Wake Reflection: Sr. Theresa Margaret Hite, OSU
On Holy Thursday, April 16, 1915, with the world blossoming in anticipation of the feast of Easter, a little girl with beautiful blue eyes and red hair was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, to Robert Hite and Margaret Knott Hite. She was the sixth child of eight, which included Edward (who became Franciscan “Brother Benedict”), Beulah Mae, Genevieve, Walter (who died as an infant from the flu), William Irvin, Margaret, and Mary Robert (who died at the age of three years from diphtheria). All her brothers and sisters preceded her in death; S. Theresa Margaret said that of all those children, her birth was the easiest on her mother, and she was the healthiest child!
Her greatest admirer in those earliest days was a nine-year-old neighbor girl named Mary Frances Bellew, who insisted that the new baby be named after her. So the baby was baptized Mary Frances at Saint Stephen’s Church, with the “original” Mary Frances serving as godmother, baby sitter, and life-long friend. The family lived at the corner of Saint Elizabeth and 3rd Streets, where her father worked in the Ames factory, making and painting the famous buggies that were a well-known product of Owensboro in those days. She remembered that her father suffered from paint poisoning from his job, and that he used to hum “Will There Be Stars in My Crown.” It turns out that he did have stars in his crown, and she was one of them.
When Mary Frances was just three years old, the great influenza epidemic of 1918 struck their family. Her mother nursed her back to health, but her father died, leaving her mother Margaret with eight children under the age of 12. To support them, Margaret got a job as a saleswoman, took in washing, and sold their home in Owensboro, buying a farm at Browns Valley to rent it for shares. The family lived in the main farmhouse, raising chickens, vegetables, a cow, and fruit trees. Mary Frances loved life on the farm and her walks in the woods with her older brother—listening to birds and learning about nature. She began school at Browns Valley, where she remembers being taught by Sister Madeline.
Seven years after the death of her husband, her mother married Joseph Wilberding, a man who had come to Browns Valley to build the grotto at Saint Anthony’s Church. He also designed and built the shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor at the Mount, and designed and executed the artwork in Saint Stephens Cathedral, including the picture of Saint Stephen over the entrance. After Mary Frances finished the fifth grade the family moved to Norwood Ohio, to live in an apartment building owned by her new stepfather.
In Norwood she attended Saint Elizabeth School, staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. She was very influenced by her sixth grade teacher, Sister Ann Simeon, and credits her example as the beginning of her own religious vocation. She began high school in Norwood, but soon quit and began working as a domestic helper. She would later get her high school diploma from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in 1951, several years after she entered the community.
Perhaps it was the Owensboro connection that brought her to the Mount; perhaps it was her sister Margaret, who came to high school there. S. Rosalia Knott was her aunt, and S. Mary Louise and Jacinta are cousins…but somehow she found her way here, entering at the age of 19 in 1934, with classmates Sisters Agnes Irene Bickett, Justina Heimann, Joseph Carmel Redmon, and Rosella Newton. The class received the habit in 1935 and made final vows in 1940, except for Rosella who left the community at that time.
S. Theresa Margaret’s first assignment was a couple of months as housekeeper in Curdsville, while she was a novice. In her first ten years of mission life, she served as a housekeeper in Glennonville Missouri, Nebraska City and Paul Nebraska, and Mayfield, Flaherty, and Calvary Kentucky. She had her first teaching assignment to Rosary School in Paducah, later teaching at Blessed Mother in Owensboro, and New Haven, Loretto, Saint Francis, Fredericksburg, and Radcliff Kentucky. She said of herself that she “was fairly good in art and teaching of math in intermediate and primary grades,” and those who know her agree with that assessment…in fact, she was very good. A friend and former principal said that S. Theresa Margaret never let a child think she was not important. She loved doing religious activities with the children, like May processions and acting out Bible stories. Between her teaching assignments she found time to complete a Bachelors degree in education from Brescia (in 1969) and to get a professional catechist certificate (in 1973).
Few people know that S. Theresa Margaret had some health issues throughout her life, because she was not a complainer. She was blind in her left eye, and suffered considerably from back trouble until she managed to find a brace that helped a little. S. Mary Cabrini, who lived with her for 19 years, said they had never had a cross word with each other. S. Theresa Margaret was generous, gentle, kind…and lots of fun when you knew her.
As she began winding down toward retirement, she spent nine happy years working part-time at St. Paul Leitchfield, as librarian, tutor, bulletin board creator, and cook—she was a good cook. And the children would flock to the library for her after-school art program. Finally after 57 years of ministry she retired in 1994…but she brought her skill set with her. When she arrived at the Mount she first helped S. Mary Victor with the museum, setting up displays and giving tours. She was soon drafted into using her artistic abilities in making big posters, decorating birthday tables, and creating the large scrolls we send as thank-you or special occasion cards to community friends. She described her retirement activities as a “ministry of beauty and helpfulness.” An artistic perfectionist, she would carefully cut flowers from old greeting cards or wallpaper or wrapping paper, to decorate her scrolls. S. Theresa Margaret was also the first person I ever knew who did quilling. She had so many gifts! She was also interested in genealogy, beautiful music, several crafts, and—she said so herself—she could cut hair fairly well!
But most of all, S. Theresa Margaret was a very prayerful woman, very devoted to the Blessed Mother. She would spend long hours in prayer, and shared on more than one occasion about the powerful influence that another holy woman had had on her life. Remember her sixth grade teacher, S. Ann Simeon? She said S. Ann was so full of love for God that it overflowed into her students’ hearts. As a result the young Mary Frances became a daily communicant, and found herself thinking about God in all her quiet moments. She said “I suppose (that was) what we would now call meditating, but I didn’t know it then.” She would even dream about Jesus, whose presence was so real to her that for days afterwards she was filled with joy. She said the reason she wanted to tell that story was so that we will all recognize how important it is for us to fill ourselves with the love of God, so that it will flow over into the lives of others. S. Theresa Margaret, thank you for teaching us that lesson all your life.
I was also moved by a little anecdote she told about her childhood. She learned how to say “take it” before she got out of the cradle—and I think it’s true to say that she continued all her life to say, “take it” to God, as she gave her life with great generosity to the service of her community, her family, her students, and her God. She would also say “take it” to her own father, when he walked in the door after work, but then she meant for him to take her—take her into his arms. At about 8:30 in the morning on the 4th day of May, her favorite month, at the age of 94 years old, her God did take her into the arms of love, where she now rejoices in true beauty indescribable, undreamed of.
Thank you, Theresa Margaret, for sharing your beautiful life with us. And to S. Theresa Margaret’s classmate S. Agnes Irene, to her family, and to her special friends in community, we offer our sympathy and prayers.
Thank you and blessings to our health care staff, our pastoral care sisters, and to all of you who watched and waited with Sister in her last hours. She never forgot a favor, and she will not forget your needs now!
Sr. Michele Morek, OSU
May 6, 2009