Sister Frances McDonagh, OSU

Wake Reflection for Sister Frances McDonagh, OSU

From Isaiah 6:8 – Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” “Here I am;” I said; “send me!”

And from Song of Songs 2:10 – My lover speaks; he says to me, “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!”

Sometime during the early morning, Sunday, November 20th, perhaps Sister Frances McDonagh heard her Lord’s query, “Who will go for us?” and set about completing her life’s preparation to be ready to respond. So, early in the evening on Tuesday, November 22nd, she was quite ready when her Lover spoke and said to her, “Arise my beloved, my beautiful one, and come.”

This red-haired, Irish lass – born to John and Bridget McDonagh – came to grace the west coast of Ireland, in Tuam [chewm], County Galway, one Thursday in September – the 18th, in 1924, to be exact. A little more than one week later, on Saturday, September 27th, she was baptized Nora McDonagh, in Belclare Church. Nora was the eighth child in the McDonagh family – McDonagh, a name meaning among other notions, “noble.” She became one of what would grow to be a noble farm family of eleven children.

Sister Frances remembered growing up in a small, thatched, white-washed house, with nightly family rosaries. “I had great parents,” she would later write. “They were very faith-filled and we always prayed together. We entertained ourselves and were close to our neighbors. It was a good life.” With her ten siblings – seven sisters and three brothers – Mary, Julia, Michael, Delia, Sara, Margaret, Bill, Eileen, Annie (our Sister Mary Patrick), and John – Nora certainly celebrated a great love of life.

Family entertainments must have been special for Nora; she claimed she “loved to dance and have a good time.” In her Annals from her years here at Maple Mount are frequent references to joyous family gatherings for weddings, celebrations, and just being together. Family was so special to Sister Frances that opportunities to visit were always peak experiences. And now to her sisters – Eileen in Ireland and Sister Mary Patrick here at the Motherhouse – and to her nephews and nieces and all gathered here, we, the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, offer our sympathies, our condolences, our prayers, and our love.

Now, when she was about five, our fun-loving Nora became acquainted with another love of her life – learning. She attended a three-room village school – the Sylane [sigh-lawn] National School, from which she graduated at the young age of fifteen, the same year – 1939 – that she was confirmed at Belclare Church. “I was fairly bright at school,” she would later explain, and several degrees later would add further such evidence as Saint Louis University awarded her a Master of Arts in Religious Studies, with distinction.

By the time she was seventeen, Nora was ready to try her wings in the wider world; working in Tuam [chewm] as a waitress, and with her friends, “remembering [to pray] the rosary before going out to the evening’s entertainment.” Nora later worked in Bray, in County Wicklow, in a seaside resort; quite a new and unique experience for her. It was while working at the resort one day that she fell and hurt her ankle badly.

Nora had a difficult time healing from this fall; it is hard to know now, but perhaps this time of healing sharpened her spirit’s senses. She would write, “Although I had always wanted to be a nun since I was at school, I had not yet the courage to try.” Nora’s courage was now certainly growing. She went on, “I may add, up to this time, I was a bit wild, fond of dancing, music, and amusement.”

Nora now was beginning to long for something deeper, hearing more and more clearly her call to listen to God’s voice. She explored cloistered communities, but the call was not there. Following one more unsatisfactory visit, this time to Limerick, Nora happened to wander into a church, where she happened to meet a Dominican friar, who happened to listen to her story of her searching. He happened to have an aunt who was an Ursuline, a member of an apostolic order with a house in Kettering, England. Was Nora interested? Well . . . she heard the clear call at last; her response was immediate and willingly open, and has been so ever since.

The Dominican wrote to the Kettering Ursulines, “I have got a girl for you. She is quite certain of her vocation, and strong in health.” At twenty-one, in her own words, “in response to the inner call . . . I left home, family, friends, and country to follow the Lord as an Ursuline Sister.” Apparently not one to hesitate in her response, Nora arrived in Kettering, Northampton, England, on Tuesday, July 2, 1946, where she met the Ursulines for the first time ever. In little more than one week, on Friday, July 12, 1946, Nora had entered the postulancy of the Ursuline Sisters in Kettering.

