Sister Theonilla Stessman, OSB

December 1, 1907 - February 11, 2002

Sister Theonilla Stessman, O.S.B., died at Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, Kans., Feb. 11, 2002. Vigil services will be Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 7 pm in the monastery choir chapel. Mass of the Resurrection will be in the choir chapel Thursday, Feb. 14, at 10:30 a.m. 

Sister Theonilla (Amelia) was born Dec. 1, 1907, to Elizabeth (Heuttemann) and Theodore Stessman in Earling, Iowa. She entered the Benedictine community June 10, 1925, and made her monastic profession Jan. 1, 1927. The day before she died, the community had celebrated the 75th anniversary of her profession. 

Between 1928 and 1954, Sister Theonilla graduated from Mount St. Scholastica College (1940) and taught in community schools in Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska. She was gifted in painting and sculpture, and was a talented seamstress. Her hobby was making animals out of leather, and sewing and distributing green scapulars. She was stationed in Atchison since 1955 where she was helpful in domestic services. 

Sister Theonilla was preceded in death by her parents, six brothers, and three sisters. She is survived by her sisters Agnes Herbst and Genevieve Oppold, both of Panama, Iowa, and by many nieces and nephews. 

Let us remember her gratefully in our prayers.

Reflection for the Funeral Vigil of Sister Theonilla Stessman, OSB 

Sirach 2:1-11; Romans 5: 1-5; John 15: 9-17 
by Diana Seago, OSB 

Celebrations of life and the human spirit come in many varieties. We have seen, during this week of Olympics, celebrations filled with excitement and pride. We experienced Sunday, in our own house, the simple and beautiful celebration of 75 years of fidelity in this "school of the Lord's service." Today, as Church, we commence our celebration of Lent with gratitude and expectation for all that is new and as yet untested in our hearts. Tonight, as family and as monastic community, we gather for the delicately profound celebration of the life and spirit of Sister Theonilla and the gift she has been to us. On behalf of Sister Mary and our community I would like to extend our sympathy to Genevieve and Agnes, Sister Theonilla's sisters, and her many nieces, nephews, and grand nieces and nephews. You were very important to her and she prayed every day for you. 

When I was a scholastic, Sister Theonilla was very concerned that my scholastic director, Sister Evelyn, did not live here at home, but rather lived on mission. She was convinced that I needed a scholastic director here and so she announced to me one evening at supper that she would be my scholastic director and would make sure that my formation was not lacking in discipline and gratitude which, she said, were the most important things for me to learn. She obviously was very familiar with the passage we heard read a few minutes ago from Sirach. Iím sure it is safe to say that there is no one in this chapel tonight who has not experienced trials and adversity in their lives. Sister Theonilla certainly did. But her message to me, like the message of Sirach to all of us, was and is perfectly clear. 

Accept whatever befalls you, in crushing misfortune be patient; for in fire gold is tested. 

Paul takes us a step further in his challenge when he says, 

Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts. 

We know this is true. We know this as we consider the life of a woman who became an icon of conversion and endurance for us. We know this as we consider the lives of our relatives and friends who have gone before us in faith. We know this as we prayerfully consider our own lives as monastics, as mothers and fathers, as sons and daughters. We live and die by the grace and mercy of God. In this is our hope secure. 

The German poet Rilke beautifully reminded us about this balance between endurance and hope in one of his later essays, when he said, 

How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. 

Sister Theonilla certainly understood this challenge. She cared deeply for those who were sick and unable to help themselves. She was very conscientious about her ministry of carrying trays for the sick. So often I heard her speak a word of encouragement or a promise of prayer to them. She told me once that it didn't seem like much, but she knew from her own experience how important it was for someone to be encouraging when you were ill. She excelled at helping those who were helpless. And so, the command of Jesus in Johnís Gospel to "love one another as I have loved you" comes alive for us once again in these challenges to endure with hope and gratitude all that life brings to us and to be bearers of that same hope and gratitude to those with whom we live and work. 

Michael Leunig, in his book The Prayer Tree, wrote a prayer that I would like to share with you. This prayer expresses for me Sister Theonilla's experience of life and how that experience has touched me and possibly some of you. 

God, be with those whose search takes them far from what is familiar and comfortable and leads them into terrifying loneliness. Help us try to understand their sometimes strange or difficult ways; their confronting or unusual language; the uncommon life of their emotions. They have been affected and shaped and changed by their struggle at the frontiers of a wild darkness, just as we may be affected, shaped and changed by the insights they bring back to us. Bless them with strength and peace

And to this prayer we can now add--bless Sister Theonilla with eternal rest. Amen.