Daughter of Wisdom nun celebrates 75 year milestone

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Margaret Suntjens, 93, smiles for a photo during her 75th anniversary as a Daughter of Wisdom in Edmonton at the Providence Centre on Sat. Feb. 2. ECA Review/Submitted

Sister Margaret Suntjens celebrated her seventy-fifth anniversary as a Daughter of Wisdom at Providence Centre in Edmonton, on Feb. 2, 2019, where she resides, along with fellow sisters, family and friends.

Born Minnie Margaret Suntjens on Oct. 19, 1925, she felt the call to religious life early on. She grew up alongside her older sister, Helen, 13 miles south of Coronation, Ab.

Her Dutch parents, Henry and Anna Suntjens, recognized the value of an education and wanted consistent schooling for their daughters.

As the school population at the Bentley country school south of Coronation fluctuated, the school could not always stay open so Margaret and Helen boarded with the Daughters of Wisdom in Castor at age seven and age 10 consecutively.

Part of the building at the time was used for the boarding school, complete with dorms and a dining hall in the basement.

The pair spent many nights cleaning, washing dishes and sweeping floors in the building to help subsidize their boarding costs.

They later completed their high school education with the Daughters of Wisdom.

The Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital in 1911. Photo courtesy of the Our Lady Rosary Hospital

On Feb. 2, 1944, Margaret entered the Daughters of Wisdom Novitiate in Ottawa where she studied and later completed her vows.

She returned to Alberta and obtained the necessary credentials to teach in the province under the War Emergency Teachers Program which lasted approximately four months.

Many summers were spent studying and upgrading her education to meet changing provincial teaching requirements.

In 1945, Sister Margaret taught elementary in Red Deer for two years, meeting Sister Harriet Hermary in the process. They have become lifelong friends since then.

Both were school teachers and taught some of each other’s family members over the years.

Sister Margaret is fluent in Dutch, English and French which paired with her teaching well.

“I was always touched she could read scripture in French or English in perfect accent and reading it outloud it would come alive,” said Hermary.

As a highlight of her teaching career, Sister Margaret taught in Atikameg in Northern Alberta where she thoroughly loved her chosen profession and all of her students.

“It was really pioneering because her classroom consisted of 25, at least, students with varying ages, varying knowledge of English. Some knew none but she was very practical,” said Sister Harriet Hermary.

In the summer months, she would teach Catechism to children in Bashaw, Stettler, Rocky Mountain House and Loon Lake.

She returned to Atikameg in 1969 and taught there until 1972 when the mission closed.

Afterwards, she taught at Slave Lake where she ended up losing her voice due to teaching french lessons verbally for days at a time.

Between 1972 and 1975, she travelled to Holland with her sister, Helen. By that time she had her voice back and was teaching at the Red Deer Missionary Centre which helps physically and mentally challenged children.

“She found her love in teaching,” shared Hermary. “She was very close to her students.”

Sister Harriet attributes her friend’s success on how she was raised in the 1930s: resourcefulness, patience and consistency.

“She never tired in repetition and always had a smile and words of encouragement. I think her background growing up in the 30s taught her a lot of things, like finding a way to do what you had to do, so she was very practical.”

Sister Margaret in June 1962

Following retirement, Sister Margaret returned to Castor to compile the history of the Daughters of Wisdom in Western Canada.

Sister Margaret was happy to be in Castor which reunited her with her sister Helen, husband Bob Nichols and their children.

She often spent much time visiting seniors in their homes, the lodge and at Our Lady of the Rosary Hospital as a pastoral care worker.

Now 93, Margaret spends her days in Edmonton at the Providence Centre.

Her 10 year anniversary living at the centre is marked this year.

She has made several friends over her years as a teacher and other positions as many of her students and parents visit or sends cards regularly.

Many of her friends came from her sabbatical. She calls them ‘soul friends’.

“I was very close to her and she is a very gifted person. She was gifted in music and had a beautiful voice,” said Hermary.

“She could harmonize. That was an asset with teaching, of course, especially with native kids who loved to sing a lot. It was an asset to help them speak English.

“She was very patient. I’ve never seen someone so patient and she would give of herself tirelessly to help someone or entertain.

“She would make herself available to help the community or anyone in need.”

Nature in any aspect has been an important theme in Sister Margaret’s life.

“Whether it was a plant or an animal or even geology – She took a course in geology as rocks were very important to her. One day I found a beautiful feather on the ground so I brought it to her and she was so delighted. It had iridescent colours too so she was so taken up by that,” said Hermary.

With French roots, the Daughters of Wisdom centres on Catholic organization and still operates today with an impressive 309-year history. They entered Canada in 1884.

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