Sister Margaret Heese (formerly Sister Margaret Bernard)
Often women disciples of Jesus are mentioned but not named. Other women disciples of Jesus are named, and those names appear frequently. Let’s listen to these three Scripture passages as a way of honoring unnamed and named women followers of Jesus – and as a way to honor Margaret, said Sister Denise Wilkinson in her commentary for Sister Margaret Heese, formerly Sister Margaret Bernard, who passed away on Friday, July 21, 2023, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 91-years-old and had been a Sister of Providence for 76 years.
Sister Denise continued: A reading from the Gospel of Mark describing the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion: There were also women looking on from a distance: among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joseph, and Salome. When Jesus was in Galilee, they used to follow and provide for him; and there were many other women who had come up with Jesus to Jerusalem.
A reading from the Gospel of Luke: Jesus went on through cities and villages proclaiming and bringing the good news of the dominion of God. The twelve were with him as well as some women who been cured of evil spirits and infirmities; Mary called Magdalene … and Joanna … and Suzanna … and many others who provided for them out of their resources.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles: On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; … she was a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what Paul said.
For me, these passages describe Margaret as a follower of Jesus who strongly wished to be an unknown, unnamed disciple. Contrary to her desire, however, her willingness to provide for the Body of Christ from her resources, her gifts and talents, made her well known and frequently named.
Born in Robstown, Texas, Margaret Florine Heese was Ben Fritz Heese II and Hildegard Maywald Heese’s fourth of their nine children.
Margaret described her family life this way: “My parents were Catholics and we grew up in a home that stressed liturgy and attendance at Church functions. We prayed together and experienced together the effects of the Great Depression and also the stresses caused by the Second World War.”
No doubt, the family’s strong prayer life strengthened and comforted them during the illness and death of Margaret’s younger sister, 17-year-old Ailene.
At the time of Margaret’s growing up, there were no Catholic schools in Robstown. She attended both public elementary school and high school. Interestingly, Margaret noted “My motivation to become a minister in the Church came from the friends I had who were all Protestant. They all belonged to denominations that stressed/encouraged service to the people in the community. Becoming a sister represented a way of serving in my own faith tradition.”
Margaret’s journey to become a Sister of Providence began by completing high school at the Aspirancy here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Margaret entered the Congregation in 1947; professed first vows in 1950 and final vows in 1955. She earned her Bachelor of Education degree at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and her Master’s in Art Education at Northern Arizona University.
Persons who encountered Margaret met an unassuming woman of kindness, generosity, creativity, compassion and a wry sense of humor.
No matter how much she would have preferred, Margaret couldn’t hide her gifts “under a bushel basket.” They seemed to flow from her spontaneously. How else could she have successfully and enthusiastically taught primary grades for 25 years? Why else would Butler University in Indianapolis recognize her excellence in teaching by asking her to host their student teachers? Margaret noted “These students came to my classroom to see me teach 54 or more students in first grade … without benefit of a teacher’s aide or help of any kind.”
Margaret’s manner and organizational gifts made her an effective and admired Director of Religious Education. In a letter of recommendation for Margaret, the principal of Most Precious Blood School in Corpus Christi, Texas, described the parish’s out-of-control CCD program – that is, until Margaret arrived. He wrote “she pulled all the loose ends of the program together. In the dealing with the teachers … of CCD she was a capable administrator and was excellent in getting people to work together. She also had the awesome responsibility of appeasing the teachers at Most Precious Blood School.”
During Margaret’s sabbatical at the University of Notre Dame, she participated in programs by the university’s Cushwa Center. The Center sponsors conferences and research on Catholic vowed women religious. While there, she was invited to participate in a session with international religious leaders. The participants came from Nigeria, the Peoples Republic of China, Afghanistan, South Africa, Poland, the USSR. And, thanks to Margaret, from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. Margaret agreed even though the invitation letter described the session in this way: “The meeting will take place April 10 from 3:15-4:30. As of now, that’s all I know of this.” Once again, Margaret’s gifts were recognized by others. Faithful follower of Jesus that she was, she said yes to this very vague invitation.
At Notre Dame, Margaret enrolled in a program entitled The Foundations of the Art of Spiritual Direction. At the conclusion of the program, its directors wrote this: “It is obvious and our belief that you have the characteristics of a good spiritual director.” Margaret’s openness to people, her quiet compassion must have been two of the gifts that prompted this observation.
