(The remarks of this interviewer are in italics.
As I reflected on my visit with Sister Madonna, I found myself thinking that it would be very interesting to research her family lineage and DNA on Ancestry.com. Her maternal grandfather was from Germany and her grandmother, Mary Chesna, was from Hungary. Her paternal grandfather was from Luxembourg and her paternal grandmother was from America. Her grandparents did not speak often of their European roots. Nazi Germany was a grim reality and they did not want to be singled out because of their nationalities. Madonna’s life and ministry are as diverse as her ancestry. Most of all, I came away inspired by her gratitude for her vocation.)
Edna was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 19, 1936, to Joseph and Teresa Stubna Michels. She was the eldest of seven children including two sisters, Mary Anne and Nancy, and four brothers Joseph, Richard, Ronald, and Kenneth. Edna’s father was a skilled carpenter; Teresa was a strong and loving stay-at-home Mom. The children helped at home, walked a long distance to school and were taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame.
When Edna was a teenager, her father decided to buy land in Mars, PA and build their home there. All the children were given tasks important to the project. Edna had certain ones such as carrying shingles for the roof, or moving the cinder blocks wherever needed. She remembers the day she was on one of the rafters holding her father’s prized saw. As she was about to stumble, her father called out,”Don’t drop that saw!” At first, she was surprised that he seemed more concerned about his saw than about his daughter but, upon reflection, she realized that the saw and his other tools were vital to her father’s work as a carpenter and for his providing for the family. Looking back now, Edna realizes that building this house together was a wonderful family achievement and a symbol of their unity and hard work. Today the house stands strong. It has needed only one new roof and is still the home of her brother Richard.
Edna grew up having a mind of her own. As she admits, “The fourth commandment was never my greatest strength, especially with my mother.” She does remember, though, that her fifth grade teacher told the class to remember that “No matter what, God loves you.” This mantra still remains with her and may have sparked the desire to love God back in religious life.
Edna worked after school and on weekends taking various jobs. She worked at a drug store, where before today’s regulations, she helped to fill prescriptions. She had a job in the office of a leather company, a job in an insurance company and also worked at the Yellow Cab and Limousine Company.
An inspiration for Edna was seeing a crucifix with Jesus’ shedding His blood for us. She decided to become a blood donor. Since she was O negative, a universal donor, this would help many people in need of a blood transfusion. She would continue this practice throughout her life, resulting in her donating fifty units of whole blood and fifteen to twenty units of
plasmapheresis. She recalls, “I was even privileged to give blood earlier than customary in order to donate for my mother.”
The attraction for religious life was growing within Edna. The Sisters of Notre Dame modeled for her what religious life could be. Besides that, two aunts visited the family and reminded her of her attraction. Another role model in the family has been Father Chris Stubna.
. She wrote to several congregations and, shortly afterwards, she received a response from Sister Frances Louise Mihalek, Vincentian Sister of Charity. Edna met with Sister shortly afterwards who asked the young woman her reason. Edna’s answered, “I have this strong, almost irresistible, conviction that God is calling me.” She noticed the statues of St. Vincent and St. Louise when she visited the VSC Motherhouse and it stirred in her again the concern she always had for the poor. She remembers how as a child she often “took” can goods from the family pantry and coins from her mother’s purse.
(In various ways Madonna would express to me over and over again a wonder that God had chosen her to make a gift of her life in a religious vocation.)
Edna’s parents were willing for her to enter the VSC Community. At age twenty-one she entered the novitiate with eight other young women. They were under the guidance of Mother Ildephonse Manik, the novice directress. Mother Ildephonse was patient and calm, very understanding and supportive of the young women under her care. She was a model of prayer and religious fidelity
At her reception of the habit in August, 1958, Edna received the name “Sister Madonna.” This name has brought her into a closeness with Mary that has grown throughout her life. As postulants and novices, she remembers that time was spent in work, study, prayer and choir. First vows came in 1960 and four of her group remained until they made perpetual vows in 1963.
(It was customary for young professed to be changed often to enable older professed who needed the opportunity to be away for medical reasons or for making retreats. Packing each summer in the event of getting a new mission on August 15th must have been quite a task. The considerable number of missions reflects that reality.)
Twenty years of teaching followed in which Madonna taught in elementary schools throughout Pennsylvania, as well as teaching CCD classes. Her last teaching assignment would change her life direction. It was to St. Jude School in Montgomery, Alabama. She says of this mission,” These were nine enriching years for me. I had the opportunity to learn and appreciate the African American culture. I began to understand the struggles of the African American people and came to enjoy and admire the giftedness of these children and their families.” Sister Phyllis Gembrowski was the principal, who Madonna remembers as an outstanding administrator and admirable presence in the school.
