Who were the early women who shaped the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in its first 100 years? In the 19th and 20th centuries, how did these sisters help lay the path Holy Cross sisters now follow? What were their contributions? And why do their lives still matter, here in the 21st century? In this series, we profile these pioneers upon whose shoulders we stand today.
In the mid-19th century, a future saint looked a future Sister of the Holy Cross in the eye and said to her (a mere child at the time), “Someday, you shall become a religious, and what is more, you shall die the head of your order.”
The future saint—Bishop John Neumann of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia—was speaking to young Margaret McSheffery.
A prophecy sparked
The story goes that Margaret, an orphan who lived with her grandmother, attended a school operated by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. One day, the sisters sent a group of children, including Margaret, to deliver a message to Bishop Neumann at his nearby home. When he walked into the parlor to greet them, the Bishop saw they were admiring a large, heavy marble shell containing the figure of a baby. He quipped that if any could carry it away, she could keep it. The children left, but Margaret returned with a small wagon. She managed to shift the marble shell into the wagon and triumphantly carried it off.
At the age of 16, on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, Margaret did join an order, receiving the holy habit of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the name Sister Annunciata. Thirty-seven years later, in 1895, she was named Superior General of the Congregation and died in office in 1900—just as St. John Neumann had foretold.
Though the bishop prophesied the young girl’s calling and her passing, the life Mother Annunciata created in her 42 years as a Sister of the Holy Cross was entirely her own.
An educator, first and foremost
Mother Annunciata was, first and foremost, an educator who had a “genius for teaching,” according to Superior Generals, Vol. II. The work of education was, for her, the “magnificent obsession.”
At the age of 28, she was named directress of St. Mary’s Academy, a girls’ school on the motherhouse campus in Notre Dame, Indiana, which later became Saint Mary’s College. She was beloved by both students and teachers. In admiration, one of her pupils who later became a Holy Cross sister said, “Mother’s talks … sought to prepare us for life.”
Mother Annunciata particularly loved forming teachers. Her weekly faculty meetings were inspirational. As Superior Generals describes the meetings, “Her quick mind so eager to imbibe knowledge, so eager to impart it … all caught fire from her spirit.”
An ardent advocate of higher education for women, Mother Annunciata reasoned that “On women devolves the work of laying at least the foundation of the education of all men and women, and that, too, during the most susceptible period of their lives.”
Under Mother Annunciata, Saint Mary’s College became a pioneer among schools for women (and remains so today). She helped make concrete the vision of Mother M. Angela (Gillespie), CSC, to transform the academy into an institution for higher learning. It was during Mother Annunciata’s administration that the first woman graduated from Saint Mary’s College in 1898.
A significant national event took place during Mother Annunciata’s administration. In this, she mirrored Mother Angela who, during the Civil War of 1860–65, answered the call of the nation by providing sisters to serve as nurses for the wounded of both sides.
In 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out. Writing to the governors of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, Mother Annunciata placed the Congregation’s hospitals and the service of the sisters at their command. Several Sisters of the Holy Cross served with distinction as nurses at Camp Hamilton, Lexington, Kentucky, and Camp Conrad in Columbus, Georgia, over the course of the four-month war.
A voice of rare sweetness
From her early days through to her last, Mother Annunciata was also known for possessing “a voice of rare sweetness,” according to Superior Generals. She sang in a “sweet, clear voice that poured her heart out in the prayer of music.”
The May hymns were Mother’s favorite, but she could also be heard at Midnight Mass every Christmas Eve, joining in with the children in their hymn to the Christ-Child. It is said that she sang “like a voice coming out of heaven” and “with heart rather than with lips.” All through her years, she expressed her joyous love in song.
After a long period of ill health, Mother Annunciata died in 1900 on April 29, Easter Sunday. That morning, the Easter alleluias were stilled and songs of mourning took their place. The timing of her death in springtime seemed only right, as Mother loved nature. “To her each flower and sunset held a message from heaven,” said one who knew her.
In A Story of Fifty Years, Sister Rita Heffernan, CSC, wrote, “She loved the springtime, the warm sunshine and the birds and blossoms of the young year, and those who hoped the return of the bright days would bring renewed strength to their beloved Mother, saw instead the spring weaving a covering of greensward and early flowers over the last resting place. There is no need of written tribute to keep her memory alive; she lives in the many hearts that love her.”
A testament to the love felt for Mother Annunciata, Sister Josephine later recalled, “The day she died, I remember that I couldn’t understand why the sun was shining or the birds were singing.”
Perhaps Mother’s life of influence can best be summed up in the following words of Sister Rita. Speaking of Mother Annunciata’s “heritage of noble principle,” Sister Rita wrote: “The material good we do to others, in a sense, passes away; the truth we impart to them lives forever.”
As for the marble shell that young Margaret McSheffery carted away, it remains at the Sisters of the Holy Cross motherhouse, a lasting symbol of a life destined to fulfill the prophecy of a saint.