On June 18, 1929, John and Priscilla Brunner welcomed their fifth child and fourth daughter, Mary Therese, who joined three sisters and a brother: Josephine, Henry, Virginia, and Margaret.
Mary Therese was the last to be born at home on the family farm in Cross Plains, Wisconsin. She always said she was the “top of the bottom half!” Her sister, Ruth, and brothers John and Norbert completed the Brunner family of eight children.
In a home filled with love, time was spent doing outside chores, baking, cooking, singing during dishes, and praying the rosary. Mary Therese always thought that she had the easy, fun jobs outside, feeding the chickens and riding the pony to get the cows for milking. (She often thought the pony missed her most when she went to the convent!) She spent more time in the house, caring for her younger sister and brothers, helping her mother cook, bake, and getting ready for threshers at harvest time – a great time for family and farming neighbors to work and be together.
All the Brunner children attended St. Francis Xavier School in Cross Plains, staffed by School Sisters of St. Francis. Mary Therese graduated from eighth grade in 1943 and entered St. Joseph High School here at the Motherhouse, following in the footsteps of her three sisters, Sisters Providencia, Ronald, and Alicita.
Sister Mary Therese was received into the community on June 13, 1947. As she was kneeling at the altar waiting to receive her name in religion, she heard the bishop say to one novice, “Your name in religion will be Sister Walburga. Strive to bear it in a worthy manner.” She thought for sure she would be given a name like Habakkuk or Kunnigunda. How blessed she was when she heard the bishop say, “Your name in religion will be Sister Mary Ellen.”
Sister Mary Therese began her ministry in 1950 as a music teacher at St. Monica in Whitefish Bay. She continued her ministry in parishes in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota for 54 years, as a classroom teacher and parish organist, or “tough outfit” as she liked to call it.
While teaching music at St. Walter’s in Roselle, Illinois, one of the first graders in Sister Iola’s class informed her that Sister Iola could play this same song with just one hand, and that she did not need two hands like Sister Mary Therese!
While teaching at St. Albert in Milwaukee, her seventh and eighth graders called her “Eagle Eye Ellen.” She was always very alert! For as long as I’ve known Mary Therese, I have never heard her raise her voice. I always admired that in her. She told the story of how one day at St. Albert, the class across the hall was getting a “good talking to” by Sister Othmar. Mary Therese told her eighth graders to stop and listen to what was being said because “That’s for you, too!”
I learned very early while living with Mary Therese that everything she did was done graciously, quietly, and with professional perfection. She was always kind and gentle in her words, always had time for people, and the best listener I have ever known.
Besides living with Mary Therese, I had the honor and the pleasure of being on the faculty with her at St. James in Madison, Wisconsin. As music teacher, she would orchestrate a whole school Christmas extravaganza that would make the best of us pull out our hair! She had the patience of a saint for the smallest one in kindergarten to the tallest one in eighth grade.
Teaching music is no easy feat, and she did it with her quiet demeanor, her great love of music, and her belief that everyone could sing. I watched and listened in amazement as she could get seventh and eighth grade boys, who sometimes towered over her, to sing solos for school concerts. She could get the wiggliest kindergartener or first grader’s attention and have them engaged in singing in no time.
In her “spare time” she gave piano lessons to over 50 students, many of whom were still at what I call the “plinkity-plink” stage – again, quiet patience! One of her great and loved ministries in her early retirement was playing the organ for the Saturday evening liturgy for our sisters at Sacred Heart Convent.
Mary Therese, we will miss your quick smile, your dry sense of humor, your professionalism in all that you did, your love of family and friends, and a good party with a brandy old fashioned. So now, in this year 2022, may your 75th Jubilee as a School Sister of St. Francis be joyful, filled with music and song with all the Brunner and Zander families who are there to greet you as you enter God’s Kingdom. Sister Mary Therese, go now in peace, and rest in the loving presence of our God.
Written by Sister Beth Schmitz, SSSF