Franciscan Sister Maggie marks 75 years of consecrated life
By Bill Miller
Mary Magdalene Ryan; Sister Daniel; Franciscan Sister Mary Magdalene Ryan; Sister Maggie.
Four individuals? No, just one grand lady—born in Kansas, reared in an orphanage in Denver and a Franciscan sister for 75 years.
Mary Magdalene Ryan was born June 8, 1920, in Chapman, Kan., the sixth of seven children of Patrick William Ryan and Lena Meyer Ryan. Her father’s work brought the Ryans to Erie, Colo., when Mary Magdalene was 18 months old.
Tragedy struck when her mother died of a heart attack when she was 12. The family was split up as a result and she and an older sister were placed in St. Clara's Orphanage so that they could attend school. The seed of her vocation was planted there.
"After I graduated from eighth grade, I went to work for the sisters at St. Rose Residence for Girls,” she remembers. “The house, near downtown Denver, no longer exists, but it provided a home for girls who came to Denver to work. I made one dollar a week plus room and board.”
She entered the Franciscan community in St. Louis in September 1936 when she was 16. After serving as a postulant for six months she became a novice in 1937. The Franciscan Rule required the novice to serve two years prior to taking vows for three years (called first profession). After serving another five years, Mary Magdalene took her final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and was given the name Sister Daniel. After Vatican II she became Sister Mary Magdalene Ryan but now she is simply “Sister Maggie” to all who know and love her.
She was assigned to an orphanage in Pueblo where she spent 27 years—a life career for most but just a start for Sister Maggie.
"Two of us had a group of 60 to 70 girls under our care and were responsible for their needs 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. "One chore was getting their shoes shined once a week. Shoes were left in the hallway. With help from older girls, shoes were cleaned and polished. We had to make sure each girl had the right shoes and clean stockings.”
In 1966 Sister Maggie was assigned to Transfiguration School in Wauconda, Ill., a Franciscan school not far from the order's motherhouse in Wheaton, Ill. It was there that she first met Franciscan Sister Theresa Langfield, a Denver native. The two became, and are, lifelong friends.
Sister Theresa was charged with developing an old mansion on the Wheaton property into a retreat center. Sister Maggie was her assistant.
Meanwhile, in Denver, St. Clara's Orphanage closed in 1967 and was used as St. John XXIII Retreat Center for five years.
Low-income housing was at a premium so the Franciscans, who owned the property, decided to help meet that need. Sister Theresa was assigned to direct the construction of a major housing project. And, of course, Sister Maggie came with her.
Working with the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Franciscans built two high-rise apartment buildings: Francis Heights at 26th Avenue and Osceola Street with 383 units for older and disabled residents and, later, Clare Gardens, 128 three- and four-bedroom townhouses for low-income families. (In the early 1990s, Dayspring Villa was built, connecting the two towers. This assisted living facility has 72 units.)
Title: “They Call Me Maggie” (autobiography)
Author: Sr. Mary Magdalene Ryan, O.S.F.
To purchase: Call Kathyrn Nussbaum, 303-433-6268, ext. 112
Cost: A donation to Upendo Village in Sister Maggie’s honor is suggested.
People started moving into Francis Heights in May 1972. More than 3,000 had their names on a waiting list. Those with the greatest need were served first.
Who was there to welcome and make them feel at home? Sister Maggie. And she served as resident services coordinator for 25 years.
After "retiring,” Sister Maggie along with Sister Theresa moved back to the motherhouse in Wheaton.
Her heart, however, remains in Denver. And it is here just recently that Sister Maggie celebrated her 75th anniversary, or diamond jubilee, as a Franciscan nun with relatives and close friends at the home of Marlene Langfield, Sister Theresa's niece. Msgr. Ken Leone celebrated Mass and Sister Maggie renewed her vows. Joining in renewing vows as she marked 65 years as a Franciscan nun was Sister Pauline Langfield, Sister Theresa's sister.
Is Sister Maggie retired now? She just celebrated her 92nd birthday and admits to slowing down, but she is still active in the Wheaton community where she now resides with Sisters Theresa and Pauline.
Oh, yes. There is Upendo Village in Kenya, Africa, a mission created in 2002 by a partnership of the Wheaton Franciscans with the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi for women and children affected by HIV/Aids.
Sister Theresa is executive director of the mission and her assistant is Sister Maggie.
Sister Maggie's Irish humor sparkles as she sums up her vocation.
"I think I have a very close relationship with God because of my prayer life and because of the life I've lived. After 75 years in religious life, I better have one."