Wake Reflection for Sister Martha Ann Cargile, OSU
“I will lift up my eyes to the mountains—from where will come my help? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” (Ps 121:1)
Almost every time I visited Sister Martha Ann she would remind me of an adventure we shared in the Rocky Mountains, near my home. Mountains fascinated her—she always wanted to know “how high?” On October 17, 2006, after a hard day’s climb, she reached the peak of her highest mountain, finding on the other side the One whom she had sought all of her life.
Her journey began in Union County, Kentucky on January 26, 1915, when she was born into the Scotch and Irish home of Harris Cargile and Martha (Mattie) Higginson, joining older brother Henry Stites and older sister Ellen Lurline. She was baptized at Saint Ann Church in Morganfield, and confirmed at the ripe old age of 19 in the chapel at Mount Saint Joseph.
Martha told many stories of a happy childhood and of a strong mother who gently instilled in her a sense of what was right and proper…she learned those lessons well. I was driving her to visit a funeral home when we had to stop and backtrack quite a number of miles to get her white gloves. I watched her work the crowd at the funeral home (as only Martha could do, making connections and filling in the genealogy book in her mind) but not once did she put those gloves on! Of course I could hardly wait to point that out to her afterwards, but she just replied, with enormous dignity, that “a lady just has to have her gloves with her, not necessarily put them on.”
She attended Morganfield Elementary and Morganfield High School, but for the last two years of high school she found her first mountain—Mount Saint Joseph Academy. Her mother Mattie had attended the Academy from 1900-1902 where she was, according to another of Martha Ann’s wonderful stories, “helpful to Mother Augustine during a farm strike.”
Martha actually entered the community before completing high school. On September 7, 1931 she entered with classmates Tresine Clark, Ruth Agnes Conners, Sylvia Mary Bowlds, Mary Denise Brown, Helen Marie Pfohl, Mary Reginald Hutchins, Carolita Young, and Charlesine Bowling, who entered in the following spring. To paraphrase Sister Martha Ann, “Eight entered, nine stayed!” They were invested on March 19, 1932. On behalf of the community, I want to extend special sympathy to Sisters Carolita and Charlesine, the last of the loyal group.
Martha’s first mission was to Calvary Kentucky, where she did housekeeping for a few months; then it was back to the Mount to teach in the elementary school here. Later teaching assignments included Sorgho, Chicago (Kentucky), New Haven, and Saint James (Louisville). While teaching, she had been accumulating credits at Mount Saint Joseph Junior College, Ursuline College in Louisville, and Creighton University, but finally was sent to Fontbonne College to complete a bachelors degree in chemistry with a minor in math, so she could return to teach those subjects in the Academy. It wasn’t long before she spent a year at Catholic University, getting her masters degree before going to Brescia College as the first chair of the chemistry department. She and Sister Casimir worked together to design the floor plan of the present science building. She taught at Brescia for 23 years, acquiring a reputation as an excellent teacher. Dr. Suzanne King, a former pupil, said that Sister “never assumed that we knew anything, but started with the foundation every time.”
Martha loved teaching science, especially the labs because, she said, “that’s where you really got to know the students.” And know them she did…names, faces, family trees, and stories. Bring up any acquaintance of Martha’s and she could fill you in on where they were from, the guy their sister had married, the names of their cousins to the fourth degree, and what they had done with their life. Truly, Martha exemplified the words of our founder, Saint Angela Merici, who said “it will be impossible for you not to cherish them day and night, and to have them all engraved in your heart, one by one, for this is how real love acts and works.” (Prologue to Counsels)
In 1975, at the age of 60, Martha found another mountain to climb. A childhood dream of being a nurse and working in a hospital may have contributed to her decision to take a sabbatical from Brescia to study medical technology at the University of Oklahoma. I got to help her move to Oklahoma City, in one of our tiny Hornet cars, to a tiny one-room efficiency apartment (the kind with the Murphy bed that pulls down from the wall). It was so typical of Martha that we unpacked—not one, but two fancy sets of sugar bowl/cream pitchers. Martha did like to do things right, and she made a HOME wherever she was…she was a great community builder. There are still Christmas Eve traditions at Brescia that owe their origins to Martha Ann.
After her training, she worked as a medical technologist at Daviess County Hospital for eight years, making a whole host of new friends. As her physical stamina declined, she worked for a year visiting the sick with the Kentucky Council on Aging program, and in Saint Stephen’s parish. But she could not stay away from Brescia for long. Her last formal career choice was in the Brescia alumni office, where she could really use her gifts as a walking alumni reference book, and where she received the Super Snooper Award, “for her Sherlock Holmes ability to seek and find every Brescia alumnus, and to document every detail of their illustrious pasts, whether relevant or not.”
In 1990, she had to retire after neck surgery, two rounds of which cost her the use of her hands and legs. But she fought back again, to the point where she could help answer the phone at the nurses’ station, and “paddle” her wheelchair up to the dining room where all the people were. Even in her last years of pain and diminished physical and mental capacity, no one could ever say it was dull around Martha! We Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines want to thank the health care staff that cared for her these last 16 years, the pastoral care sisters who walked with her in her special needs, and the sisters who watched and prayed with her as she lay dying.
Four things were important to Martha—her God, her family, her community, and her students…and she did not neglect any of them. She found God in atoms and molecules and mountains. Her annual directed retreat was very important to her, even in these last few years. We all know how she loved her nephew Bennett and all her family—her personal files included family trees and notes about ancestors and relatives. On behalf of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, I also extend sympathy to you, her family. You played a large role in her life, and made her very happy.
Martha, you added so much to our community, with your infectious laugh, your vast fund of stories, and your sense of adventure. You may have climbed your last mountain, but you are not finished with the Mount; we already have given you several tasks to accomplish for us. Thank you for being teacher, aunt, Ursuline, and friend. We love you and continue to hold you in our hearts.
Sister Michele Morek, OSU
October 20, 2006