Sister Mary Agnes VonderHaar: Dec. 17, 1933 – May 10, 2023

Sister Mary Agnes VonderHaar, 89, an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, died May 10 at Mount Saint Joseph, in her 70th year of religious life. She was a native of Vine Grove, Ky.

Sister Mary Agnes was known for her selflessness, her dedication to moving her community forward, and her wonderful sense of humor. She loved to help people grow in their faith.

She graduated from Mount Saint Joseph Academy, Maple Mount, Ky., in 1952. She graduated from Brescia College (now University), Owensboro, Ky., in 1965 and earned a master’s degree from Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Ky., in 1975.

She was an educator for 33 years, all at Kentucky schools, serving as a teacher at St. Thomas More, Paducah (1955-60), St. Alphonsus School, St. Joseph (1960-64), St. Charles High School, Lebanon (1967-69), Trinity High School, Whitesville (1969-75) and Trinity High School, Louisville (1981-88). She was principal at St. Joseph Inter-Parochial School, Bowling Green (1975-81), and principal and teacher at St. Ann School, Howardstown (1964-67).

She served eight years as the elected assistant superior of the Ursuline Sisters (1988-96) and was director of retired Sisters. She served as pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Parish in Hickman (1996-2004), and from 2004-16 she served the parishes of St. Mary of the Woods in McQuady and St. Anthony in Axtel, first as an apostolic minister, then as a minister of presence. She was Motherhouse annalist from 2017-21.

Survivors include the members of her religious community; two brothers, Jerry and Larry VonderHaar, both of Louisville; nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her parents, Bernard and Dorothy VonderHaar; and her siblings John Bernard VonderHaar and William Purcell VonderHaar.

The funeral Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 16 at Mount Saint Joseph, with the praying of the rosary at 9 a.m. Visitation will begin Monday at 4 p.m., with a wake service following at 6:30 p.m.

Glenn Funeral Home and Crematory, Owensboro, is handling arrangements.

Donations in memory of Sister Mary Agnes may be made to the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, 8001 Cummings Road, Maple Mount, KY 42356.

Wake reflection for Sister Mary Agnes VonderHaar

By Sister Sharon Sullivan, Congregational Leader

May 15, 2023

 

We hear from 1 Kings 19: 9, 11-13: “Then Elijah came to a cave, where he took shelter. . . And the Lord said, ‘Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.’ A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord – but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire – but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in the cloak and went and stood . . . [before the Lord].”

 

It seems that all her life, Sister Mary Agnes – Patsy – VonderHaar was listening for and hearing the voice of her cherished Lord. For on a cold, windy Sunday morning in Vine Grove, Kentucky, December 17, 1933, Patricia Ann VonderHaar came into this life a bit like the strong wind, causing her mother to miss Mass they say. We don’t know whether or not the rest of the family made it to Mass that Sunday, but there is no doubt that their faith was central to each member of this family throughout their lives.

 

Patricia Ann – or Patsy – joined her two brothers, Jack and Bill, becoming the first and only daughter of Bernard “Barney” and Dorothy Purcell VonderHaar. Family was also at the heart of the VonderHaar’s lives, and within days, it became clear that the family, even with a brand new baby, was going to make their annual cold and snowy Christmas pilgrimage to the family home in Davenport, Iowa.

 

Sister Mary Agnes recalled, “Dad was always ready for a challenge, so having a week old baby [at Christmas] simply put his genius to work. He made a bed in the back seat of his ’29 Ford, tucked mother and daughter in snugly and with the two little boys in the front seat, headed [the 500 miles] for Iowa.” When they arrived Granddad scolded her father, “You finally get a little girl and then about kill her.” But just a week later on New Year’s Eve Sunday, Patricia Ann VonderHaar was carted off again through the winter cold to Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa, and was baptized surrounded by all the VonderHaar and Purcell grandparents, aunts and uncles.

 

Sister Mary Agnes wrote that her big brothers, Jack and Bill, thought Patsy was a “great toy to receive for that Christmas along with their little red wagon. When Mom was busy in the other room, the two of them found I fit just perfectly in a wagon as one pulled and the other pushed – but oh, oh, Mom didn’t like that. She did, however, [at least] thank them for putting a pillow in first.”

