LOUISVILLE, KY—People who know Sister Mary Anthony Wargel love to tell tales about the tiny, but fiery, educator, saying she is legend among the school and church communities she served.
“She’s given 100 percent of her 100 years to the service of God and His people,” said Joe Tronco, whose family goes way back with Sister Anthony. Tronco is a parishioner at Holy Spirit Church on Johns Island now, but recalls his school days in Columbia, where Sister Anthony worked for 22 years.
The Ursuline sister now lives at the motherhouse in Kentucky and celebrated her 100th birthday on July 17 with a large gathering of friends and family.
“Those were the best teaching years of my career,” she said. “That Southern hospitality, really, it was so evident. They always made me feel so welcome. I was happy, happy, happy there. I’ve always been happy, but that place was special to me.”
And she was special to them.
At St. John Neumann, there are still photos of Sister Anthony on the school bulletin board, along with a framed photo. Barbara Cole, principal, said the Ursuline made a big impact on the community while she was there from 1992-2002.
One of her lasting contributions was the creation of the school’s rosary club, which is still clicking along. Sister Anthony said she leads the rosary as part of her prayer ministry now, but can no longer bend the wires to make rosary beads. But the religious is undaunted by the few physical concessions she’s had to make for her 100 years, including the use of “a little walker.”
“I have more blessings than I have limitations,” she said.
In fact, the sister was still teaching, serving as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and transporting “the elderly” on errands when she was well into her 80s.
“She really witnessed to the mission of the Ursulines in Columbia,” he said. “She graced us with her dedication to the education of our children — even into her 80s she was a vibrant example.”
Many of her former students, especially the boys, said Sister Anthony led them to see nuns in a whole new light.
Of course she knew the rosary, but she also knew sports: horseracing, baseball, and — especially — Notre Dame football.
Everyone who talks about Sister Anthony mentions her passion for her homestate football team, from her Fighting Irish pin to her all-out regalia for game days. She knows the coaches, the players, the statistics and the strategies.
“I have to close my door when I watch the games,” she confided. “I stand in front of the TV shouting at them to run the ball!”
But that competitive streak, dating back to her childhood, is balanced by her Ursuline nature. “I mainly pray for their safety. Victories are wonderful, but I’d rather see them be safe,” she said. Her fellow teachers and students said the combination of competition and compassion is what made her such a wonderful teacher, able to work with any child and find fresh approaches to solve problems.
“She was just legend as to her spiritual approach and her kindness to her students,” Tronco said. “I’ve found her to be such a joyful person.”
Sister Anthony said it was the Ursulines’ service as educators, along with their happy nature, that drew her to the order.
Born Clara Marie Wargel on July 17, 1914, in Evansville, Ind., she was the third of five children to Anthony and Kathleen Wargel. By the time she was in sixth grade, she knew she wanted to be a religious sister, and in 1934, Clara Marie became Sister Mary Anthony, OSU, choosing the name of her father.
In her 80 years of religious life, she said there have been many changes, with a great expansion in the freedoms of religious women.
Asked if, looking back, there was any other path she would choose, she answered very adamantly, “No way.”
“I never considered anything else but religious life,” she said. “I’ve had a wonderful life and I’m still happy — I still have a wonderful life.”
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