Wake Reflection for Sister Mary Virginia Sturlich, OSU
From Luke 1:35a, 37-38: “And the angel said to her in reply, ‘. . . for nothing will be impossible for God.’ Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’”
Mark 1:30-31: “Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told Jesus about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.”
Perhaps it was more than fitting that Katherine Sturlich was born in Kansas City, Kansas, to Joseph Nicholas and Mary Bosilevac Sturlich on Saturday, March 25, 1916 – the Feast of the Annunciation. Katherine – or Katie as she was known – would grow to live her life as a “handmaid of the Lord.” For dictionaries today define “handmaid” as “someone helpful; someone that provides help or support for all in a serving role.”
Now, Katie began her faith journey immediately. On the day following her birth, Sunday, March 26, the first of four girls born to the Sturlich family, was baptized Katherine Sturlich at the Kansas City Croatian community’s church, Saint John the Baptist. Growing up in Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, Katie learned to cherish her faith – she was confirmed at Saint John the Baptist at the age of nine on a May Sunday in 1925. She learned to take pride in her Croatian heritage and its customs, its foods, and its language – a language she could speak throughout her life.
The twinkle in her eyes suggested that Katie’s childhood was in a loving home, even though she lost her mother when she was only nine. At that time, Katie and her father called on their faith and on the support of their community to provide that loving home for her three sisters – Ann, Agnes, and Mary. Katie remained close to her family all through her life; and to her sister, Mary, and her nieces and nephews, we, the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, offer our prayers and our condolences.
Later, Sister Virginia – in a striking tribute to her father – would reflect that she must have inherited from her father the “ability to recognize the needs of others and the desire to ease their suffering.” Fairly early in her life, Katie would translate that ability into a desire to be of service to God’s people. When she was 10-years-old, in the fourth grade, she began thinking aloud about the life of a sister; in the fifth grade the Franciscan sisters attracted her strongly; and when she was sixteen (16), Katie told her family that she wished to enter the convent. At this news, her family begged her to “wait a while longer, please;” perhaps she still needed to mother that family for just a few more years.
In the meantime, Katie went to work for Dr. Rettenmaier’s family. This family, consisting of a father, a mother, three sons, and one daughter, would hold Katie’s love and efforts for the next eight or nine years. It is hard to choose one word for her time there – perhaps “second family” would best describe it. For while she prepared meals for the family, Katie shared their table as a member of the family; while she assisted with the children daily, when the parents would travel, she had total care and responsibility for them as a substitute mother. So it seems that Katie helped to raise another family. It was perhaps through the Rettenmaiers that Katie came to meet and to know more about the Ursulines of Paola, for Dr. Rettenmaier was the physician for many of those Paola Ursulines.
So it was no surprise that, in September of 1946, Katie Sturlich – now thirty years old – came at last to the Ursuline Convent at Paola, Kansas, supported by her family and riding in her sister’s boyfriend’s car. Following her six-month postulancy, on her 31st birthday – Tuesday, March 25, 1947 – Katie became Sister Mary Virginia Sturlich.
That twinkle in her eye was certainly still dominant; Sister Virginia would report later that she had really wanted the name “Mary Joseph” (for her mother and her father), but the name had already been taken. “That’s OK,” she told herself, “she [Sister Mary Joseph] is not going to live forever. I could just wait for the name. But . . . Sister Mary Joseph ended up living to be 93.” So, Sister Virginia remained Sister Virginia.
Later that year, in August in far-away Kentucky, Sisters Joseph Angela Boone and Fran Wilhelm would become Sister Virginia’s classmates “in Spirit.” To those classmates and to all who were in the Paola postulancy, novitiate, and T.P. (temporary professed) near to Sister Virginia, we extend our love, our prayers, and our deep consolation.
The novitiate would be a busy time for Sister Virginia, from slipping on banana peels, to being in charge of the girls’ dining room, to cleaning, to mending and ironing – as one of her compatriots would say, she “left big boots to fill.” Within two years, this busy “handmaid of the Lord” was ready to move even further on her faith journey and on her 33rd birthday, Friday, March 25, 1949, Sister Virginia made her first profession of the evangelical councils.
Within days, she began what would be her ministry for the next four years – Community Service at the Ursuline Motherhouse in Paola, Kansas. It appears that Sister Virginia had been given another family to feed and to care for. As a provider of “Community Service,” she was responsible for housekeeping, laundry, infirmary duty, some cooking (“frying sausages for Father Leo”), taking care of the Chaplain, and being available for whoever, whatever, and whenever. As many said later, “whatever ‘grungy’ needed doing, Sister Virginia did it.”
On her 36th birthday, on Tuesday, March 25, 1952, Sister Virginia made her final profession, and in 1953, she became the infirmarian for the Ursuline Academy at Paola, and adopted yet another family. For the next eighteen (18) years, she would help mother and care for the academy girls, where she was known for her “sharp wit and wonderful sense of humor,” as well as “for sneaking hot cocoa and cookies to the students [and sometimes to the novices as well].”
Sister Virginia was quite clear that she was not, and had no desire to be, a teacher. In spite of that, as a mother figure, she found herself frequently in that role. At one point, she was responsible for teaching the students a “manners class;” all who attended learned in no uncertain terms the “proper way to offer a drinking glass and just what subjects are off-limits at the dinner table.”
For years Sister Virginia would maintain contact with her girls, and they with her. And at least one would ultimately choose, she thought, to emulate Sister Virginia and pursue her own career as a nurse. Only later would she discover that it was Sister Virginia’s heart and spirit – and not an official nursing degree – that had so qualified her as an infirmarian.
In 1971, Sister Virginia was asked to serve as a “child care night worker” at the newly established Lakemary Center at Paola, and would do so throughout the 1970’s. Here she worked with children with cognitive and/or physical disabilities. Yet another family which she could mother. But Sister Virginia did not want to be selfish about the joy of being the Lord’s handmaid at Lakemary; so she would bring home the mending and darning for the children there and give all her sisters at the Paola Convent the chance to help her and the children. She was truly generous to a fault – sharing both her own gifts and the many opportunities to serve the Lord in joy.
By 1978, Sister Virginia returned to modified “Community Service” at the Ursuline Motherhouse in Paola. Her health was not the best, but her memory, her sense of humor, her love for her families – Sturlich, Ursuline, students, Lakemary – were just as robust as ever. When Sister Virginia celebrated her 50th Jubilee in 2007, she was asked what important lessons she had learned during her time as an Ursuline. She replied, “I learned compassion and the importance of seeing Christ in all whom I served. I learned that one finds happiness in using our God-given talents in ministering to others in ways you are able.” And she closed as always with “Thank you and God bless you.”
In 2009, Sister Virginia came to the Saint Joseph Villa here at Mount Saint Joseph in Maple Mount, Kentucky. She strengthened our Powerhouse of Prayer and won the hearts of all who worked with her. To the Villa and Pastoral Care staff we give our thanks and we offer you our own prayers and consolation.
And so, on this Mother’s Day, we so appropriately celebrate the life of Sister Virginia Sturlich – mother to so many – and give thanks that in the midnight hours on Wednesday, May 9th, her loving Lord asked his faithful handmaid to come home to Him; to share with all the saints a little mischief and a lot of love.
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph