“One Life to Live!”
By Evelyn Fugazzi, SCN
It was Christmas Day. Leslie Henry Kuehner, his wife, Agnes Cecilia Lynam Kuehner, and their six children had arrived for Mass at St. Peter’s Church in Memphis. A sense of wonder permeated the place adorned with a manger scene, lighted trees, candles, etc. The service was in process. During the sermon, little Natalie Kuehner noticed that her dear Mother’s head was nodding. Indeed Mother was exhausted after preparing Christmas for her family. Natalie sat with her hands quietly folded, a picture of virtue. But as she gazed fervently at the huge stained-glass window, her inner spirit was jumping with excitement. She was very aware that when the morning light shone through that window, it would be time to go home and open the presents.
Natalie was a sensitive and alert little girl. While attending Old St. Mary’s Elementary School, she was taught by Franciscan Sisters whose garb covered their entire bodies except for their hands and a small area of their faces. The first time she met a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, she exclaimed, “That Sister has a naked neck!” On a more serious note, her favorite Sister was her 7th grade teacher, Sister Mary Alba. She was Natalie’s inspiration—gentle, sweet, and young; Sister’s example led Natalie to consider being a Sister also.
Natalie attended Sacred Heart Academy during her high school years. She took four years of Latin and studied diligently. She graduated at age 17 and taught at the “New St. Mary’s School” as one of the first lay teachers in Catholic Schools.
She entered Nazareth the following year. She credits S. Mary Rosine as her inspiration to “love Jesus as a Person.” She shares, “We were so sheltered during the novitiate. World War II was in process but we never heard any details. We did pray for peace during Holy Hour,” she said. Sister received the name Mary Immaculata and after professing vows on March 25, 1942, began her ministry as teacher.
Sister lived at St. Helena’s Convent but taught at Most Blessed Sacrament School for her first mission. She notes, “The older Sisters took a cab to school but we, younger ones, had to ride the street car. Thus on a rainy day, we would arrive at school drenched to the skin! But, in spite of this, I was always healthy!” Sister taught in elementary schools in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Massachusetts. Each area held a special gift for her. After 34 years of teaching, she concluded, “I’m now too old to teach, too young to retire!” So off to Clinical Pastoral Education Training she went to become a hospital chaplain. Her first mission as chaplain was at St. Francis Hospital, Shakopee, Minn. She also ministered at St. Vincent’s, Little Rock and Memorial Hospital, Chattanooga. In preparation for her Golden Jubilee, Sister made a Sabbatical at Maria Fonte Solitude, High Ridge, Mass.
Sister Mary Immaculata moved to Nazareth for retirement volunteer services in 1999. “This is home. The joy of nature and God’s beauty in each season thrills my heart. I have a piggy bank to save money for a motorized wheel chair so I will always be able to roam around Nazareth’s grounds,” she said.
She laughs, “I must share my one claim to fame, my niece and godchild, Susan Grabiel SCNA. Susan has always been a bright star in my life. I am pleased that she is so loved by my SCN Sisters.”
“MY AUNT NATALIE” (Sr. Mary Immaculata Kuehner, SCN)
By Susan Grabiel, SCNA
[Editor’s Note: This beautiful tribute to Sr. Mary Immaculata arrived just after I had interviewed her and submitted my article for publication! I believe Susan Grabiel’s voice needs to be heard also. So we are publishing both stories! Evelyn Fugazzi SCN]
My Aunt Natalie, or better known as Sister Mary Immaculata Kuehner, was born in the springtime of 1922 in Memphis Tennessee. She was the exuberant third child of a family of six children, a childhood she cherishes. From her father she gained a love for daily Mass, flowers and books. From her mother she gained insight into unselfishness and loyalty. My own Dad, her younger brother Jim, and Natalie shared a special childhood friendship and because of that I was fortunate to have her selected as my godmother. Only God knows how deeply and diligently Aunt Natalie took that responsibility, for along with amusing stories recounted by my Dad, during my entire youth we exchanged letters faithfully, never a letter went unanswered by her, yet I was too young to have remembered ever meeting her.
Aunt Natalie, of course, was busy with many other tasks: teaching and caring for her elementary students occupied her life for 34 years. She loved her teaching and to this day come each September as the school bell rings a little bit of her heart goes marching off to the classroom. The location of her schools ranged from Louisiana to Massachusetts. Upon graduating from high school my dream was to visit my spiritual pen pal and I mustered my resources to fly to Memphis and then bus with Aunt Natalie to her beloved Nazareth. What a wild and wonderful whirlwind we shared: milking the cows and drinking the milk fresh from the udder, long walks and conversations among the trees of Nazareth, visiting the various ministries of her fellow sisters, and of course some late night chapel visits with the Lord. Faithfully every three years Aunt Natalie came to California to see my eight children grow. From climbing the rocks on the beach with the kids uttering the Psalms to the beat of the surf; to soundly trouncing all 8 children at the card game UNO; to baking cookies: camping under the stars at Yellowstone; singing silly songs around the campfire- my children all received a special grace and prayer partner during their formative years-one that persists to this day. Not letting any grass grow under her feet after retirement from teaching, Aunt Natalie turned her time and talents to hospital chaplaincy. For the next twenty years in Arkansas and Tennessee she accompanied patients and families through the dying experience. Inspired by her sharing of the beauty and mystery of this ministry, I chose to became and remain a hospice volunteer in California. Aunt Natalie’s 50th Jubilee was a wonderful moment for both of us as I was able to share in some of her preparations and be present at “Our Lady of the Poor ” shrine on a Tennessee mountaintop where with simplicity and gratitude I witnessed her recommitment, it became a watershed moment for both of us as I started a spiritual journey myself back to the contemplative roots of Catholicism.
One of Aunt Natalie’s great desires was to go to the mission field to see firsthand those she wanted to keep utmost in her heart through intercessory prayer after she retired. A highlight for her was her trip to India to see her fellow sisters in action.. The mission field has to this day a stalwart prayer companion. What a privilege today to be a “sister > in Christ” with my Aunt Natalie who so helped to shape my life, as well as, share in the commitment of the SCNA’s. If anyone has a few moments to spend wandering Nazareth’s grounds- look for Sister Immaculata- and if you are lucky she will take you on a walk – Be prepared!!! The wonder and beauty of creation at Nazareth will flower within you and together you will be uttering her favorite word “Alleluia.”