Sister Martha Ann Rifner
The Gospel according to Luke 4:16-19
Jesus came to Nazareth where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was on the Sabbath day.
He stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.
He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of God.”
And he closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them,
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth.
As Jesus in this Gospel account came to his hometown of Nazareth to explain the Spirit’s anointing him for mission, we can imagine the relatives of our Sister Martha Ann (Aunt Mary) – her 15 nieces and nephews, 41 grands and 75 great-grands – welcoming us into her hometown of New Castle where she was brought up and explaining to us how her early life prepared her for her mission of Providence, said Sister Ann Casper in her commentary for Sister Martha Ann Rifner, who passed away on Saturday, January 16, 2021, at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. She was 94 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 67 years.
Sister Ann continued: Mary Viola Rifner was born on March 1, 1925, in Muncie, Indiana, to Oliver and Anna Barth Rifner. Her brother John was the oldest child, followed by Mary Viola, Aggie and Cil, who later became Sister John Mary (RIP). Until age 28, Mary was a seamstress doing alterations in a dress shop and, after preparing herself with business courses at night, was later employed as a bookkeeper in a local car dealership. She delighted in the fact that she could add to her family’s finances.
Mary attended local public schools from grades 1-12, graduating in 1943. She was introduced to the Sisters of Providence when her father, a convert committed to his children’s instruction in the faith, would drive the sisters 35 miles to Richmond to bring the sisters to New Castle to give religion instruction. She was deeply impacted by the faith and prayer life of both her parents. She anchored her own faith life in the Eucharist and the Rosary. When an SP school opened in New Castle, she and her sister Cil would hang out around the nuns, which led to both of them entering the Congregation, along with their friend, Sara Jane Niles.
Mary entered the Congregation 10 years after graduation from high school, on February 2, 1953. She was given the name Sister Martha Ann. She made her first and perpetual profession of vows on February 2, 1955 and 1960, respectively.
Martha Ann earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and her master’s degree in education from Indiana State University. She used both as a teacher, specializing in primary grades which she taught for 22 years, not venturing beyond the states of Indiana and Illinois.
Of those 32 years in the classroom, Martha Ann said in an interview, “I loved my teaching. It was the biggest thrill to be able to see those children learn. … Reading was one thing I really pushed. … to see them so proud of what they had accomplished was reward in and of itself.”
In 1987, she accepted an offer to be Director of Transportation at the Motherhouse, a position she maintained for the next 14 years. She retired from that position and after a year took on a volunteer ministry in the mail room – for another 17 years! She spoke in an interview of these 31 years of service at the Motherhouse, “I cared enough to do the best I could … that goes for anything that I can do. … I tried to be very patient and show people that I cared.” In fact, Sister Martha Ann was caring for others by sanitizing the kitchen area at Providence Hall the night before she had her stroke.
Our home community was inspired by her witness of Providence in being interested in caring for our staff members and residents in health care. Martha Ann and John Mary would daily at noon be outside the McLaughlin dining room entrance with rosary in hand to greet each person with a special smile.
Her extended family certainly knew she cared about them, as well, and we thank her nieces Rose and Susan for sharing the family’s memories with Sister Gloria Memering. Rose commented that “we believe we found that valiant woman (mentioned in the first reading), in the person of Sister Martha Ann, our Aunt Mary, who has been “an amazing gift and example of selfless service to God and others.”
Just yesterday we received a large, bronze medallion from the Indiana Donor Network in recognition of her generous gift of self – her very tissue – that many others may live. Wouldn’t she be thrilled!
Everybody remembers her and John Mary’s baking up a storm of family treats every Christmas, and we sisters have similar memories when the bazaar or bake sale time rolls around. Homemade noodles, applesauce cake, caramels, turtles, quick breads and so much more were legendary treats. And did I say quick breads … they baked as many as 150 loaves at a time for the bazaar! When she and John Mary had to stop baking, the items for sale decreased drastically!
