Wake Reflection for Sister Jean Richard Stukenholtz, OSU
May 7, 1923 – September 8, 2012
I will make my vows to you
in the presence of all your people,
in the courts of your holy house,
in the midst of all your saints.
At evening prayer on Saturday, September 8, we prayed those words from Psalm 116; just a few hours later, Sister Jean Richard Stukenholtz was home at last in the midst of all the saints. And how fitting that it was on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary that Sister Jean Richard completed her time at Mount Saint Joseph; for it was just seventy-one years earlier on the eve of this same feast that, as Fern Ella Stukenholtz, she began her life with us at Mount Saint Joseph. How did the life of Fern, a Nebraska farm girl, intersect with the life of Sister Jean Richard, an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph?
It all began in the small Nebraska town of Julian, just south of Nebraska City, on Monday, May 7, 1923, when Fern Ella was born to Rollan Frederick and Walburga Ann Wirth Stukenholtz. Fern Ella soon became just “Fern” and joined her older sister Rose, two botanical additions to the Stukenholtz farm. Less than three weeks later, on Sunday, May 27, 1923, Fern Stukenholtz was baptized into her faith at Saint Mary Church in Nebraska City.
The Stukenholtz family was just beginning to grow, and in quick succession brothers and sisters followed until there were ten, plus Mom and Dad. Fern and Rose were the first two grandchildren and – they said – got lots of attention from grandparents; the next three – John, Jean, and Kathleen – joined them as the only grandchildren in the family and they all “had plenty of teenage aunts and uncles to tease [them].” Soon the other five followed, and the Stukenholtz family was complete with six girls and four boys – Rose, Fern, John, Jean, Kathleen, Lee, Rollie, Lou, Joan, and Carl.
Throughout their lives, this family was steeped in an atmosphere of faith, Christian witness, learning, love, and laughter. Throughout her life – Fern, Sister Jean Richard – cherished her family, sharing and delighting in stories, experiences, visits, and love. And now, to her sisters – Rose, Kathleen, Lee, and Joan – and her brothers – Lou and Carl – and to her nieces, nephews and all extended family, we Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph extend our thanks for sharing Fern with us and we give you our prayers and sympathy as you grieve her loss.
When Fern and her siblings were not trekking across fields and ditches on their horses, visiting their Grandma Stukenholtz for her love and cookies, carrying water to the harvesters, or sharing joy in music and laughter, they were at school at the Harmony District 53 Elementary School. Within a few years of beginning school, the Great Depression hit and years of drought came to Nebraska. Even then, the Stukenholtz family still shared faith, joy, and adventure. Sister Jean Richard reported: “My parents took St. Matthew’s gospel literally: ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was homeless and you took me in.’ [The] farm always had food, and the parlor davenport served as a guest bed for those who stopped by for a night or two, and a few good meals. Also, there was plenty of work on the farm without electricity or tractors.”
Even in those difficult years, Christmas was a special time for the whole family; Sister Jean Richard wrote, “Our parents saved all year so we could have bowls of oranges, bananas, candy and nuts, clothes and a few toys; and plenty of noise, because there was always a toy instrument, drum, harmonica, or horn.” And we would add, later, an accordion and a guitar.
As Fern grew, so did her faith, and shortly after her tenth birthday, on Monday, June 5, 1933, she was confirmed at Saint Bernard Church in Julian, NE. By the time she turned thirteen, Fern took her first step away from the family farm and became a boarder at Saint Bernard Academy in Nebraska City. Her years at Saint Bernard’s were transforming for Fern; at first she was “so homesick she nearly died,” but by the end of her sophomore year, she knew where and why she would be going next. Fern met the Ursuline Sisters at Saint Bernard’s, and “after one and one-half years, I saw how happy the Sisters were and decided, ‘That’s the life for me.’” After sixty years, Sister Jean Richard would still say, “I must have made the right choice. It gets better all the time. It’s a happy life.”
Once she knew the direction to which her heart and mind were calling her, Fern wasted very little time. After graduating from Saint Bernard’s in 1940, the seventeen-year-old contacted Mother Teresita at Mount Saint Joseph, introducing herself and seeking to enter the community. We get a glimpse into the person Fern had become when she wrote: “My mother thinks I should be eighteen or twenty before I make the decision, but I don’t feel that way.” Some correspondence and consultation followed, but Fern believed her agenda was pretty much set. By January of 1941, the letters were more conversational on Fern’s part, helping the Ursulines recognize the delightfully diverse nature of the postulant approaching their doors:
In a January letter formally requesting the “list for the postulancy,” Fern closed by letting Mother Teresita know that “we are going to listen to the Rose Bowl game this afternoon between Nebraska and California.”
- In her February missive discussing her finances, she closed with, “I hope you can read this – my lap is sorta bumpy.”
- And, finally, in her August correspondence before her September 7 arrival, Fern shared, “My father is very much opposed [to] me coming. He said he would never go to church again if I left. What am I going to do?” But she had already planned her strategy, “I will keep after my Dad until he says yes, ‘cause I think that is all it takes – plenty of pestering in a nice way.”
And so, Fern must have pestered her Dad nicely, for she took train to Kentucky and entered the postulancy at Mount Saint Joseph on Sunday, September 7, 1941 – the eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Less than a year later, on Friday, August 14, 1942, while the world was embroiled in war, Fern Ella became Sister Jean Richard (what a tale there is with that name!) and began her Novitiate with her classmates Sisters Bertha Marie Nally, Maura Buckler, Marie Julie Fecher, Mary Dolorita Robinson, Rose Marie Craycroft, Mary Philip Doll, Jane Miriam Hancock, Mary Francella Neville, Rosaria Ray, and Mary Camilla Riggs. Five hundred miles away in Paola, KS, she joined in spirit with Sisters Emerentia Wiesner and Martina Rockers. And to Sisters Marie Julie, Rose Marie, Jane Miriam, Emerentia, and Martina, we offer our love, our prayers, and our heartfelt condolences.
The Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph were now Sister Jean Richard’s extended family, and to her new Sisters, she brought that same faith, devotion, eagerness, and joy. From various reports we learn that Sister Jean Richard enjoyed a joke and a little mischief, but always in the spirit of love and gentleness. Why, she might even have claimed a spirit of Christian solicitude in some of her escapades. As a novice one Friday night, she and an impressionable postulant (who became Sister Annalita) were charged with cleaning or straightening the professed Sisters’ dining area – silverware and napkin arranged, cup and saucer turned just so, plate upside down in the middle. Now, the rule then for the Sisters at the Motherhouse was “no fruit on Saturday” – perhaps to remind us of our poverty. Well – as Sister Jean Richard and Annalita came to the place setting for Mother Agnes, they noticed a banana tucked under the upside-down plate. Oh, no! If Mother Agnes should eat that banana in the morning, she would violate the rule! So . . . out of a heart filled purely with Christian charity, Sister Jean Richard ate the banana – Friday night – saving Mother Agnes from a terrible occasion of sin! What a generous soul!
While in the novitiate, Sister Jean Richard also began her preparation for teaching, which was “the only career I ever considered.” She made her Temporary Vows on Tuesday, August 15, 1944, and was soon on her way to Saint Columba in Louisville, where for one year she served as a housekeeper. The next year found her at Saint Paul School in Leitchfield, teaching the first through third grades. For the next thirteen years, this young, willing, energetic, and adventurous sister was sent to teach in eight different schools and managed to make her Final Vows one Friday, August 15, 1947. These missions were principally in Kentucky: Saint Charles, Bardwell; Saint Paul, Louisville; Holy Cross, in Holy Cross; Saint Elizabeth, Curdsville; Saint Anthony, Browns Valley; Saint Romuald, Hardinsburg; and Saint Francis of Assisi, in Saint Francis; and with one sojourn in New Mexico at Saint Rose School in Blanco.
As the world shifted in the 1960s, teachers in the Catholic Schools had to demonstrate they had college degrees and teacher certification. By 1965, Sister Jean Richard had earned her BS in History from Brescia College; she finished her Master’s from Western Kentucky University in 1973, with special education certification in 1975. During these years, she also taught in four more schools – Saint John, Plattsmouth, NE; Sacred Heart, Farmington, NM; and Saint Anthony and Clarkson Public Schools in Peonia and Clarkson, Kentucky, helping to establish the special education program at Clarkson Public Schools. . . and becoming simply “Sister Jean” to her colleagues.
By then, in 1977, Sister Jean had been teaching thirty-two years, and it was time to go home to Lourdes Elementary School in Nebraska City. For the next twenty-seven years, she taught at Lourdes – ten in her own classroom and seventeen teaching computer skills and just about anything else the children needed or she discovered. Fifty-nine years teaching in schools across three states and three generations.
While the classroom was her designated mission, Sister Jean’s ministry was to share the joy and eagerness of her love and her faith. Time and again Sister Jean would say, “Having the opportunity to help a lot of people makes it a happy life. There is joy in serving others.” And, after her 40th year of teaching, reporting on her ministry experience in her Annals, she could still say of teaching the fourth grade: “Great! Grand! Wonderful! None like it!” All with exclamation points. Wherever she served she was, as a June 2004 Nebraska City News Press front page article claimed, “A true vehicle of God’s Word . . . grandmotherly in nature and always ready with a smile and airy laugh.”
She never stopped learning and witnessing and enjoying – for herself, with family, among her Sisters, and with her students and all she encountered. Whether it was swimming lessons in her 60’s; learning to juggle; visiting shut-ins and prisoners; teaching magic, bird watching, origami, and soap carving; carrying the Eucharist; or traveling around the world – Sister Jean brought with her an open spirit, willing to accept as adventurous learning whatever came her way. She once reported that, after coming to a December meeting at Mount Saint Joseph, she left the Mount on January 1st and did not arrive in Nebraska City until January 4th. She wrote of the difficulties they encountered, “Planes didn’t fly; car went in the ditch; etc. Pure Adventure.”
In 2004, Sister Jean left Lourdes Elementary in Nebraska City, saying, “I can’t believe it’s the end of this; I thought it would just go on forever.” After arriving at Mount Saint Joseph, she reflected, “After living alone eleven years and joining 88 in community, the first impression was: This is like living with Snow White’s seven dwarfs. There are so many different interesting personalities. God enjoys variety more than anything.”
In 2007, Sister Jean Richard brought that delight in variety to the Villa, where she continued to pray with, entertain, support, encourage, and enjoy her Sisters, her family, and those among whom she ministered. To all the Pastoral and Health Care staff, we also share our thanks for your care of Sister Jean Richard and offer you our prayers and consolation.
Sister Jean Richard once wrote that her special prayer was from Cardinal Newman; in this prayer we hear: “Flood my soul with Thy spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of Thine. Shine through me, and be so in me that every soul I contact may feel Thy presence in my soul. . . let me praise Thee in the way Thou doth love best, by shining on those around me.”
Perhaps as she neared her appointed hour, she shone even brighter – for she was among us right up to her departure. I wonder, in her correspondence with her loving God, if she might have reflected, as she did when she wondered if “17” were too young to enter, “I’m only 89; they tell me that’s too young, but I don’t feel that way.” And then she “pestered in a nice way” to go home with her loving God, where no doubt the Angels are now learning to juggle and make Jacob’s ladders.
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph