Wake Reflection for Sister Agnes Cecilia Speak, OSU
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’”
At evening prayer on Wednesday, December 15, 2010, the third week in Advent – the week of rejoicing – we would have declared this antiphon, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’” But Sister Agnes Cecilia Speak had anticipated that call and – around 3:05 in the afternoon – had already answered, “Here I am” and had gone home to her Lord.
She began that journey of a hundred years on October 29, 1910, as Anne Cecilia Speak, the third daughter of Joseph Lawrence and Apollonia Rhodes Speak. Ultimately there would be five children growing up in the Speak family; four girls – Mary Joseph (our Sister Joseph Lawrence), Marie, Anne Cecilia (our Sister Agnes Cecilia), and the baby Agnes – together with their dear brother Francis. Both Marie and Sister Agnes Cecilia would celebrate their hundredth birthdays.
Anne Cecilia was baptized November 11, 1910, at Holy Guardian Angels in Irvington, Kentucky, and entered into a happy childhood, growing up on a Kentucky farm. She reported that they all “loved to help Daddy and Mama do a lot of things,” and by the time she was nine years old, had “mastered the art of milking my cow.” While life on the farm was happy, they were too far from the town for the girls to both live on the farm and attend the Catholic school; so the three older girls, Mary Joseph, Marie, and Anne Cecilia, boarded with the Ursulines at Saint Romuald and entered into their foundational experience of Ursuline life.
Sister Agnes Cecilia remembered that they were “spoiled by all the Sisters and their kindness [which] inspired a spark of Ursuline in Mary Joseph and me.” She recounted a vivid memory of that kindness when, in their dormitory, “one night our stove pipe fell down and the Sisters promptly came to our rescue. When Sister Robertus picked up the hot stove pipe and burned her hands, she exclaimed, ‘Oh! Golly Moses!’ Sister Mary Thomas said, ‘Just listen to her curse!’”
These special times with the Sisters came to an end, though, in 1921 when the girls’ father died and their mother moved the family into town in Hardinsburg and the three sisters had to “say good-bye to our haven in the convent.” The girls became day students, continuing at school the faith formation begun there and in their home.
Through the years at Saint Romuald Elementary School and Saint Romuald High School and the Mount Saint Joseph Academy, Sister Agnes Cecilia learned from the Ursulines. The Ursuline teachers who left lasting impressions included Sisters Clarissa, Eudocia, Monica, Agnes Marie, Ann Vincentia, Theresa, Joseph Therese, and Eulalia.
The small Ursuline spark inspired during her early years boarding with the Sisters and rescuing stove pipes was fanned into a flame of love and Anne Cecilia entered into a special relationship with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph as a postulant on September 8, 1929. On the feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, in 1930, she was invested as Sister Agnes Cecilia and joined her ten other classmates: Sisters Charles Ann, Anita, Charles Marie, Frances Therese, Margaret Louise, Mary Antonia, Mary Boniface, Mary Robert, Robert Angela, Rose Jean, and Thomas James. Sister Agnes Cecilia reported that this group had four novice mistresses; with the help of one of these directors, however, these class members entered into a special, lifelong spiritual compact and promise, signed by them and their director. The promise was:
“. . . to remember each other in every Mass and Communion each day for the rest of our lives; for these graces – fidelity to vows, our special intentions, usefulness to our community, and final perseverance in the Ursuline order until death.”
Well, Sister Agnes Cecilia, you are the last of that class; through the support of those daily prayers and for eighty years, you lived faithfully that compact and the vows you made in 1932 and in 1935.
For the next eighty years, Sister Agnes Cecilia would touch countless lives in eleven different missions during which she experienced “both hardships and many precious memories.” In her early years, she served for seven years in Kentucky at Saint Charles in Bardwell, at Saint Bernard in Clementsville, and at Saint Anthony in Browns Valley.
Then for the next seven years, she experienced the New Mexico skies, living and working at Sacred Heart Academy in Waterflow and at Saint Rose in Blanco. Of her New Mexico time, Sister Agnes Cecilia remembered so many opportunities for “spiritual and cultural enrichment” and for learning more about the lives and culture of the many peoples who called New Mexico home.
