June 16, 2024

By Laura Melius

As Sister Marmion Maiers celebrates her 100th birthday, she also celebrates another milestone—a nearly 100-year-old connection to the Benedictine Sisters. A Benedictine sister at Mother of God Monastery in Watertown, Sister Marmion has been influenced by the Benedictine Sisters for nearly her entire life.

Alice Florence Maiers was born to John and Clara Maiers at her farm home near Ipswich on Feb. 28, 1924. She and her seven siblings, Margaret, Elizabeth, Mary, Eleanor, Leo, Ernest and Frances, lived on a farm with their parents in her early years. She remembers both working together and attending Mass together as a young girl. 

“I remember one Sunday, my mom had to stay back with the kids,” she said. “They weren’t feeling well, and my dad and I went into the Catholic church all by ourselves, and I had my daddy all to myself, and I felt so proud.”

Sister Marmion (middle) with her roommate Teresa Palmer (left) and Jason Hanssen, administrator of the ENCC (right).

Unfortunately, her father would pass away within a few years following a farm accident, leaving her mother and siblings, then ages 2-12, alone. The family sold their farm and moved into the town of Ipswich. 

“My mother was a strong woman. She appreciated the commodities that we got from ‘Uncle Sam’ and helped us out with our livelihood,” Sister Marmion said, “and she sewed our dresses out of flour sacks and sugar sacks.” 

The children began attending Holy Cross School in Ipswich, which had been founded in 1915 by the Benedictine sisters. The Benedictine sisters would help the family with both their physical and spiritual needs as the children grew.

As Alice attended Holy Cross School through the eighth grade, she had felt a calling to become a religious sister. She was encouraged by her teacher, Sister Rose Marie, who also believed Alice was called to this vocation. She was accepted as a candidate at Mount Marty in Yankton and entered the convent after the eighth grade. Although she liked Mount Marty, after some time there, she wondered if she had made the right decision. “So, I left the convent,” she said, “and had some worldly experiences.”

These worldly experiences would lead her to varied jobs, including the dietary department at St. Luke’s Hospital in Aberdeen, the Lux Candle Company in Ipswich, a Portland airplane company and finally to Seattle with her sister Margaret. It was in Seattle where the two sisters became two of the original “Rosie the Riveters” during World War II.

A special highlight of Alice’s time working for Boeing was building and signing the 200th B-29 bomber. She described the process of how the women worked on the planes. 

Sister Marmion and Al Kurtenbach, a former student of Sister Marmion’s at Dimock.

 

“I still can see myself on the inside of the plane and my sister, or somebody else, out on the outside shooting in the rivets and the signals that we had to give in order to talk to each other through that plane.” As they tapped on the plane wall, she explained, “One was for ‘a little bit more’; two, ‘perfect’; three, ‘Sorry, take it out.’ I was the rivet bucker inside the plane. I held a steel bar against the wall when they shot the rivet in, and I had to make sure it was straight and the right thickness.”

During her time away from the convent, Alice had continued correspondence with the Benedictine sisters, and as her time at Boeing came to an end, she felt a nagging yearning to return. She wrote to Sister Jerome at Mount Marty, and her request to return was granted. 

“When I asked to come back, I felt grateful,” she said. “I don’t think I ever had any regrets. I appreciated that I was taken back, but I also appreciate the experiences that I had when I was out.”

Following her return, at her superiors’ request, Alice then went on to finish her education. She received her undergraduate degree in history and secondary education from Mount Marty and her master’s degree at South Dakota State University. She completed her thesis on the history of the Stephan Indian Missions, which was where she and the Benedictine sisters had also spent valued time in their ministry. 

Sister Marmion and members of her community.

When Alice became a Benedictine sister, she received the name Sister Marmion, in honor of Columba Marmion, a Benedictine monk and influential Catholic author. (He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2000.) 

“In those days, we didn’t know what we were going to be until we were in the chapel and the priest was blessing us,” she said. “I feel proud because the Abbot Marmion was quite a Benedictine saint and in prominence with the pope.”

Sister Marmion spent several years as both a teacher and principal. She retired from teaching and moved full time to the Mother of God Monastery in Watertown in 1996, where she continued to teach religious education. She is now the last living member of her immediate family and has since moved into the Estelline Nursing Care Center (ENCC) in Estelline.

 

Sherry Bjorklund and Carla Clarke of the ENCC dressed up as Rosie the Riveter to honor Sister Marmion’s service during World War II.

Sister Marmion continues to lead others to God as a missionary disciple even as she reaches the century mark. Teresa Palmer, Sister Marmion’s roommate, knows this better than most. 

“I had nearly lost my mind when I came here,” said Teresa. “But Sister would read me a story and then ask me questions about what [she] had read. Little by little, I got more answers right. She kept reading to me, and it took awhile, but eventually, my mind came back. I credit Sister Marmion with bringing my mind all the way back.”

Tammy Gilligan, dietary manager at ENCC, said her favorite memory of Sister Marmion is one that happened while the nursing home was locked down during the pandemic. 

“During Holy Week, Sister Marmion organized a Palm Sunday march,” Tammy said. “We all stood on the north hallway with palm branches, waving them back and forth, and we sang ‘All Glory Laud and Honor.’ COVID might have stopped a lot of things, but it didn’t stop Sister from helping us all celebrate Easter.”

And Sister Marmion’s advice at age 100?

“Behave like a good Christian. I think that’s what it really is,” said Sister. “Be yourself, but your best self. Don’t do anybody any harm, but try to be friendly and give some encouragement when possible.”

 

Looking back on her life, Sister Marmion is grateful for her connection to the Benedictine sisters, and her joy is evident. 

“I appreciate that I had the life I did and the good people that I lived with,” she said. “Right from my small years, the Benedictine sisters were very important in my life.”

How does it feel to turn 100? Sister Marmion began to laugh. “Crumbly,” she said. “I feel about the same, I guess…. I guess I’ve been that way for a while. I’m satisfied and I appreciate the community allowing me to be here. God has been good to me.”

Laura Melius is a freelance writer and DRE at All Saints Parish in Mellette. She has a degree in English Education and a Certificate of Catholic Theology in Catechesis.