By Bernie Lubell
Whether it is the name of an African child for whom she fostered education decades ago, or a university student who encountered her iconic purple persona today, Sister Margaret Ann Landry never forgets a name.
Landry, 78, is one of almost 60,000 religious sisters in the United States, according to the 2008 United States Catholic Demographic.
Landry is a profound example of a woman religious who has dedicated herself to an altruistic life of serving others as a missionary, teacher and advisor. In her wise and seasoned 78 years, Landry has touched lives on local, national, and global levels.
Landry’s life has inspired others to look at themselves with a more critical eye. Not only has she reminded others that a strong faith isn’t necessary to be a good person, but she has also continuously emphasized the power of good. She has built bridges among communities and individual persons, encouraging them to get involved in justice and peace issues.
Roger Keller, Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Bringham Young University, said that despite the salient responsibilities of being a missionary, the missionary life is risky with unforeseeable dangers. “The one thing about being a religious missionary is that you can be sent anywhere and you lay your life on the line because you have no attachments,” Dr. Keller said. “Nuns have lost their lives across the world because they will go where they believe God sends them.”
“Clementine, Cecilia, Frederick, Silas, Nyamedzawo,” she recalled. “I remember all 40 of their names,” Landry said of the African students she taught. “I always remember names.”
Rhodesia, the present-day war torn Zimbabwe where Landry was sent to be a missionary in the 1960s, was safe when Landry was missionary there, although she could feel the tensions rising between the Africans and the British who owned Rhodesia.
She called her missionary work in Rhodesia her “Peace Corps” stint despite being assigned to go to Africa by her Provincial. She said that being exposed to another culture was a very rewarding experience that she carries with her today.
Despite Landry’s own hope to spread the glory of God in Rhodesia, the program did not come without qualms. Her initial concern was that she was teaching at a Marymount school in the British ruled Rhodesia.
“Why would I want to teach white, affluent students in Africa when I could do so in America?” Landry said. As a result, she became a catalyst for change, advocacy and reform by petitioning to her supervisors to begin a mission at St. Killians to teach the African students. Not only was she successful in this endeavor, but it presaged the concern and commitment she would show for a vast amount of students in the future.
Landry recalled a time when Clementine, a young girl, approached her to leave school early to go to her mother’s funeral. A few weeks later, Landry said Clementine approached her yet again. “May I go home so I can go to my mother’s funeral?” Clementine asked.
Landry thought the girl was up to no good. “Clementine,” Landry recalled saying, “You already went to your mother’s funeral.”
“No, Sister, this is the mother from whose womb I came,” Clementine replied.
Landry went quiet for a few seconds and then said that in Rhodesian culture, all male and female elders were referred to as father and mother, respectively.
She said of these students, “They saw me as someone who really cared.” She also gained a new appreciation for the Rhodesian culture.
Brother Tony LoGalbo, director for the Center for Franciscan Spirituals and Spiritual Direction at St. Francis of Assisi in Manhattan, called his three years as a missionary in Brazil very positive. “I was a kind and compassionate presence,” Bro. LoGalbo said of his impact on the fifth grade students he taught in Brazil. “We preach by example.”
As one of approximately 850 missionaries worldwide with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, John Ellenberger agreed that the missionary experience is a life-changing one indeed. “It gave me a perspective of the need to honor other people in their own cultures that I would have in no other way,” the elderly Ellenberger said of his 27 years of missionary experience on the island of Java. “It expanded my horizons, my understanding and appreciation of people and their unusual cultures that I believe are a gift of God.”
Both Landry’s impact and sacrifice for the African students is undeniable.
“The students were so upset I left,” Landry recalled. After the experience, Landry admitted to crying every time she “bumped into an African” because she missed them so dearly.
During Landry’s Rhodesian stint, the historic Vatican Council II sent shockwaves across the Catholic world, impacting women of the church and eventually creating Landry’s iconic purple persona.
However, purple didn’t come so easily to Sister Margaret at first.
“If I didn’t make that move, I may have been entrenched in an old way of life and I wouldn’t have progressed,” Landry exclaimed proudly. “I would have regressed.”
The “move” refers to Landry’s rebirth as a contemporary woman following the Vatican Council II. This Council of the Roman Catholic Church was convoked by Pope John XXIII and continued by Pope Paul VI in the mid 1960s. Its purpose was spiritual renewal and reconsideration of both the role and position of the Church in the modern world.
“I was reluctant at first to make the change,” Landry said demurely. “Women were contained and the thought of this change was a freeing, yet scary new way of life.” Landry changed her name from the religious Mother Immaculee, to her baptismal name of Margaret Ann. She converted her name and her appearance, yet continued her commitment to God.
Sister Rose Anthony Waklshk, OP, of Queen of the Holy Rosary Convent in Amityville, NY related to Landry’s experience, echoing Pope John XXII, saying “All the churches needed fresh air.”
“The change into contemporary attire was gradual, as habits should suit the type of work you’re doing,” Waklshk explained. “Since then, sisters have more responsibility to make decisions to help people across the world.”
Dr. Jane Linahan, professor of systematic theology at St. Bonaventure University said one of the major themes of the Vatican Council II was acknowledging the dignity of the human person. “It was important to understand that the world had changed in regards to the attitude towards women,” Linahan said. “It was a step forward out of a patriarchal society.”
With increased dignity in hand following the Vatican Council II and her rebirth, Landry continued living up to her commitment and disciplines as a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Dedicated to education, she served God much like “the army, navy, and marines serve their country,” she said.
Landry recalled that she was often assigned to certain tasks not only because she was a religious, but also because she was a woman in the Catholic Church.
The first choice in Landry’s religious life was to be the assistant director of admissions at Marymount College. “Making this decision was a major step for me,” Landry said. “We were usually told where we would be and we were not used to options or choices.”
Not only was it Landry’s first professional choice, but it also shaped her passion. She continues this today at Stony Brook University not only as the Chaplain at the Catholic Campus Ministry in the Interfaith Center, but also as an advisor for a half-dozen student clubs and organizations.
Richard Gatteau, director of the Academic and Pre-Professional Advising Center, said of Landry, “She is an incredible student advocate and is probably the most well-known person on campus.” Gatteau added that Landry makes him feel part of something bigger. “I am on the prayer chain, and when I receive an e-mail asking for support for another member of our campus from Sister Margaret, it reminds me that I work at a special place that values the importance of the human spirit.”
Sanhita Reddy, a senior majoring in health science, noted Landry’s distinct universality among students. “I worked with her last year at the 9/11 memorial,” Reddy said. “She was so gracious to everyone who participated, and really made the effort to mix all the groups of people who were there to remember that day.”
Reddy, who has worked closely with Sister Margaret in the Student Ambassador Program, added, “I love that she has such an open-door policy and seems to always remember what I’m doing with my spare time whether it be internships, clubs, or even homework from class.”
Jerrold L. Stein, dean of students and associate vice president for student affairs, has worked closely with Landry during her 20 years at Stony Brook. “She provides continuity, stability and strength,” Stein said. “Her willingness to give so much of her time to advise and mentor led to an award being named in her Honor—The Sister Margaret Ann Landry Lifetime Achievement Award for Advisement.”
Landry, who describes herself as enthusiastic, spiritual, and caring, thinks students see her as caring and loving person who “doesn’t discriminate against any class or religion.”
Sister Margaret Ann Landry believes “The glory of God is a person fully alive.” To those who may be skeptical of her commitment to God, she offers a wise remark. “A person can give glory to God even if they don’t believe – you could be a humane person, doing the right thing,” Landry said with a smile.
“Now that’s deep,” she added with a smirk.