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Faith Conversations: Nun celebrates 60 years as Carmelite

Bishop John Folda places a crown of flowers on Sister Margaret Mary's head at the culmination of the Mass celebrating her diamond jubilee, 60 years after her profession and final vows as a Carmelite nun. Roxane Salonen / The Forum1 / 2
Roxane Salonen, columnist2 / 2

WAHPETON, N.D. — The diamond jubilee for Sister Margaret Mary reflects that "diamonds" are truly rare.

The occasion highlighting the Carmelite's 60 years as a cloistered nun point to a simple but extraordinary life of prayer, labor, living with grace in community, and singularly seeking God.

Though she entered Carmel of Mary monastery at 18, Ottilia Sticka first heard the invitation in eighth grade. "The Lord gave me an inspiration to be a contemplative nun."

Her family was supportive. "Vocations were common and plentiful then," she says. "Our pastor at the time really promoted and prayed for vocations, so I owe a lot to him, too."

The June 23 Mass and reception filled the small chapel along the Wild Rice River to capacity, with 125 guests, 11 priests and Bishop John Folda as celebrant.

The event coincided with the Feast of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the same feast day in June 1955 on which the teen from New England, N.D., first visited the monastery.

It had been founded in 1954 by Carmelites from Pennsylvania during the Marian Year — one dedicated by the Catholic Church to the heart of Mary — and Sister Margaret Mary was its first-ever postulant "novice," or nun-in-training.

Years later, she recalls how a child, upon spotting a Carmelite in public, yelled, "Mommy, Mommy, look, a church!"

"Though she's (80) now, she has such a childlike love and simplicity," says the Rev. Peter Anderl, spiritual director. "It just flows out of her toward others."

The Carmelite mission includes praying intently for others. "We understand the world's struggles," she says. "There's so much tragedy, but we also meet so many good people of faith, and encourage them to be leaven in the world."

Her religious name, Sister Margaret Mary, comes from her admiration of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun and mystic who promoted a devotion to Jesus' sacred heart and divine love.

At the Mass, Bishop Folda reflected on this parallel, saying that though Sister Margaret Mary's life is "set apart from the world," she is "a beautiful sign of the burning love of Jesus." By accepting our Lord as her spouse, he added, "her life has become a conduit, a furnace of God's love, for all of us."

Sister Joseph Marie, who joined her as novice in 1956, says they've been close "through thick and thin." "We've built up our faith together, and I would say God has used us both to stabilize the community, because we were given the grace to always be faithful to our vocation."

Though contemplative life requires limited exposure to the outside world, Sister Margaret Mary's family visits several times yearly.

Her nieces, Arvy Smith, Bismarck, and Danita Sticka, Buffalo, Minn., helped with music for the jubilee, since Margaret Mary is usually the organist.

As a little girl, Arvy recalls seeing pictures of the nuns "behind the 'cages.'"

"I thought maybe she wasn't really a cloistered nun but in prison and they just didn't want to tell me."

Danita remembers the peacefulness in her aunt's eyes. "The contemplative life was inspiring to me, and helped me, I think, respect that part of myself, too."

Sister Margaret Mary, youngest of 11 children, never knew her own mother, who died shortly after her birth. Her brother Ignatius, who became her guardian, says, "A few weeks after her graduation from high school, we brought her down here, and she's been here ever since."

To those wondering how one can live such an austere life, Sister Margaret Mary responds: "There's no other way I could live. It's been happiness all the way through."

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email