Sister Mary Louise O’Connor (formerly Sister James Margaret)
On the first floor of Providence Hall, one can make a pilgrimage in honor of the Blessed Mother Mary. On several window sills sit a wonderful array of images of the mother of Jesus. Striking among them is a print of muted tones capturing a tender moment between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. With arms around each other’s shoulders, the closeness, the affection, the love between them is palpable.
Here the young, pregnant Mary, at the very beginning of her childbearing years, rests in the presence of the older and pregnant Elizabeth — a woman well beyond her childbearing years.
Each seems to be reassuring the other that everything will be OK — as OK as it can be when God has turned upside down their understanding of what can be expected of life.
In the courageous “yes” Mary and Elizabeth said to what God asked of them, we see how Mary Louise lived her life. Mary Louise herself chose the readings we just heard proclaimed. Through them, we see into her heart, into the way she chose to live her life. Her life was, indeed, all about love, said Sister Denise Wilkinson in her commentary for Sister Mary Louise O’Connor, formerly Sister James Margaret, who passed away on Monday, May 3, 2021, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 94 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 65 years.
Sister Denise continued: Paul’s letter describes a life of love. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Jesus tells his followers, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
We know Mary Louise, so we know these words describe and guided her. She, like Mary and Elizabeth, said yes to a life of love, a life of surprises, a life of quiet fidelity to the God who called her.
Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, to James E. O’Connor and Margaret Mitchell O’Connor, Mary Louise was one of three children. Her brother Daniel and sister Marguerite have predeceased her.
Mary Louise entered the Congregation in 1956, was received into the novitiate in 1957, receiving the name Sister James Margaret. She made her first profession of vows in 1959 and final profession of vows in 1964.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and went on to earn a master’s degree in education at Indiana State University.
Mary Louise served in a variety of ministries. They took her to Loogootee and West Terre Haute in Indiana; to Washington, D.C.; West Palm Beach in Florida; Indianapolis and then to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
During these years of ministry, she served in a number of capacities — teacher, registrar, director of finance and admissions, guidance counselor, business and facilities manager. Her final ministry was a ministry of prayer, especially for the staff of the Sisters of Providence Mission Advancement office.
What kind of person was Sister Mary Louise? These are the qualities most often mentioned: patient, kind to everyone, competent, very organized, would do whatever community asked her to do, sweet and loving. When she could no longer speak, she could still communicate with her smile and her sparkling happy eyes. Our sister was a woman of many names — Mary Louise, Aunt Weezie, Sister James Margaret, ML. No matter what the name, however, stories about these love women abound.
Niece Joanne commented that she had the eating habits of a small child. She had more dislikes than likes. When Mary Louise would visit her sister, Marguerite would warn her children, “Don’t tell her what’s in it or she won’t eat it.” Niece Karen remembers her aunt as “sweet and loving.”
“We knew we could always count on her. She loved us all,” Karen said.
Evidently Mary Louise’s preferred beverage was beer. Her nephew Paul’s special memory of Mary Louise centers around that very beverage. He remembers his aunt’s story of some nuns, in full habit, putting beer and pretzels on the checkout counter. The cashier looked at the beer and said, “What’s that for, Sister?” The response: “We wash our hair with it.” The cashier asked, “What about the pretzels?” The response: “Curlers.”
Sister Mary Louise was not only an avid sports fan, but a determined player. Joanne remembers playing games of tennis with Aunt Weezie who was then dressed in full habit. Aunt Weezie was a formidable opponent.
In the mid-60s, when Sisters of Providence were just being allowed to drive, Mary Louise was a driving instructor for many new drivers; a ministry not for the faint of heart.
For Sisters of Providence to complete a college degree, a unit of credit in physical education was required. Each sister student had to swim from one end of the pool to the other and back again, always staying in the middle lane. Mary Louise was the instructor, cheerleader and lifeguard. Thanks to her, many a Sister of Providence earned her physical education credit and thus graduated from college.
During her teaching career, Mary Louise demonstrated powers of keen observation and maybe street smarts as well. While on recess guard, she noticed a group of boys in a huddle. She became suspicious but didn’t really know what they were up to. She walked up to the boys, put out her hand and said to the boy who seemed to be the ring leader, “Give it to me.” The boy handed her a knife.