On cannot mention Margaret’s name and not mention her combined talents of capable administrator and accomplished artist.
While in Los Angeles, Margaret was offered a position as an art teacher. In her words: I was responsible for the formation of a syllabus for teaching Fine Arts. I also taught Introduction to the Arts and calligraphy. I was there for five years, the length of time it took to implement a total revised program in the school. The school had an enrollment of over 700 so it was small enough to get to know the students. Evidently teaching primary grades – 54-plus students to a classroom – makes an enrollment of 700 students, small potatoes.
Margaret enjoyed painting as one outlet for her artistry. One of her paintings hangs in Providence, west side of second floor. It’s an abstract painting of subtle colors and graceful design. Another is on the back table here in the Church. It is a small and tender painting.
Her sewing room artistry is legendary. Her generosity, her “it’s no problem” attitude, her finished products are known to all of us. It is a rare Sister of Providence who hasn’t benefitted from Margaret’s sewing prowess.
Sister Paula Damiano recalled how Linden Leaf Gifts benefitted for years from the artistic and practical artistry of Margaret and her co-creator, Sister Mary Grace Pesavento. One of Margaret’s best sellers in the gift shop were the rag dolls – dressed in a variety of styles. And who could not resist the wild yarn hair of vivid and varied bright colors?
It’s probable that each of the women who followed Jesus had a friend who would tell a story about her friend who followed Jesus. A story known to few other people.
Here are some stories of Margaret Heese, told by some of her friends – stories known only to a few.
Margaret talked Sister Barbara Bluntzer into getting her ears pierced.
Sister Jean Fuqua felt honored that Margaret let her use the best sewing machine in the sewing room.
Sisters Margaret Norris and Joseph Fillenwarth still can’t believe Margaret used the sewing machine to sew name labels on her clothes.
As the youngest sister in a local community, band member Sister Joyce Brophy was given a pocket watch so that she could ring the Reunion bell. On the rare occasion when she forgot, the superior of the house brought Joyce into her office and tell her to go to the chapel immediately and pray the Reunion 26 times. Why 26? Because there were 26 sisters in the house and Joyce had caused all 26 to miss the prayer of Reunion. Every time Joyce left the superior’s office, Margaret would appear out of nowhere and say to Joyce, “You say 13 and I’ll say 13.” Margaret – “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Margaret, like all women who follow Jesus, you experienced times of happiness and contentment and times of trouble and turmoil. Thank you for your steady following of Jesus no matter what the circumstances.
As your brother Jim so aptly said of you: “She took her vows very seriously. She was an exemplar of the Benedictine motto: Ora et Labora – Pray and Work.”
We look to you to keep us on the path Providence chose for you and for us. We count on you to double our joy and to divide our trouble sin half. We continue to rejoice that we knew your name. Margaret Florine Heese, faithful follower of Jesus.
Funeral services for Sister Margaret took place on Wednesday, July 26, and Thursday, July 27, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.
A Wake took place from 2:30-4:30 p.m., on Wednesday, July 26. Mass of Christian Burial took place at 11 a.m., on Thursday, July 27.
Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Margaret to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Margaret in the comment section below.
Sister Margaret Heese (formerly Sister Margaret Bernard)
In Illinois: Teacher, St. Sylvester, Chicago (1950-54); Teacher, St. Andrew, Chicago (1955-58).
In Indiana: Teacher, St. Thomas, Indianapolis (1958-60); Archives Staff, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2001-02); Providence Hall Sewing Room, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2002-2023).
In Oklahoma: Teacher, Immaculate Conception, Tulsa (1960-65).
In Texas: Teacher, St. John, Robstown (1968-70); Director of Religious Education, St. Therese Parish, Corpus Christi (1988-89); Director of Religious Education, Most Precious Blood Parish, Corpus Christi (1990-2000).
In Arizona: Newman Center/Campus Minister, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff (1975-77); Campus Minister, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff (1977-78).
In California: Teacher, St. Therese, Alhambra (1965-68); Teacher, St. Therese, Alhambra (1970-75); Teacher, St. Teresa of Avila, Los Angeles (1978-79); Teacher, St. Anthony, Gardena (1979-80); Teacher, St. Joseph, Lakewood (1980-85); Parish Ministry, St. John the Baptist, Chico (1985-88).
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