On May 31, 1936, Marie and Joe Miller joyfully welcomed the second of their five children, Mary Louise. She joined brother Frank, and later they were joined by Jo Ann, Bob, and Rich. They grew up in Aurora, Illinois. The School Sisters of St. Francis came to Aurora just five years after the founding of the congregation in Wisconsin. They staffed St. Joseph Parish School in 1899.
Generations of Mary Louise’s family attended St. Joe’s School. Her grandmother Louise enrolled for her eighth-grade year, graduating in its first class in 1900. Her mother and father both attended and when Madonna High School opened, her mother enrolled in her senior year, becoming its first graduate in 1926. Twenty-five years later, in 1951, Mary Louise was a proud Madonna freshman. Both mother and daughter were a highlight during their silver anniversary celebration.
Mary Louise’s father and mother both had a brother priest. It was Father Frank Miller, a young associate pastor, who first introduced Mary Louise as a preschooler to School Sisters teaching in McHenry and Aurora. She loved the sisters and charmed them in her friendly, chatty way. Sister Joan Habiger became a family friend, and Mary Louise stayed close to her throughout Joan’s life.
Another early highlight of her “close-to-church” life was as a first grader. Her mother’s brother celebrated his first Mass at St. Joe’s, his home parish. Mary Louise was the “bride” in that unique ceremony, bringing the paten to Father Leo Ambre at the altar, assisted by her four-year-old sister, Jo Ann.
Involvement with School Sister educators always includes music. As a fifth grader, Mary Louise began piano lessons from Sister Bartha. A couple years later, she learned to play the organ that led her to play for Masses in Aurora churches in addition to St. Joe’s. Because of the network of School Sister musicians in Aurora, as an eighth grader Mary Louise participated in several music events at Madonna High School. As a freshman that next year, she became a key person in the percussion section of the orchestra.
Several of her high school teachers spotted her potential for living religious life and provided opportunities for her. She was a member of the Sodality. Twice she attended their national convocation in Chicago. She participated in vocation trips in the Rockford diocese and to their Milwaukee motherhouse. All of these led her to ask her parents if she could enter St. Joseph Convent as she began her junior year. Of course, her parents did not stand in the way.
The next couple of years moved quickly and in June 1954, she was received into the community as Sister Marie Josephine. Two years later, she was professed and her first mission was to St. Matthias, Chicago, as musician partner to Sister Catherine H. Ryan, her amazing teacher and lifelong friend. After eight years she moved to River Grove in suburban Chicago as main musician. Immersed in the liturgy and formed by it at home, at school, playing for Masses, Mary Louise breathed and lived liturgy from her childhood. Following the direction set by Vatican II, she embraced wholeheartedly and very practically its massive reforms. Mary Louise sustained her passion for good liturgy throughout her entire life. It became part of her DNA.
In 1968, she returned to Milwaukee to finish her undergraduate degree, and to begin and complete her graduate degree at DePaul University, while continuing to teach at the Boulevard Music Studios and assist with church music for the sister-residents at St. Joseph Convent.
Milwaukee brought a future of possibilities for her to live out her intense mission call. In 1974, having earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and, in addition, directing the move of the Boulevard Music Studios to Alverno College, she was ready for a new challenge. It came as an invitation to become the personal services coordinator at the motherhouse for more than 100 well-elderly sisters living there. She said “yes.”
It was important for her to witness deep gospel living. Being a highly responsible individual, a responsive team member, a detail person who always strove to do things right, this position became a 16 -year commitment of significant service.
Later her ministry brought her to the National Shrine at Holy Hill as a liturgical musician. She worked closely with the Carmelites to build a welcoming and hospitable community of faith for thousands of pilgrims.
From Holy Hill, she went to Campbellsport and with its closing in 2015, moved with its residents to Sacred Heart in Milwaukee. At each setting she gave of her love, time, and talents as she lived and worked building community. Her gentle heart spent much time with the sick and the dying, extending herself to their family members as well. Jo Ann recalls her saying that by 1991, she had prepared and directed 300 sisters’ funerals in this motherhouse chapel. Add to that, she helped to bury our sisters at Campbellsport and Sacred Heart, the last one being a week before she died.
Cathleen Kelling, her supervisor and friend at both Campbellsport and Sacred Heart, wrote to Jo Ann the evening of her death. “Sister Mary Louise had a profound impact on the hearts of many of the staff. She deeply cared for the staff and showed them much compassion, helping some of them get through difficult times in their lives. She truly loved the sisters, often sacrificing her own needs to enrich the lives of the sisters she so loved ministering to. And the history she carried in her head! I don’t think I have ever met anyone who had so much history and vividly could recite it to others. Her sense of humor, her dedication, and compassion – she was one of a kind.”
Sister Elaine Weber, present here this morning at age 97, prepared her own words of remembrance that she expected Mary Louise to share at her funeral. With Sister Elaine’s permission, I quote: “I was given two very special gifts in community. One, we have had good leaders who provided formation and guidance in developing [our] spiritual life…, and with all of this music, to be with it all.
“The other gift was a close sister companion who lived with me and shared ministry for over 50 years. Sister Mary Louise brought not only to me but [to the] community around us a knowledge and practice of liturgy into everyday experience. What could be more valuable than living this way with the church, on the way to our final destination? My companion was also a gifted, compassionate pastoral care person. Any need was responded to, including mine.” [And to God, she prays:] “I thank you, Creator God, for what has been given to me. Indescribable Love.”
Dear Mary Louise, your life witnessed God’s presence with us. With generosity, you served not only our community, but others beyond it. Using all the gifts with which God blessed you, Mary Louise, and guided by the Holy Spirit, you brought liturgy to life!
Rest now in peace, warmly embraced in the arms of our Creator God. Savor fully your new community of Heaven.