Being several years older than others in her group, the younger postulants took to calling her “mother.” Well, the postulants from the Midwest called Mary Louise mother. Those from the East called her “motha.” Band members gave her the title because she treated each with great care. She also spoke with authority and the novice director, Sister Marie Ambrose, listened to her.
One final story about Mary Louise. It is a poignant one, one at the heart of her life as a Sister of Providence. It is a story Mary Louise herself told very few people; it is a story like Elizabeth’s — a story of how God surprises and interrupts us so we can find our true selves.
Mary Louise, your dear friend Sister Marceline Mattingly told me the story and encouraged me to share it. So, if you’re annoyed about this, take it up with Marceline. I’m only the messenger.
Mary Louise O’Connor first entered the Congregation upon her graduation from high school in 1944. At that time, the formation house for those entering from the East coast was Maryhurst, located in Maryland. After only a few days, Mary Louise regretted her decision to enter, called her father and asked him to come and pick her up. She hid behind a tree while waiting for him. He arrived; she got in the car and they drove home to Fall River. She had left in her postulant uniform. The O’Connors took the uniform to the dry cleaners then packed it up and mailed it back to Maryhurst.
As Providence would have it, Mary Louise soon regretted her decision to leave. She wrote several times to the Motherhouse asking to return. She was refused each time. Years went on, and the time came when her parents needed more care, so she stopped making the request to re-enter the Sisters of Providence.
After her parents’ death, she once again asked — several times — to return. As Sister Marceline relays the story, Sister Immaculee and other sisters (and I quote Marceline) “who carried some weight in the community,” continued to ask whatever reverend mother was in office at the time, to allow Mary Louise to come back. It was Mother Gertrude Clare Owens who said yes.
To explain to her sister Marguerite why she wanted to return to the Sisters of Providence, Mary Louise wrote her a letter. Marguerite’s daughter and Mary Louise’s niece, Joanne, shared portions of this letter with me. Let me share them with you: “Now, Marguerite, I’ve got something to say and I’ve done quite a lot of praying and thinking about it … Both you and Dan have got your lives settled bringing up your families, etc. … and I’m not exactly getting any younger, Marguerite (30 come May) and I’d like to do something with my life that will be worthwhile and helpful both for myself and others … You’ve got your life, Marguerite, now I’d like to start mine … I just know I’ll be happy as I’ve been thinking about it for years and praying I’d have the strength to carry it through … I know I am doing the right thing and I’ll be happy.” Mary Louise entered the Sisters of Providence the second time in 1956.
Well, Mary Louise, you did carry it through. You did do something with your life that was helpful and worthwhile for both yourself and for others. You did do the right thing and you were happy. Now you are happy forever in the fullness of God’s life.
Thank you, ML, Aunt Weezie, Aunt Mary Louise, Mary Louise. Thank you for being our Elizabeth. Thank you for daring to say “yes” when it seemed others saw you as “too old” to do what you dreamed. Thanks, Mary Louise, for being like Elizabeth, recognizing and encouraging new life in your sisters, your family, friends, ministry partners and caregivers. Thanks for being our Elizabeth who reminded us that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Love never ends, does it, Mary Louise?
Funeral services for Sister Mary Louise took place on Tuesday, May 11, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A virtual Wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m.
Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Mary Louise to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Mary Louise in the comment section below.
In Indiana: Teacher, St. Leonard, West Terre Haute (1959-60); Teacher, St. John High School, Loogootee (1961-63); Mentoring Coordinator, Development Education Program for Religious (1986-90); Business Manager, Providence Center, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1993-97); Business/Facilities Manager, Providence Center, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1997-99); Staff, Central Business Office, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1999); Prayer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1999-2021).
In Washington, D.C.: Registrar/Director of Admission/Financial Aid/Foreign Student Affairs, Immaculata Junior College (1963-78); Administrative Assistant, Immaculata Preparatory (1978-86).
In Florida: Guidance Counselor, Rosarian Academy, West Palm Beach (1986-90).
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