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Sisters Joan Walz and Mary Agnes VonderHaar: “They have an incredible spirit of Saint Angela”

Sister Joan, left, and Sister Mary Agnes near the baptism font at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Axtel.

Update: Sister Joan Walz went to heaven on July 5, 2017. Sister Mary Agnes VonderHaar completed her ministry in McQuady in 2016 and moved to Maple Mount. She went to heaven on May 10, 2023.

In the summer of 1965, a chemistry class brought Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph Joan Walz and Mary Agnes VonderHaar together. The chemistry between the two has been there ever since.

“We’re two Germans,” Sister Joan said. “She’s the rebel and I tried to keep her out of mischief.”

The two have shared a home since 1999, when Sister Joan moved to tiny Hickman in far western Kentucky. “I had a knee replacement, Sister Joan was retiring from nursing at the Motherhouse, so she came to take care of me, and just stayed,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “I think she liked my cooking.”

“I believe I did most of the cooking,” Sister Joan added with her trademark big smile.

These days the sisters live in a house next to picturesque St. Mary of the Woods Catholic Church in the rural Breckinridge County, Ky., town of McQuady. The church was built in 1910 out of hand-hewn sandstone from a nearby quarry. Given their usual view from the front of the church, they joke it ought to be called, “St. Mary of the cornfield.”

Sisters Joan and Mary Agnes serve as co-directors of religious education at both St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s in Axtel, which is 7.8 miles away. Sister Joan is responsible for the children in religious education class, and Sister Mary Agnes coordinates the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

The people of St. Mary’s have been in the parish a long time, while the parishioners of St. Anthony have grown to include many people who retired and moved to homes around Rough River Lake, Sister Mary Agnes said. Ursuline Sisters began their presence in the area in 1939, teaching at St. Anthony, Sister Joan said.

Soon, the sisters will give up their teaching role to go into semi-retirement, but they will remain members of the community to visit the sick. The people there wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I had a panic attack when we thought they were leaving,” said Lori Bland, a sponsor for a couple going through RCIA at St. Anthony’s. “They do a lot more than people think.”

Pat Bland, assistant at St. Mary of the Woods for 10 years, said the sisters are much loved in the community.

“They are absolutely a blessing,” Bland said. “Their presence has meant so much.”

When church members thought the sisters might be leaving, “We were going to take up a collection to pay for them to stay,” Bland said.

Instead, the two churches are covering some of their expenses so they can stay.

“They do so many things, and they do everything well,” said Fr. Tom Buckman, who has been the pastor at St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s since January 2006. “They represent God’s presence, and are just a great blessing.” Fr. Buckman is being reassigned to St. John the Evangelist Parish in Paducah this month.

Pat Rhodes, left, Karla Mattingly and her husband Billy, and Sister Mary Agnes listen to Sister Joan during an RCIA class at St. Anthony’s in April.

At an RCIA class in April for those recently confirmed, Sister Joan led discussion on levels of maturation, talking about good decisions and bad decisions.

“The sisters were very instrumental, and very inspiring,” said Karla Mattingly, of Falls of Rough, who along with her husband Billy was confirmed at Easter.

“They always explain the sacraments, the ceremonies,” she said. “Sitting behind them in church was very helpful. They’re just a good part of the community. I’m glad to hear they’re going to stay.”

Pat Rhodes, of Westview, helps with RCIA and is a sponsor for a couple. She summed up many people’s feelings about the sisters in one sentence.

“I love them, we all do.”

Sister Mary Agnes

Sister Mary Agnes’ ancestors came from the valley of Haar in Bavaria, Germany. Her great grandfather came to America with his family to Quincy, Ill., then to Davenport, Iowa.

“Dad worked for the Army at Rock Island Arsenal as a machinist,” Sister Mary Agnes said. He transferred to Fort Knox, and during World War II, he was superintendent of the ordnance shops. “He was very suspect for awhile by some weirdoes because he had a German name,” she said.

Sister Mary Agnes was born in Vine Grove, Ky., the week before Christmas, 1933, to Barney and Dorothy VonderHaar, and the family went to Davenport for the holiday and baptized her there.

She was taught by the Ursuline Sisters at St. Brigid Elementary School, then went to high school at Mount Saint Joseph Academy.