Sister Madonna recalls, “A ministry that was also a blessing and a pioneer call at that time was to be a pastoral presence at several prisons in the area. Among them were the Federal Prison for Men located at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, the Tutwiler Prison for Women and the Kilby Correctional Institution for Men. I also visited a detention center for youth offenders. I was so challenged by being among these women and men whose life choices and circumstances had led to their incarceration. Learning from television the whole world of drugs, – the manufacturer, the first dealer, the transporter, the lower dealer and finally and sadly, the person addicted, made me grieve at the ways their lives were being wasted. A question from a prisoner, such as “How can I have faith like yours?” had me asking God for wisdom and empathy. A prisoner I remember well was John Mitchell whose participation and conviction in the Watergate scandal had led to his imprisonment.”
(John Mitchell wrote Madonna a note of appreciation for her kindness. Someone heard of the note and asked to buy it for $500, but Madonna declined. This note may be viewed in the History Room at St. Louise Convent.)
After this life giving mission Madonna returned to Pittsburgh and began to serve as a pastoral minister/social worker at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Father Leo Vanyo was the administrator at the Cathedral and worked as well at the marriage tribunal for the Diocese. He was a trusting and able pastor who knew the wisdom of delegation. Madonna says with gratitude, “I remember with amazement the support and trust that Father Vanyo placed in me during my time at St. Paul’s. Because of his trust I felt empowered and free to respond to needs of many people who came to our door, referred by hospitals and educational organizations. These persons came from countries far and wide as well as from the United States.
There are numerous examples of our outreach. These are a few. A Muslim mother and child came to the Cathedral asking for help because the funds from their own government had been delayed. She was already facing another problematic pregnancy and came against her husband’s wishes. Another time a migrant family in a crowded car came asking for gas money to complete their journey. I was able to invite them in to take showers and then used the parish credit card to get them food, clothing and gas. When a family with three small children came, I took courage in hand and led them to a hotel in a less expensive but also less desirable part of Pittsburgh.”
During this period a parishioner offered Madonna the use of a house in Polish Hill for a variety of families from Indonesia, Cuba, Cambodia, Poland, and other persons in need. Two were immigrant families needing to be resettled; others were in need of housing and other services. Sister Madonna supervised the house charging only low rent, enough to pay the utilities and maintenance bills.
A memorable experience was the reception of a butter and cheese shipment from a US government program. When the eighteen wheeler drove up to the Cathedral, Madonna knew that she needed to move quickly. There was no freezer in which to store the food although there was temporary storage in St. Paul’s cool basement. Madonna contacted parishes and agencies to come for an allotment of butter, cheese and a five-pound package of powdered milk. In addition, she asked two men with special needs to assist her in delivering packages of the foodstuffs to individuals in surrounding apartments who would be grateful to receive them.
Sister Madonna was so busy with parish outreach that she was encouraged to complete professional training in social work for this new direction in ministry. She attended the University of Pittsburgh while still at her mission and received high marks before getting a Masters in Social Work. She would continue working and became a State certified MSW. In order to get State certification she got a home health position at LaTrobe Hospital in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
In 1989, she accepted a position at St. Mary’s Parish in Schuyler, Nebraska, a small farming community. There did not seem to be enough activity or need here for her services and so she returned in 1991 to Pittsburgh. In Bethel Park Germaine Harbor, a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) high rise complex for the elderly in Pittsburgh. There she would serve as manager with all the attendant responsibility of maintenance and organization of the facility. Her first priority, of course, was the care and direction of the residents. The great challenge was learning all the governmental regulations necessary for State approval. She learned much in this regard from her own sibling Nancy who worked in a HUD office and from other Sisters in the Christian Housing Program. She continued exercising social work skills in her housing ministry.
(Amazing to this interviewer is the list of illnesses that plagued Sister Madonna from the early 80’s onward. How she managed to continue her ministries when she was coping with major health problems is a measure of God’s grace and strength.
What a diverse history of generous service to God’s people Sister Madonna can claim! She looks back now and shares, “I pray for each Sister I have known and lived with, each person with whom I have been in ministry, all whom I have served. I believe firmly that God leads each of us. The more we trust that guidance the more blessed we are. Heaven will be a glorious celebration of all God has promised and all we desire.”)
Sister Maria V. Brocato, SCN