Back in Kentucky for another seven years, Sister Agnes Cecilia served at the Motherhouse, at Saint Catherine in New Haven, at Saint Mary Home on 8th Street in Owensboro (where she witnessed the birth of Brescia College and proudly mentioned service there), and at Saint William in Knottsville. In 1953, she went to Saint Angela Home in Louisville just to recuperate from surgery; but she stayed to minister for nineteen more years. Of that time at Saint Angela Home, Sister Agnes Cecilia wrote, “the nineteen years at Saint Angela in Louisville were happy years. However, they failed to make a city dude out of me.”
In 1972, Sister Agnes Cecilia returned to Western Kentucky, to Blessed Mother in Owensboro, where she would serve for the next twenty-three years, and about which she would say, “after 23 years. . . it became my second home.” And how did that happen? What “spark of Ursuline” did Sister Agnes Cecilia share with those among whom she lived and worked?
Those who lived with her confirmed her own insight, noting that Sister Agnes Cecilia could always “make the house a home.” In her Annual Reports, submitted over the last thirty years, she described her ministry; the names she chose for that ministry description evolved over time from “house work” to “keeping house” to “housekeeper” to “home maker.” When asked to illustrate the gifts she brought to her ministry, she noted “. . . the ability to keep a ‘sparkling’ house. My mother taught me to cook and I have developed the art. I can keep the Sisters well-fed and happy. I am thoughtful and do kind things for others.” What a beautiful charism.
Her Ursuline sisters for whom she made a home claimed:
- The floors shone and the dishes were done before the meal began
- She took pride in her work
- She made luscious, crispy, fried chicken; much better than Kentucky Fried Chicken
- She created a delicious jam cake devoured by all
- Home-made chocolate chip cookies were always in the house
- And her Italian cream cake was to die for.
But cooking and cleaning were only part of Sister Agnes Cecilia’s “spark of Ursulinity.” She always held her family in a cherished spot within her heart and mind; family visits were highlights of her year. In the same Annual Reports, in the “Special Events” section, year after year were entries for visits from or with her sisters – near and far – and with and from nieces and nephews from Phoenix, Arizona; Des Moines, Iowa; San Antonio, Texas; and even from Nevada. And to you, Joe [and . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .], we offer our prayers and sympathy as you mourn the loss of your dear Aunt.
In her last years at Blessed Mother, Sister Agnes Cecilia reached beyond the convent, unlocking and opening the doors of the church before dawn and “straightening the books in the pews” for the early worshippers. Her own well-thumbed prayer books attested to her years of prayerfulness. As one of her Blessed Mother Sisters said, Sister Agnes Cecilia was “not a big talker, but she talked and acted from her heart,” embracing her family, her Sisters, the parishioners, and even denizens from the natural world.
Ask those who knew her then about Billy, the squirrel (I’m told this would be at least the second Billy, the squirrel). Brave Billy knocked each day at the convent kitchen window to summon Sister Agnes Cecilia. In all weather, Sister provided for Billy his daily treat of one part of one cookie; Billy would accept the treat (no, not hand-delivered) and depart. When Sister Agnes Cecilia retired to Mount Saint Joseph, Billy the squirrel must have known for he never returned to that kitchen window.
In 1995, Sister Agnes Cecilia wrote in her Annual Report, “I am completing my sixty-fifth year of cooking for my community.” With such a legacy to her credit, she returned to Mount Saint Joseph to accept her new ministry of “praying and reading.” About her return to the Motherhouse, Sister Agnes Cecilia noted: “It has been a blessed experience filled with more time for prayer and closer communion with God. Many spiritual advantages prepare me daily to answer the last call, ‘Here I am, Lord.’”
For fifteen more years, Sister Agnes Cecilia continued what she had begun – making a home, honoring her compact of daily prayer, and preparing to respond well to that last call. She celebrated her 70th, 75th, and 80th jubilees and continued to relish her family’s visits. Only in 2007 did she move to the Villa, where with the added love and support of the nurses and staff, she sustained her ministry of prayer. And on behalf of the Ursuline Sisters, we say, “Thank you,” to you who so gently cared for Sister and who sorrow over her loss.
For decades, Sister Agnes Cecilia clearly and carefully articulated her ministry on each Annual Report – house work to home maker to praying and reading – and in the last Annual Report she submitted, for 2009-2010, she listed her ministry simply as:
“Waiting on the Lord”
Yes, Sister Agnes Cecilia, you knew you were – for 100 years – being prepared to answer that call. And so we join with you in joyous celebration that, when that call did come, you heard and responded as you wished – “Here I am, Lord” – and walked directly into the outstretched arms of your Loving God.
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph