S. Annette Muckerheide: Allowing the Spirit to Flow Through Her
By Elizabeth Bookser Barkley
In her 34 years teaching biology at Mount St. Joseph University, S. Annette Muckerheide made sure that her students absorbed her most important message: “Life is life is life. We are all connected, and we are obliged to care for life in all its marvelous forms.”
At a recent reunion of biology alumni, S. Annette relished meeting her now-professional former students. “I tried to instill in them how to think, how to be curious, how to see God in everything. It was a joy to realize that many of them got that message. Their lives radiate this.”
That she would lead the life of a scientist was always clear to her because of the influence of her mother, “a wonderful teacher,” and her father, a chemical engineer. He never tired of answering the questions she posed even as a young child: “What? How? What if?”
That she would enter religious life was less certain. Her parents, once Catholic, had left the Church when their pastor would not allow her mother’s best friend, who was not Catholic, to be in their wedding. Although the family, including her younger brother Don, had rich conversations at home, religion never entered into any of them. Science was the “how,” but religion was the “why” that her parents avoided.
Still, they sent her to Catholic schools, Cardinal Pacelli and St. Ursula in Cincinnati, Ohio. Out of curiosity, S. Annette would secretly slip into churches, sometimes attending Mass without her parents’ knowledge.
One day in fifth grade, she looked at the Sister who was her teacher and thought, “I could be a Sister.” She never articulated that dream to her parents, and learned only later in life that they had transferred her to McNicholas High School, afraid that if she stayed under the influence of the Ursuline Sisters, she would want to join them.
When she was ready for college, they wanted her to attend the University of Cincinnati, but she begged to be able to join a friend who had been accepted at the College of Mount St. Joseph (now Mount St. Joseph University). Her father drove the two of them to the Mount, where they were greeted by a smiling S. Margaret Loretto Ryan. On that day, she remembers, “I knew that this was where I belonged, this is what I wanted.”
It was during her sophomore year that her vocation to the Sisters of Charity, rather than another community, became clear to her. One day her chemistry teacher, S. Ignatius Sanche, put an arm around S. Annette and asked, “When are you going to New Orleans?” That city was home to the provincial house for the Sisters of St. Joseph, the order who taught at McNicholas.
When S. Annette told her, “I’m not going,” S. Ignatius asked, “So, you’re going to join us?”
“I guess so.” It took only three words to decide.
After eight years teaching in high schools in New Mexico and Ohio, S. Annette returned to the Mount, trading her days learning from Sisters of Charity biology faculty to becoming a faculty member in the very classrooms and labs where she had been nurtured. With pride she notes the “thousands of students” whose lives she has impacted through her teaching and mentoring.
She also inspired and connected with many Mount faculty and staff during her years there.
One of them, Dr. Jim Bodle, a professor of psychology, describes her as “rooted, deeply committed, and spirited (in several senses of the word).”
Her life as a Sister of Charity and her spiritual values “fed into an academic integrity,” he says. “She was so honest, and she made decisions on what she saw as true to the values the Mount espouses. She saw the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law in our academic policies.”
Some of her colleagues will remember her for the many leadership roles she held, including being chair of the biology department, the Honors Program, and the promotion and tenure committee. Some may recall that twice she received the student-nominated Excellence in Teaching Award named after one of her beloved professors, S. Adele Clifford.
But Jim has a deeper insight into her as a teacher because he co-taught with her an Honors course called Science and Faith, where as a woman religious biologist, “Annette was deeply committed to the entirety of the course.”
She built relationships with her students, but that didn’t prevent her from setting a high bar for them, “making them accountable so they grew into better students,” according to Jim.
In the Science and Faith course, students learned that religion and biology “can’t be the same because they come from disciplines that have different ways of knowing, and both approaches to reality have to be respected,” he explains. “Along with her scientific perspective, S. Annette brought a sense of awe” as students explored the connections between the two disciplines.
The wonder at creation that she brought to her teaching continues to fill her life now that she has left the classroom. She finds great joy in being outdoors in the midst of nature.
She makes sure she gets out every day, often walking the Motherhouse grounds with S. Joan Wessendarp, her friend of nearly 50 years. On her own, she sometimes “loops around the cemetery or back into the woods. At home I can sit on the tree-shaded porch at the side of our house.”
Journaling is another way she prays “to create space, silence, for God to speak. When it comes, I write it down. That is prayer,” she says. “And, sometimes prayer is just presence.”
After she retired from her position at the Mount, she had more time to be present to young children at Working in Neighborhoods (WIN), a social service agency, where she added structure to an after-school program. Some days could be rough. At the end of one such day, Marilyn Evans, co-founder of WIN with S. Barbara Busch, observed, “Them kids just pull all the love that’s in you right out, don’t they?”
In that moment, S. Annette realized, “None of what I was giving to those children was mine. It was God’s doing, what was in me was divine.”
Music also brings her joy and finds expression in her long-time commitment to the music ministry at the Motherhouse, where she plays the flute, an instrument she learned as a student at the Mount. When she is playing, she is conscious of the physical instrument, but as importantly, it works as a metaphor for her relationship with God.
“Flutes are hollow, so it’s my breath passing through that metal that produces sound,” she says.
Pushed to explain her instrument’s relevance to her spirituality, she smiles: “I need to be empty enough to let the spirit do what she will.”