Honoring a nun whose grace spans a century

February 02, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE DOOR of Sister Mary Agatho Ford's little room at Villa Assumpta, there hangs a full-length poster of Cal Ripken that declares him the Iron Man. Big deal, a guy gets a nickname for playing a few baseball games. If Cal's the Iron Man, then surely Sister Agatho is the Iron Woman. Today, she will attend a party celebrating her life. Tomorrow, she turns 100.

It has been a busy time for her. A few days ago, Sister Agatho says, she got her new teeth. These will help her take a bite out of her next century. This morning, a young woman dropped by to show her some old photos. Sister Agatho knows the family. As it happens, she once taught high school science to the woman's grandmother.

Resting on her bed one afternoon last week, her skin alabaster and smooth, her hearing sharp and her memory vivid, Sister Agatho wondered why people were making such a fuss about her.

"I don't feel any different," she says. "You don't realize you're getting older until something like this happens."

She tries to live in the present. Ten years ago, when she was a mere 90, she took up a new hobby: painting. She became a painter of lovely landscapes, "scenes that just come to my mind, reminders of what God's given us all."

Until recently, she says, she watched a lot of CNN, but now turns off the cable news stations.

"Certain people who are more interested in having a war than I was," she says.

"Who is that?" she is asked. "You mean, President Bush?"

Sister Agatho winks conspiratorially. "He's too anxious to go to war," she says. "I follow these things. These political fights turn me off, all the yelling and screaming. So I'm not watching CNN now. I read a lot, or I have someone come in and read to me."

She was born in 1903 in Missoula, Mont., the youngest of four daughters and a son, an Army brat who followed her father's military career to Minnesota, Kansas, Kentucky, Washington, Colorado and Maryland.

Last week, she remembered riding on horseback each day to a one-room schoolhouse in Topeka, Kan. "There were four of us on the horse, including the teacher," she says. "My feet slid along on top of the snow drifts."

She remembers her father bringing home a strange contraption that turned out to play music. It was an RCA record player. She remembers going to the movies to see the young actress Mary Pickford. She remembers secretly dropping out of school to work for the government during World War I. She worked six days at week at the U.S. Post Office and made $1,400 -- for the year.

And she remembers the day the war ended. "All government employees were told to go celebrate," she says. "So I did. I went to a Chinese restaurant to get a meal, and then I stayed up all night."

By this time, she had begun to think about her place in the world. She read Bible stories over and over, and thought that "the best way to love God was to do his work." Her family wasn't so sure. When she talked about going to a convent, she says, her mother had one of the young men from the neighborhood strategically drop by for a little wooing.

"My mother told us to sit on the swing chair on the front porch," Sister Agatho remembers, "and he tried to kiss me. I said, `No, I don't want to be kissed.' So he got up and left. And I wound up going to the convent. My family thought I was crazy. On the day I left, my mother told my sister, `Don't worry -- she'll be home in three weeks.'"

Instead, she took her vows in 1921 and started an 82-year life of teaching and learning and devotion. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Fordham University and taught science and math at Baltimore's College of Notre Dame, and later spent 33 years teaching the high school girls at the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street, where she headed the science department.

"Helping teen-age girls find their way in the world -- that was very fulfilling," she says. "You feel like you're doing something with your life."

"Do you know," she is asked, "why God has allowed you to live such a long life?"

"No idea," she says, shaking her head, "but my sister Helen was 102 when she died." She holds out a little photo of the two of them, on the day Helen turned 100 and Sister Agatho was a young lady in her 80s. Helen's son and daughter are expected at today's birthday party.

"Do you have any idea what heaven might be like?" she is asked.

"I haven't any idea," she says. "That's God's secret."

It used to be, she says, "you were told you couldn't get into heaven if you weren't Catholic."

"I'm not Catholic," a visitor says. "Can I get into heaven?"

Sister Agatho gestures assuringly. "I'm sure you will," she says. "If you're a good man."

Sister Agatho is a good and kind woman. Her goodness has spanned a century. Heaven, and God's secrets, may be waiting. But she is still delightedly embracing life on Earth.

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