Mary Agnes Kelleher was the daughter of Michael and Kathryn Kelleher. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, and was an active member of the MCA for many years before she entered at the age of 26. The letter formally approving her entrance into postulancy in 1941 expresses some misgivings about her health, given the rugged nature of missionary work. Since our dear Sister Mary Stephanie of the Cross lived to reach the age of 102, the Council obviously made the right call in overlooking their concerns and accepting her anyway!
Sister Stephanie’s files are surprisingly thin. She was clearly not given to writing frequent or long letters to the Council. There are a few occasional and brief notes she wrote while on retreat, in which she thanks the General Custodian for her support and always remarks on the wonderful weather. Sister enjoyed very much taking her annual retreat near the water. One of her favorite retreat experiences was at a place near Mystic Connecticut.
Except for seven years in Beloit, Wisconsin, Sister Stephanie’s missions were in the Northeast: Auburn NY, Orange and Newark NJ, Rego Park in Brooklyn, and 14th Street in Lower East Side Manhattan. She always did parish work of some kind. In one of the few letters in her file, she requests to be moved but wants to continue in parish work, because “I am very happy when I am teaching and visiting.”
And that is what Sr. Stephanie did. In the ordinary work of the parish, without attracting attention, she was a steady presence of support. It was only by chance that the Council learned that the Diocese of Brooklyn awarded her the St. Anne Medal in 1987 for her outstanding work with Catholic Girls Scouts. She did not seek or desire attention, she simply did her work.
There may have been times when she felt she was in over her head, but like a good missionary, she always found a way forward. One example of this was when she arrived at St. Mary’s in Woodside, following after Sr. Cornelia. The pastor expected her to take over Sr. Cornelia’s management of the weekly collection and the financial record keeping that went along with it. Also, there was some census records and other organizational tasks that had been bequeathed to Sr. Stephanie. But she had no desire to sit at a desk and do paperwork. So, she recruited a group of volunteers to take over and instead invested her energy in a multi-parish outreach program for intellectually disabled adults.
As Sr. Stephanie grew older, she was asked to slow down, but she was not ready to give up parish ministry. Her last ministry before coming to the Motherhouse in 2000 was to serve as a volunteer at Immaculate Conception Parish on 14th St. As a volunteer, by then already in her eighties, she visited the sick in hospitals and in their homes, she visited at nursing homes, she accompanied the elderly to doctors’ appointments, she participated in the Parish Senior Ministry, she led a bereavement group, and she had a phone ministry, which she recruited parishioners to help with.
There were two loves in Sr. Stephanie’s life: she loved her life as a Missionary Servant, and she loved her family. Over the years she has always had many family visits, and those visits always energized her. All of us can recall seeing that great big beautiful blue-eyed smile when her family was around!
When Sister applied for final vows in 1946, the pastor where she served wrote, “It is a pleasure to report that Sister Stephanie is very happy in her religious life. Sister loves her work, fulfills her duties earnestly and zealously, is observant of the rules, and finds contentment and peace in the work and spiritual life of the community.” Throughout her life, this never changed. Sister Stephanie was a model of the Cenacle Virtues, especially humility, simplicity, and charity. It is hard to say goodbye to her now. But it helps to think of her sitting on a beach, smiling her beautiful smile, and enjoying the wonderful weather of the most perfect retreat of eternal life.
May she rest in peace.