 

As Patsy grew up with only her brothers as playmates, she became quite the tomboy, and within a few more years, she was surrounded by more brothers with the arrival of Jerry and Larry. And to Sister Mary Agnes’ cherished brothers, Jerry and Larry, and the many nieces and nephews and more, we Ursuline Sisters extend our sympathy, but also our love and thanks for sharing your “Sister Patsy” with us.

 

As she grew, so did Patsy’s adventurous spirit. When she was seven, on an April Sunday and Monday in 1941, Patsy celebrated her first communion and then her confirmation at St. Brigid Church in Vine Grove, but she had already become the mail gatherer and deliverer and general errand carrier for her family and the Sisters in the parish. Being involved and doing for others was an adventure; she even got to take over her brother Jack’s paper route. But when it turned out she had earned enough money from the paper route to buy a gold wrist watch, Jack decided maybe it was worth his time after all and took the route back; yet it was still Patsy who had to “get both their bicycles to the drugstore before they got home from school in Flaherty,” so they could run their paper route.

 

By the time she had graduated from the eighth grade at St. Brigid School, the family was beginning to consider a move to Louisville and Patsy was ready to further her educational adventures with the Ursuline Sisters; with no Catholic high school in Vine Grove, she enrolled at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. Throughout her four years at the Academy, Patsy was becoming increasingly aware of that almost silent voice of God urging her to spend her life as an Ursuline – but she did not ever want to admit that to her classmates, lest they “expect her to act like a nun!”

 

Nevertheless, the silent voice was insistent, and upon her graduation from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in 1952, Patsy began the process of becoming an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph. She entered the postulancy Sunday, September 7, 1952, and although her family was saddened at the thought that they would not easily see her again they supported her in this new adventure. Indeed, the next year at her investment into the Novitiate, in August 1953, so many Iowa relations had wanted to come that her father had to rent a school bus to bring them all to Mount Saint Joseph.

 

Upon becoming a Novice, Patsy took the name “Mary Agnes” to honor both her grandmothers; “Mary Agnes,” she wrote, was also the “name on reserve for that little sister I never had.” Sister Mary Agnes joined the class of 1953 with sixteen other young women; of that incredible group of seventeen, four classmates still remain: Sister Margaret Ann Aull, Sister Catherine Barber, Sister Paul Marie Greenwell, and Sister Mary Gerald Payne. To you each we extend our sympathy and our love as you bid your classmate “good-bye.”

 

Now began a time of education and service as an Ursuline and of the earthquakes of growth and change, both personally, within the Community, and globally. Through it all, Sister Mary Agnes still listened for that quiet voice of God and she emerged as, in the words of one principal, “a true teacher” and, in the words of her colleagues in Hickman, Kentucky, as “a strong and faithful woman who brought out the best in [others].”

 

Over the next fifty years, Sister Mary Agnes earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates from Brescia College, Catholic University, Xavier University, Creighton University, and Western Kentucky University; she took computer classes from Bellarmine before 1990 and a liturgy class from Brescia University in 2004. She never stopped listening and learning.

 

For thirty-three of those years, Sister Mary Agnes taught in Kentucky schools in the Diocese of Owensboro and the Archdiocese of Louisville:

  • Saint Thomas More in Paducah – where she also trained altar boys – one of whom became Father John Vaughn;
  • Saint Alphonsus across the road from Mount St. Joseph – where she had the good luck to teach both Father Jerry Riney and Sister Judith Nell Riney. From these adventures she went on to . . .
  • Saint Ann in Howardstown. Then began her high school years at
  • Saint Charles in Lebanon, Trinity High School in Whitesville – with a few years back in elementary as principal at Saint Joseph in Bowling Green – and finally seven years with the young men at Trinity High School in Louisville. She made such an impact there that, more than a year after she left Trinity in Louisville, the principal would write, “we miss her still.”

 

During these earthquake years of change, Sister Mary Agnes not only helped her students find their ways, but she also spoke her mind when encountering situations of concern or need. She wrote letters about community dress restrictions following changes flowing from Vatican II, about Nuclear Free Zones, about Rodney King, and about the horrors in Guatemala related to Sister Dianna; she prepared editorials about the School of the Americas; and supported and presented at the 2004 Hickman Community Awareness Program Against Drugs and Alcohol. Sister Mary Agnes worked tirelessly to support those in need and to draw attention to those engaged in unjust practices.

