(This article was written in 2013. Sister Michael Ann continues to volunteer in the afternoon in the Finance office at Maple Mount.)
Ursuline Sister Michael Ann Monaghan taught first grade for 25 years, a direction that may well have begun with her first teaching assignment from Ursuline Sister Mary Ophelia Raley.
“On my first day, Sister Mary Ophelia gave me a long pointer and told me to take the three first-graders to the reading charts and help them to read,” Sister Michael Ann said.
The part left out of this story is that Sister Michael Ann was the fourth first-grader in the class at St. Joseph School in Central City, Ky. “I thought I was really special, I was already a teacher,” she said.
In the fifth grade, she met Ursuline Sister Mary Edward Pope. “She never talked to me about a vocation, but she was the kind of teacher I wanted to be,” Sister Michael Ann said. “She always encouraged us to learn all we could. She made school fun for us. I can still see her teaching us about volleyball.”
Sister Michael Ann wanted to be a teacher, and after joining the Ursuline Sisters, she got her first chance in 1954 at Immaculate School in Owensboro, Ky. “It was stressful. I thought ‘I’ll never be able to teach these children to read.’ But I think they liked school as much as I did,” she said. “I loved every minute of it. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
Starting children off right in their first year of school is important, Sister Michael Ann said. “I thought if they liked school the first year, they would probably like it the rest of their lives. Their fear of school dissipated when they met me,” she said. “If the teacher is there for them, they’ll be OK.”
During Sister Michael Ann’s third year at Immaculate, Sister Marietta Wethington began her first ministry teaching second grade. “She was an excellent teacher, and she helped me to learn to teach,” Sister Marietta said. “She also taught me how to live in community.”
All the parents at Immaculate respected Sister Michael Ann and all the children liked her, Sister Marietta said. “Half of Immaculate Parish can read today because of Michael Ann.”
Hearing the call
Barbara Nell Monaghan was the seventh child of 10, and the family lived on a 10-acre piece of land during the Depression. The family had a garden that the children worked in. “I think (my father) did that to keep us busy,” she said. Her father was a coal miner, in the days when Muhlenberg County was the top coal-producing county in the state.
“He began working in the mines when he was 13,” she said. “His father died early and he had to help his mother. He was a veteran of World War I. He was a cook in the Army and arrived in France just as the armistice was signed.”
He worked in the coal mines in Wyoming before meeting her mother in Terre Haute, Ind. They took a steamboat to Central City for a mining job. They were lean times during the Depression, so her mother made all the children’s clothes, was an excellent cook and a good manager of the family resources, Sister Michael Ann said.
The first Ursuline Sister who believed young Barbara Nell had a religious vocation was her seventh and eighth grade teacher, Sister Mary Denis Bumpus. “She tried to encourage my vocation by giving me jobs to do, to see what the sisters did.”
Throughout attending a public high school, the thought of entering the convent was often with Barbara Nell. “I used to take time on my way home to stop in church and visit the Blessed Sacrament,” she said. “That got me thinking about a religious vocation.”
When her older sister, Sister Renee, joined the Ursulines in 1948, “I thought, wow, I wish I had that courage,” she said.
“I didn’t want to enter until I was sure God was calling me,” Sister Michael Ann said. “I took a year of discernment. My father told us when we graduated from high school, we were on our own. I told him I wanted to get a job in Hammond, Ind., I had two sisters there.” In high school she took an aptitude test that told her she would make a good inspector. She got a job working at Inland Steel, inspecting large sheets of tin.
She made friends and took advantage of what Chicago had to offer just a half hour away, such as museums, dancing and live shows. She saw Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on stage. Despite the adventure she had, she knew she wanted more.
“I had a desire to serve God’s people,” she said. “I thought I could do so better as a sister.”
She thought about taking her parents’ names, but those names were taken. “My father always talked about our guardian angel and how important that was in our life,” she said. “I had an uncle Mike I was fond of, and my oldest sister was Ann, so that’s how I chose Michael Ann.”
On a mission
After nine years at Immaculate and a year in Louisville, Sister Michael Ann was excited to be asked about moving to San Fidel, N.M., to teach at St. Joseph School.
“It was a culture shock. I was in the desert, in two Indian reservations,” she said. “I began to love New Mexico in 1964-66. I liked the culture, the climate and the beauty we were surrounded by. I felt like a real missionary out there. I left a little bit of heaven behind when I came back here.”
She was asked to come back to Owensboro in 1966 to monitor the student teachers in her classroom, which she did at Sts. Joseph and Paul School until 1972.
While she was there, she asked to pilot a language arts program on reading. She encouraged the first-graders to enter a story in a national contest through Random House. One of her students produced one of her favorite stories ever, called “My Old Cow.” This is how it went:
“Her don’t eat. Her don’t sleep. Her don’t feel good. Her get baby calf and her happy.” The story won first place in the national contest and he received a picture dictionary as a prize.
Though she enjoyed her time in Owensboro, she recalled Mother Joseph Marian Logsdon’s promise that she could go back to New Mexico one day. Over the next 30 years, she would serve six stints teaching in New Mexico, finishing with St. Francis of Assisi School in Gallup in 2001. During some of those years she served as both principal and teacher.
“I always enjoyed wherever I was sent,” she said. “Each place was different, each group of sisters was different.”
Sister Marie Montgomery served with Sister Michael Ann for 16 years in New Mexico and said she was an excellent teacher. While serving as principal and sixth grade teacher in Gallup one year, she had a student who didn’t want to work hard. Under Sister Michael Ann’s tutelage, he went on to be student of the year in high school, graduated from college and has done well in his work life, Sister Marie said.
“His mother told me she gave all the credit for his success to the time Sister Michael Ann spent with him,” Sister Marie said.
In 2001, Sister Michael Ann came back to Hammond, Ind., to stay with her sister who was ill. In 2003, she began as a receptionist at the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center, and helped in the community business office. “I copied daily deposits, sorted forms, did shredding at the end of the day,” she said. “I’ve always liked numbers, I like working in a business setting.”
In 2009, she returned to family ministry, staying with her sister Agnes in Central City until she died on Aug. 1, 2012. “She was a widow and had taken care of our parents until they died,” she said. She and her sisters felt an obligation to help her when she had Alzheimer’s disease, and each took a year doing so.
“I felt like I received more than I gave. It’s such a blessing to help the sick,” she said. She also lost her sister Kathleen on the same day, and those sisters were very close, she said.
“It’s as if one said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’”
Sister Michael Ann is happy to be back at the Mount among the sisters. In the fall off 2012, she was thrilled when she was asked to help in the business office again, which she does each afternoon.
In her free time she likes to read and keep up with the news, especially politics. She loves music.
“She is a quiet person, but she can tell the funniest stories you ever heard,” Sister Marietta said.
Sister Michael Ann said she truly feels blessed to be a sister. “It’s been a wonderful life, I couldn’t have chosen anything better.”
By Dan Heckel