On July 24, 1933, Fred and Lucile Thoma greeted the sixth child born at home in Danville, Illinois. At Baptism, she was given the name Marie Lucile.
Catholic education was very important to the family. Marie, as well as her brothers and sisters, attended St. Joe’s and St. Patrick’s school in Danville. After elementary school, Marie went to Schlarman High School, also in Danville.
During Marie’s sophomore year, she got a job at Wenther’s Bakery. While working there, she had her first encounter with the School Sisters of St. Francis, who were regular customers of the bakery and lived in the near-by town of Westville, Illinois.
At some point these School Sisters invited Marie to visit them at their convent in Westville, which she did. Eventually the sisters had five local girls who they wanted to introduce to the community and so they invited them and made arrangements for all of the girls to travel to Milwaukee to attend a sisters’ reception ceremony at St. Joseph Convent.
Marie recalled that when she was four-and-a-half years old, she spent considerable time in the hospital with kidney problems. The hospital sisters had been so good and kind to her that a seed was planted in her heart: “Someday, I want to be a sister.”
As a sophomore in high school, after her visit to St. Joseph Convent in Milwaukee, and meeting with those sisters, she became more convinced that this was her vocation. With her parents’ approval, Marie left Danville by train on August 29, 1949, with Sister Dignata to enter the convent in Milwaukee. This was her first step toward becoming a School Sister of St. Francis. She recalls her prayer: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.”
From her Reception in 1950 on, she would be known by her new name: Sister Antonienne. She was still a novice when she was sent out on mission. For the next eight years she served as a homemaker. She often enjoyed helping the teachers in school.
In 1959, Sister Antonienne was sent to Holy Angels School in Chicago to teach in the elementary school. And so it was that for the next 25 years she ministered in the schools in Illinois as a teacher, vice-principal, and principal. During this time, she also furthered her studies, earning a bachelor’s degree and two masters degrees in education and in learning disabilities.
Her life’s journey of faith and service then led her to 14 years of parish ministry as pastoral associate, director of care and outreach, and hospital chaplain, followed by five years as ministry director of the School Sisters of St. Francis. But her ministry journey was not over. During the next 12 years she joined Sacred Heart Southern Missions in Mississippi to serve the poor in the area.
One of Antonienne’s favorite Scripture passages was the account of Christ after His resurrection, walking with the two disciples on their way to Emmaus. The disciples did not recognize that He was Jesus. They were pondering, questioning, trying to understand the recent events. It was the disciples’ journey of faith and hope.
Antonienne’s life of 86 years was truly a journey of pondering, questioning, and suffering. The Emmaus story spoke to her of her own life’s journey of faith and hope when at times she felt Christ very close and at other times, although present to her, He seemed hidden.
In the Book of Sirach 6:14-15 it says: “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.”
Sister Antonienne was such a treasure for me. She was a true and dear friend for over 43 years. She was kind, gentle, supportive, prayerful, had a good sense of humor, was a good listener, and had a warm and generous heart. Her life mattered to me and to all the people she served through her 70 years as a School Sister of St. Francis.
In this her Jubilee year, with St. Francis she could say: “I have done what was mine to do.” On the Eve of Pentecost, she heard Christ’s answer: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come share my joy.” (Mt. 25:21)