Family memories of this valiant woman were lavish in their praise. Just a sample of their descriptors includes “dedicated to her family,” “hers was a visible and strong love,” “her smile will always remind me of joy, peace, love and hope – a living Advent,” “I will always remember her laughter, there was always room for laughter,” “She listened intently to what was going on in our lives and genuinely cared,” “She had a way of always making you feel special. She always treated me like I was another niece, and not an in-law,” “We will miss her loving heart; so gentle and serving,” “We will miss her beautiful smile: Her warm, peaceful, infectious, loving, welcoming, positive, joyful, affirming, prayerful smile,” and “We enjoyed her bright mind and memory, her stories, her wit, laughter and willingness to serve.”
The RIfner sisters’ love for swimming was well known among the sisters and their family. In their retirement years, they could be seen trotting over to the swimming pool in the dark at 4 a.m.! Her niece recalled: “When our girls were swimming, they got Aunt Mary and Aunt Cil their own swimming caps that said RIFNER on one side with our swim team name on the other. You would have thought we gave them a bar of gold. Aunt Mary was the best at enjoying the MOST in every situation.”
When her niece Susan was 8-years-old, an in-ground pool was put in their backyard. She shared: “At some point after that, Aunt Mary and Aunt Cil came to visit and go for a swim. We had to put up towels and blankets on all the fencing around the backyard so they couldn’t be seen and being young, we wondered what was wrong with them. So, we ran upstairs and watched them from the back bedroom window. What we discovered was that they looked just like us. Not sure if we were happy about that or disappointed.”
Besides swimming, bingo and card playing ranked right up there in special family memories of Martha Ann. The sisters at the Motherhouse also have memories, mostly that they grew to expect that one or other of the Rifners would shout out BINGO before others had barely covered a few squares. They were always lucky and took home the loot! They loved to go to Maryvale – another opportunity for a night of bingo and developing more relationships. The family also enjoyed bingo together, many remembering that “Martha Ann provided some of the best bingo PRIZES ever … And, when Aunt Mary won the big, final pot of money, she couldn’t wait to share it with all of us who had lost all night.”
Martha Ann was always a sought-after pinochle partner. When her nieces had “Ladies Days” at the Woods, they recalled: “We had so much fun talking and laughing, UNLESS we were playing cards! Then, Aunt Mary was all business!” Often on their visits they would take Aunt Mary out for a meal. Her niece recalled: “It wasn’t breakfast time, but she ordered eggs, sausage and a milkshake! That’s a GREAT memory in our family!”
It seems fitting to close this commentary with one final observation from Martha Ann’s family: “The way Sister Martha Ann/Aunt Mary reflected God’s love to everyone was so comforting to all of her family. She knew Providence and lived every day to the fullest. Whether she was teaching, making candy, playing a game, passing mail, listening or visiting, she always filled her day with love and attention to detail. She had been an amazing gift and example of selfless service to God and to all of us. Her Sisters of Providence experienced her generosity and presence much as her family did. We will all miss you and we will remember you as a living, loving JOY. Providence guided your every step and you used each step to lead you to your Heavenly home. We thank you, Sister Martha Ann/Aunt Mary, for sharing your journey with us. We will always love you.”
- Contributions to Sister Martha Ann’s commentary were gathered by her friend of more than 50 years, Sister Gloria, and from memories shared by her large extended family, compiled by Rose and Susan, Aggie and John’s daughters.
Funeral services for Sister Martha Ann took place on Friday, January 22, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A virtual wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by a funeral liturgy without Eucharist at 11 a.m.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Martha Ann in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Martha Ann to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Martha Ann Rifner
In Indiana: Teacher, Cathedral, Fort Wayne (1955-59); Teacher, St. Michael, Greenfield (1966-68); Teacher, St. Margaret Mary, Terre Haute (1968-77); Teacher, Flaget Elementary, Vincennes (1977-87); Director of Transportation, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1987-2001); Volunteer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2001-2002); Residential Services, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2002-2019).
In Illinois: Teacher, St. Mary Carmelite, Joliet (1959-66).
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