Called by a New Name

When the name Sister Mary Anthony Wagner is heard, I suspect many images of this incredible woman emerge in the minds of hearers. The first one to emerge in my mind is M.A. on the family room floor making posters with my Irish triplets and their three younger siblings.


Poster paper and paints, crayons, scissors and seven children, well six, were industriously creating pictures of Placid and Benedict and ravens and caves. Sister Mary Anthony was right in the middle telling stories about Benedict and all his adventures. I was holding our almost two-year-old who was itching to answer the call of paint. The boys had been trying to teach her to say Sister Mary Anthony, but she couldn’t say “R’s”. She was making all kinds of sounds and getting more difficult to hold on to when all of a sudden, she squealed, “M.A.!” Everyone stopped. Erin was holding her arms out to Sister Mary Anthony. “M.A!” M.A. reached for Erin who giggled and hugged her savior. From then on, it was “M.A.”

My relationship with S. Mary Anthony began when I was 14 and like a bright thread in a tapestry she became part of our family life for the rest of her life. Our travels as a family took us from one coast to the other and up and down the middle. It became increasingly difficult to get to Saint Ben’s and finally, after Erin was born, M.A. suggested I just make my final oblation as an oblate right in the midst of family wherever we were whenever we could arrange it. That’s what we did. Back in those days there were no cell phones, and calling long distance cost an arm and a leg. Besides that, sisters couldn’t talk on the phone all that often, so we wrote regularly and kept in touch with pictures and letters, banners and handmade presents.

I became an oblate in our living room with all kinds of posters and prayers. The kids wrote a skit, while not the most appropriate, the skit was about Benedict being poisoned. The boys liked those kinds of stories best. M.A. held Erin when I signed my promise as an oblate. The boys thought it might be a great idea if they got on the roof and lowered food to the picnic table outside in honor of the way Benedict got food. S.M.A. nixed that idea for fear our dog would get to the food first.

The memories of that wonderful day came flooding back this morning when I renewed my promise to be Benedictine. I’m beginning a new ministry and I prayed to “M.A.” to help me become who I am to become. Other memories of M.A. colored my morning, too. I remembered M.A. as my theology teacher when I was 16. Then, she became my son’s advisor at Saint John’s when he majored in theology. She was part of his wedding and took part in Bill’s inauguration as president of St. John Fisher College. She worked with me on my dissertation and published part of it in Sisters Today. And, all through that, we wrote to one another about ordinary things.

She was with us in sorrow, too. The kids always thought of her as Gramma when they were little. They had two Benedictine sisters for grandmothers. Someday I’ll write about their other mémère. When word came that M.A. died, there was no way to get from New York to Minnesota with everyone as word came just a day before her celebration of life. That’s how communication was back then. I knew she understood. Just as she understands today. And, she really liked being called “M.A.” It put her in the middle of kids and family and the joy of a little girl who named her M.A. because she couldn’t say her “R’s”!

Pat Pickett, OblSB