy without Eucharist at 11 a.m.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Mary Lee in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions may be made in Sister Mary Lee’s honor to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Mary Lee Mettler (formerly Sister Irma)
In Indiana: Teacher, Our Lady of the Greenwood, Greenwood (1957-58); Teacher, Our Lady of the Greenwood, Greenwood (1959); Teacher, Cathedral, Fort Wayne (1962-66); Teacher, St. Jude, Fort Wayne (1966-68); Teacher, Terre Haute Schulte High School, Terre Haute (1968-69); Teacher, St. Agnes Academy, Indianapolis (1969-70); Teacher, Ladywood-St. Agnes, Indianapolis (1970-73); Clerical Assistant, St. Gabriel Province Office, Indianapolis (1973-75); Director of Religious Education, St. John the Baptist Parish, Newburgh (1976-78); Assistant Printer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods/Director of Religious Education, St. Mary’s, Sullivan (1979-80); Printer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Director of Religious Education, St. Mary’s, Sullivan (1980-83); Coordinator of Parish Ministries, St. Mary, Sullivan, and St. Joan of Arc, Jasonville (1983-84); Pastoral Associate/Director of Religious Education, St. Mary’s Parish, Mitchell; Crafts, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1998-2004); Prayer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2004-2020).
In Illinois: Teacher, St. Athanasius, Evanston (1954); Teacher, St. Mel, Chicago (1959-62).
In Texas: Teacher, St. John, Robstown (1954-55).
In Maryland: Teacher, Ascension, Halethorpe (1955-57).
In Montana: Assistant Retreat Director, Christhaven, Anaconda (1984-88).
In Mississippi: Lay Leadership Development, Sacred Heart Southern Mission, Southhaven (1988-91).
In Tennessee: Pastoral Associate/Director of Lay Ministry, St. Mary’s Parish, Memphis (1991-93).
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