"Wisdom in Action" — the story of Sr. Agnes Marie

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From left, Sister Laetitia and Sister Agnes Marie departing for India in 1927. Sister Agnes Marie was one of the first four members of the Medical Mission Sisters, a religious order created to provide health care for disenfranchised people. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Many people across the United States admire the work ethic of Midwesterners. Growing up as a member of a large farm family in rural Iowa required hands-on hard work. Everyone needed to pitch in to keep food on the table, clothes on backs and a safe roof overhead. People took pride in their homes and properties. Vegetable and flower gardens were weed-free and pristine. Farmhouses and surrounding barns were well maintained and sturdy. If there was a job to be done — it was completed in a timely fashion. 

Inspiration for the book

Marie B. Ulbrich — Sister Agnes Marie — was born and raised on a farm in rural Clayton County. The values instilled in her as a child contributed to the life she led and the contributions she made as one of the first four members of the Medical Mission Sisters, a religious order created in 1925 to provide health care for disenfranchised people. 

Mary Oviatt, a niece of Sister Agnes Marie, has recently written a biography titled Wisdom in Action, showcasing the accomplishments of her hardworking adventuresome relative. "Sister Agnes Marie was my aunt, whom I knew and visited with at different assignments," Oviatt shared. "I was inspired to write her story because of the significant international influence of the Medical Mission Sisters. They demonstrated through mission work in India the positive outcomes of professional midwife health care which saved lives of mothers and babies." 

Mary Oviatt

Oviatt was born and raised on the same farm as Sister Agnes Marie. "My father, Carl, was her younger brother," she noted. "My early elementary education was at Millville Township School #5 followed by five years at Holy Trinity Elementary School. I stayed at Holy Trinity for two years of high school, and finished my last two years at St. Mary’s in Guttenberg, graduating in 1950." 

Oviatt furthered her education earning a Registered Nurse degree from St. Francis School of Nursing in Lacrosse, Wis; BSN from the University of Iowa, and MSN from DePaul University in Chicago. As an adult learner, not seeking any credentials, the author took three semesters of Creative Nonfiction Writing from New Mexico Highlands University. 

Background information

The well-written and researched biography begins with an account of Charles Ulbrich, Sister Agnes Marie's father, in 1892 looking at land and buildings to determine if he was going to purchase the property for his future family. The farm would eventually become a century farm. 

Animated descriptions of family members, seasonal activities, schooling and country lore create a vivid picture of life growing up in a Catholic farm family. "On a farm with virtually no outside influences Marie listened to and obeyed her parents who expected and received compliance," Oviatt commented. "Anna, her mother, was a very stern woman. Her older sisters were her guides when learning routines like hanging laundry."

"Marie, the fifth of eight children, was the only one who attended high school," noted Oviatt. "Perhaps the parish priest, who in addition to his pastoral duties, counseled parishioners regarding vocational opportunities. The message delivered to parents was that you should educate your brightest child, boy or girl, through high school with the expectation that the child would join a religious order or attend seminary to prepare for the priesthood."

Sister Agnes Marie

In 1915 Marie boarded a train in Dubuque and traveled to St. Mary's Academy in Milwaukee. St. Mary's Academy was the first Catholic all-girls high school started by the Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi. 

Sister Agnes Marie always expressed a desire to work with the poorest of the poor in India. This desire led her to pursue a career in the medical field. She attended St. Joseph's School of Nursing and worked at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Dubuque – an opportunity that brought her closer to home. "Perhaps she was aware of the Sisters of Mercy's stated mission 'to provide relief and care of orphans and destitute women,'" Oviatt speculated. 

"At age 25 she accepted a written invitation to travel to Washington, D.C. to unite with three other women, whom she did not know, to start a Catholic mission society in India to save lives of mothers and babies through childbirth," said Oviatt. Sister Agnes Marie attended pharmacy and anesthesia classes from the fall of 1926 through the next spring. 

Dream becomes reality

In 1927 she and Sister M. Laetitia departed for India making her dream become a reality. Oviatt shared, "She wrote of her years 1927 to 1929 as filled with long hours of work caring for the poor. She contracted a mild case of malaria while she was there and worked without a paycheck, living as poorly as the people she served. She dreamed of staying in India her whole life. That was not to become her reality."

Sister Agnes Marie returned home from India in December of 1929. In the fall of 1930 she left for St. Mary's Novitiate in Notre Dame, Ind. The novitiate was part of the Holy Cross Sisters Organization. Some documents refer to 1930-31 as "her canonical year" for learning the polices, principles, and practices for herself and for preparing generations of Medical Missions Sisters postulants through their novitiate year. 

"At age 30 she learned to accept that her life as a missionary had changed." Oviatt concluded, "She would never again work with the 'poorest of poor' in other countries.  Instead she was expected to accept that her mission going forward was as the Mistress of Postulants and Novices.  Sister Agnes Marie, in fact, influenced and shaped the value systems and behaviors of young women seeking a life as a missionary.”

To purchase a hardcover edition of Wisdom in Action, contact Mary Oviatt at resarich1@gmail.com. A paperback version, which has been slightly modified for the public, will be available on Amazon.com in October 2020.

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