These words about Marion's childhood are her own, taken from “A Statement About My Life as a Musician in the School Sisters of Saint Francis.”
“I was born in Milwaukee on 10th and Keefe on December 9, 1930, the fifth child of Carl Verhaalen and Aǵnes Sieberlich. My parents had lost everything in the Depression and my father built a new business from scratch. I often heard that I was the only thing under the Christmas tree in 1930.
“My father was an ornamental pattern maker by trade; he contributed much to the building up of Milwaukee. My mother was a full-time, wonderful, loving mother.
“Our home was a gathering place as long as I can remember with family and friends around our home. One of my earliest memories is playing musical instruments together. My brother Vern played piano and accordion. Betty also took up accordion. Rita chose the saxophone. On my fifth birthday, I received a small 12-bass accordion. Vern taught me all about chords. We would play together every day, sometimes for hours—I, playing by ear. I remember playing the piano when I was three. I continued to play every day.”
Lake Michigan was dear to Marion, whose family had a cottage on its shores. Marion says, “I know that the lake and dunes have become a part of my very soul.”
Marion attended St. Monica's School in Whitefish Bay, where her experience of the School Sisters of St. Francis was one commonly heard by their students: “I was stunned, being aware that these Sisters really seemed to love us.”
Marion played piano by ear for years. Sister Mary Jane Cullinane recognized her talent, and in seventh grade Marion began to take piano lessons. She soon took up the organ, as well.
In high school, Marion began writing organ preludes and interludes for The Daughters of St. Monica, a high school girls’ choir which sang for all major occasions. In Marion’s senior year of high school, Sister Mary Jane suggested she take piano lessons from Sister Seraphim at the motherhouse, to aid in the transition to entering community.
On September 1, 1949, Marion entered the School Sisters of St. Francis—a new family to whom she would always be devoted. At her Reception, she was given the name Sister Mary Vernon, in honor of her brother.
When Marion was interviewed by Mother Corona, Mother Corona said to her, “You will study music.” Marion was so relieved!
Marion was a woman undaunted by challenges—a quality that served her well in her early years on mission.
She graduated from Alverno College with a major in piano; then was sent to teach music education at St. Lawrence School, Milwaukee, and at Kieler, Wisconsin. After a year she was sent to Elgin, Nebraska, where she taught music in grades one through twelve; in addition, she was their liturgical musician. She did all of this without courses to prepare her. Her accomplishment was acknowledged when, at the end of the first year, Sisters Lois Kalscheur and Michaela Crowley came out to observe her work as requirement for getting her Music Education Equivalency on the job.
In 1957, she began her studies at the Catholic University of America for her Master's degree in piano, which took six summers. Meanwhile, in September 1958, she was back at Alverno, teaching Music Education, working with student teachers, and teaching piano. She remembered one especially significant undertaking during those years:
“With Sisters Poverello and Marie Gnader, we conceived Under the Greenwood Tree, a children's 90-minute musical...for which I wrote the music. It was based on a Shakespearean-style drama in honor of his 400th birthday. Eighteen performances! A great success and a creative masterpiece.”
In 1967, she began her doctoral studies at Teachers' College, Columbia University, in New York City. She applied her knowledge of Portuguese and her research into Brazilian music, secured a grant, and wrote her dissertation on the works of Brazilian composer Camargo Guarnieri. Her doctorate was dated April 22, 1971—her father's birthday.
Marion's work on Guarnieri changed the course of her life, expanding it in ways she never could have imagined. In December 1972, Alverno College had Guarnieri and his wife Vera as guests for ten days, during which they held a hugely successful Festival of Brazilian Music. Guarnieri asked Marion to help arrange a scholarship for Cristine Capparelli, a gifted Brazilian student, to study in the United States. At Alverno, Cristine served as Marion's assistant with the children's piano groups, and together, they translated the Robert Pace Piano Method into Portuguese. Marion gave workshops to hundreds of Brazilian teachers, on 11 separate trips throughout Brazil. All told, she spent nearly three years there, and always spoke of it as one of the most exhilarating and integrative times of her life.
Marion was a woman of intense creativity. If one approach to something failed, she readily found another. When one project was complete, Marion's artistic ears and eyes would find another. She had boundless energy and enthusiasm that served and inspired countless colleagues and friends over the years.
After leaving Alverno College in 1978, Marion taught at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, was invited to help develop the piano program for the Milwaukee Public Schools, and wrote a new four-volume piano course for the school system. She also taught at Elm School for the Creative Arts for 19 years—an experience she cherished.
Throughout her 60s, she taught piano and composition, and was active at the Cathedral as cantor, where she also played the organ. She sang for 12 years in the choir. She wrote and orchestrated accompaniments to music for the Milwaukee Symphony Youth Concerts, one of which was performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1993. She also participated in the Milwaukee Symposia for Church Composers, begun by Sister Theophane and Archbishop Weakland, meeting over the course of ten years.
In 2012, Marion, now semi-retired, continued teaching a dozen piano students at Cardinal Stritch University and at home.
Marion was a woman of many facets: Teacher, composer, performer, writer; sister, friend, colleague; and perhaps most important of all, woman of faith, of hope and of love.
In looking back on her life, she said: “I have often reflected on the value of sharing the musical gifts developed within community in the public sector. It has been a very effective way for me to share the values I have imbibed as a School Sister of St. Francis, particularly in developing the gifts of all students, especially the many poor children with whom I worked in the public school system—giving them some beauty in their lives, and a sense that they are special and can create something that has meaning for them. Music has been a powerful ministry for me. A gift is not a gift until it is received, and I know that my gifts have been received by the many students I've taught. Helping them grow has given me a sense of fulfillment.”
Marion was a vibrant, joyful person who felt life in her whole being—body and soul, mind and spirit. She shared that life generously and passionately, and all of us are richer for it.