 

In 1988, Sister Mary Agnes answered the call of the Spirit and her Community to serve in a new way as Assistant Superior. For the next eight years, in this role, she supported her sisters also serving in leadership, visited sisters on mission, learned with sisters entering retirement, prayed with those who were ill and dying, and planned celebrations and parties – and, goodness, goodness, could Sister Mary Agnes plan a party!

 

These, too, were years when, perhaps, God’s voice came through the earthquakes of disruption and ongoing change. During this time, she encountered Sister Dianna’s kidnapping – writing “we will be at her side every step of the way” and doing so – she experienced Sister Thea Bowman, she survived “storms of the century” and being trapped by blizzards, she managed broken-down vans, she endured knee replacements, she enjoyed a hot-air balloon ride, and had many other adventures west, east, south, and overseas. Through it all, Sister Mary Agnes continued to listen for and to hear that tiny, whispering voice of God.

 

In 1996, perhaps it was the fire of the Spirit, that voice that sent Sister Mary Agnes in yet another unexpected direction. She wrote in her Annals that she had been accepted as a Pastoral Associate at Sacred Heart Church in Hickman, Kentucky – and added, “Now just what does a Pastoral Associate do anyway?” The next year she would write, “The Spirit led me to parish ministry – a mystery to me – something I never even imagined I would do – the Spirit is full of surprises. Much has been learned and there is much to learn.”

 

Before she left Hickman in 2004, Sister Mary Agnes would have involved not only the parish members, but the greater Hickman Community, in their own experiences of a deepening faith and prayer life. In fact, in the Jubilee Year of 2000, Sister Mary Agnes put her party planning skills to work and developed a community-wide Progressive Prayer Service involving five different locales and faith traditions – from the African American CME Church to Sacred Heart to First Baptist, First Methodist, and First Church of God. Following that experience, she said, “The town never got over it; we all felt closer and kinder to one another.”

 

But Sister Mary Agnes and Sister Joan Walz – who had joined her – were both getting to the point where they believed they should trade fifteen-hour days for a fifteen-hour week, and left Hickman to become Apostolic Ministers at Saint Mary of the Woods in McQuady and Saint Anthony in Axtel – towns smaller than Hickman. In the “Noteworthy Events” section of her Annals that first year in McQuady, Sister Mary Agnes claimed as her “noteworthy event” that they had harvested volunteer cantaloupes that grew from discarded seeds, noting that “In McQuady one looks for something [noteworthy] to report.” Again, that life-giving fire of the Spirit intervened, and before they left McQuady eleven years later, Sister Joan and Mary Agnes had transformed the parishes and communities, writing “Thus ended our eleven hears of happy ministry in these two parishes. There is no doubt we left a piece of our hearts there.”

 

In 2016, Sister Mary Agnes came home to Mount Saint Joseph, continuing to keep annals for the Motherhouse and joining the Powerhouse of Prayer. In all those personal annals she had been faithfully keeping earlier, it is worth noting that the constant through them all was how frequently she recorded loving mentions of interactions with sisters in Community and with family – weddings, funerals, celebrations, meetings, adventures, baptisms, prayer, reunions, and more. What an experience Sister Mary Agnes has had of listening for and hearing God’s voice through all who have enriched her life.

 

And so the final few years in the Villa drew to a close – and to all those in the Villa who so gently and lovingly cared for Sister Mary Agnes, we give our thanks and share our sympathy and love. These were the years when Sister Mary Agnes was drawn at last to the tiny whispering sound that was the voice of her loving God. She once said of her mother that in her final illness “her children and grandchildren gathered around and loved her into eternity.”

 

Surely, on the evening of May 10th, as Sister Mary Agnes’ soul stood at the door of the cave responding to the tiny, whispering voice of her God, she was surrounded by the souls and prayers of all the thousands she has touched throughout her life, loving her into eternity.

 

Rest peacefully, Sister Mary Agnes.

 

 

Comments

  1. Nancy Roby Litke

    I loved Sister Mary Agnes! She made learning so much fun for us ! Trinity High in Whitesville was blessed to have her! May she rest easy in the arms of our Lord & Savior! I am so thankful for having known her!

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