Just six months later – obviously not one to dawdle – on Monday, January 13, 1947, Nora became Sister Mary Frances McDonagh and joined in spirit all her classmates who also became Ursuline novices in 1947. To the surviving members of this merged Ursuline class of 1947 – Sisters Joseph Angela Boone, Dorothy Helbling, Virginia Sturlich, and Fran Wilhelm – we offer our love, our sympathy and consolation, and our prayers – as you grieve the loss of your classmate.

Through the Ursulines at Kettering and for the next eight years, Sister Frances would serve the community and further her schooling, obtaining the Oxford School Certificate and completing a two-year program at Maria Assumpta Training College in London. Sister Frances made her first vows and her final professions on January 13 in 1949 and in 1952. A mere two years later, in 1954, she was ready to respond to yet another call to step forward in faith on a new adventure. Answering the call, Sister Frances emigrated from the British Isles to the landlocked prairie in the middle of the North American continent, to serve the Ursuline community and the people of God in the Belleville, Illinois, diocese. This time, she would venture forth with her sister Annie, our Sister Mary Patrick.

In 1955, she began her teaching career at Saint Regis in East Saint Louis, Illinois; in just one year more she was asked to respond in faith to yet another new call from her loving God. For the next five years, Sister Frances would study nursing in the hopes of being able to help move the Belleville Ursulines into a new ministry. She would obtain a diploma and complete her registered nurse, RN, preparation through the DePaul University nursing program in Saint Louis; Sister Frances would then go on to obtain her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Marillac College, also in Saint Louis. Sisters Frances and Mary Patrick would write of that time in their lives that they took joy in being able to relieve pain and help patients bear their suffering; that their patients appreciated even their smallest acts of kindness; and that Sister Frances even got to baptize at least two infants who had difficult births.

But the Ursulines realized they would not be able to support a new nursing ministry and Sister Frances returned to teach at Saint Regis in East Saint Louis until 1962. Then, in 1962, she was missioned to Holy Childhood School in Mascoutah, Illinois. There she remained more than thirty years until 1997, ministering in the school and the parish – with two brief sojourns to Saint Louis University Institute of Religious Formation and to Our Lady Queen of Peace School. Even during the three years she served as Associate Vocation Director of the Diocese and Councilor for the Belleville Ursulines, Sister Frances continued her religious education ministry at Holy Childhood in Mascoutah.

Of Holy Childhood, Sister Frances would say that it had “been for me a home away from home.” And that “my greatest joy [was] seeing students that I taught return and . . . be leaders [in the Church].” Sister Frances celebrated her Golden Jubilee at Holy Childhood and then moved into partial retirement at the Belleville Motherhouse, still ministering to the congregation and to the greater community, and, of course, cheering on the teams – her Apaches – from Holy Childhood.

Now, lest you think that various diplomas, certificates, degrees, and advanced degrees with distinction in multiple disciplines were the only results of Sister Frances being “fairly bright in school,” I should share with you that she also mastered a series of studies in “Modern Math” back in 1963, obtained a formal “Certificate in Graphoanalysis” – perhaps she is even now analyzing Saint Peter’s handwriting – and, to the delight of her family, became competent in Microsoft email – almost conquering even the 2010 update. This was Sister Frances – a dancer, a sports fan, a learner, a real friend, a faithful person, a “really neat lady,” a deep pray-er, and always, always ready to move at the summons of her loving God.

In 2006, Sister Frances again became an early pioneer – this time from Belleville, moving across the Ohio River, to come to the Saint Joseph Villa and the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Here she would join the Powerhouse of Prayer and share community life and prayer with the “Ursulines with a View” small community. In addition, Sister Frances continued her love of entertainment; played cards, Bingo, and Rummikub; and led the pack wrapping silverware each morning. To the Villa sisters and staff who lived with and cared for Sister Frances, we also extend our thanks, our prayers, our love, and our condolences.

In her 40th year in religion, Sister Frances wrote:

“I am stepping into an unknown future that offers many opportunities for growth and service. This future is risky and challenging. Yet it is with much joy and hope that I [respond] to my call today. . . . I reflect on the unexpected ways that the Spirit of God has guided me . . . my celebration continues as I follow the God of Surprises.”

And we know with certainty, and with “much joy and hope,” that on Tuesday, November 22nd, Sister Frances McDonagh did indeed travel home at last with her God of Surprises.

Sister Sharon Sullivan
Congregational Leader
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph