Sisters Mary Ann and Thomas are Fellow Benedictines
in Bismarck but They're Much Closer Than That
Swift, Tammy. "Sisters Mary Ann and Thomas are Fellow Benedictines in Bismarck but They're Much Closer Than That." Forum, 21 September 1997, sec. 1B.
Bismarck, N.D. -- Warm, articulate and poised, Sister Thomas Welder
greets visitors to her spacious office at University of Mary.
As president of this institution, Welder has a hand in shaping
the future of its 2,000 students, 80-plus faculty members and expanding
campus. Under her guidance, the private university recently stretched
its arms outward, opening a program for accelerated degrees in Fargo.
Now if she would only listen to her mother.
"I worry about her," says her mom, Sister Mary Ann Welder.
"She forgets to go bed."
Meet Sisters Mary Ann and Thomas. Not only are they mother and
daughter but, they're also fellow Benedictines at Annunciation Priory
The priory founded the University of Mary in 1959, and sits on
the same hilly campus that overlooks the cottonwood-studded Missouri
Sister Thomas, who is so personable she can remember the faces
and names of students who were there 15 years ago, was a member
of the university's first freshman class. Today, the 57-year old
nun sits at the helm of the college.
And, after losing a husband and raising three children on her
own, Sister Mary Ann has fulfilled a life-long dream of religious
Casual bystanders, however, don't always figure out that the two
are more than members of the same community.
Sister Mary Ann usually calls her daughter "Sister T"
or "Thomas" in public. Sister Thomas greets her mother
as "Sister Mary Ann."
"I try not to (call her mom) in public, because it gets very
challenging for people," she explains, smiling.
Still, Sister Mary Ann can't resist occasionally doling out maternal
advice -- like the need for her daughter to get more rest. "She
always loved to read half the night," Sister Mary Ann recalls.
"She was a night person; she still is."
Her daughter can not deny it: "After all these years, I still
find it hard to get up early."
"We're in chapel at 6:15 and she's half asleep," Sister
Mary Ann tsks smiling. Once a mom, always a mom.
Both woman traveled vastly different routes to reach this point,
although they've also shared parallel experiences. Both felt a call
to join the community. Both surprised their families when they decided
to enter the priory. And both share the same lively humor and spark
At age 83, Sister Mary Ann clips along a campus walking path like
a woman half her age. "I even ran for a while because I thought
we'd be late," she explains to visitors.
But nothing out-of-the-ordinary for this sister, who has lived
an extraordinary life.
As a young girl, Sister Mary Ann had secretly dreamed of joining
the convent, but then she met and fell in love with a young teacher,
They married in 1935 and set up housekeeping in Napoleon, N.D.
In 1943, when their fristborn Diane Marie (now known as Sister Thomas)
was three months old, the young family moved to Bismarck, where
Sebastian took a job with Northern Pacific Railroad. Eight years
and two more children later, he was dead -- the victim of a kidney
ailment. He was 43 years old.
Mary Ann was 37, a widow and a mother of three. In order to support
the family, she went to night school and learned secretarial skills.
She then took a job with the State Insurance Department in Bismarck.
Understandably, a single parent raising a family didn't have a bottomless
budget, but Sister Thomas recalls how her mother always found a
way to provide music lessons, sports equipment and family trips.
Says Sister Thomas: "It was a very normal, healthy, happy
experience growing up."
At the same time, the oldest daughter had to learn responsibility
early. "She helped me a lot," her mother says. "I'll never
forget that -- all she did for me and the family."
'It's a spiritual journey'
Along the way, however, the teenager developed a deep interest
in the religious life.
She certainly had enough examples to follow. She had four maternal
aunts who were nuns. "That was a very strong modeling of women
who were loved by the entire family," Sister Thomas says. "I
didn't see them that often but they were wonderful letter writers,
and we would go to their first vows -- which was a wonderful experience
Sister Thomas also was inspired by the Benedictine sisters who
taught her in Catholic schools in Bismarck.
"It is something from within; it's a part of a spiritual
journey," she says. "It really is a feeling of an inner
When Mary Ann learned of her daughter's intent to become a nun,
she was initially disappointed -- for the usual maternal reasons.
"She had a nice boyfriend that I really liked," her mother
But she accepted her daughter's decision. She even drove Sister
Thomas to the University of Mary, then called Mary College, to begin
classes in the fall of '59. Soon after, upon realizing she'd forgotten
a toothbrush, Sister Thomas called home.
Mary Ann, who had been crying ever since she dropped off Thomas,
answered the phone. Upon hearing her daughter's voice, she immediately
said, "I knew you wouldn't like it. I'll be right out to get
She was a bit disappointed to hear that her daughter needed a
toothbrush, not transportation. Little did Mary Ann suspect that
she would some day be just as determined to follow the same path.
`I wanted to do more for the Lord'
By 1967, Mary Ann was experiencing some changes of her own. "We
had a new home, a new car, a good job" she recalls. "But
it always came to me that there must be more to life than that.
I wanted to do more for the Lord."
After 16 years of service at the Insurance Department, she walked
in to boss' office one day and announced that was resigning to enter
Although initially shocked, her boss offered a generous deal:
If Mary Ann discovered that religious life wasn't for her in the
next year, she could return to the department.
The reaction from her children, then grown-up and married, were
mixed. Her son George just said, "I think that could be the
nicest thing my mom could do." But her two daughter's were
more surprised. "It's like we didn't have a home to come to
anymore," Sister Thomas says. At the same time, she adds, "My
mother was so supportive of my decision. I could only be supportive
of her making the same kind of decision."
Her sister, Judith, also struggled with it. She told Mary Ann:
"I don't want my kids to have a nun for a grandma."
Mary Ann was concerned enough about her family's reaction to postpone
entering the convent for a year. When Judith visited her later,
however, she told Mary Ann: "Mom, I can accept it now."
As Mary Ann entered the convent, Sister Thomas was making her
final vows. Over the next few decades, the older woman's secretarial
skills came in handy for working at various missions around the
state. Next year, she will celebrate 30 years as a Benedictine.
As it turn out, Mary Ann's grand-children and great-grandchildren
have had plenty of opportunities enjoy their nun-grandma. The sisters
chuckle when they tell George's great-grandson who was conversing
with his parents about his visit. "We're having a blast at
the nunvevt," the 5-year old announced.
While Sister Mary Ann was launching her new life, her daughter
was enjoying success in her chosen vocation. After completing her
education, Sister Thomas returned to Mary College as the choir director.
Later, after obtaining a Master's degree from Northwestern University
in Evanston, Ill, she again came to Mary -- this time as director
of deferred giving. She became president of the college in 1978.
Now these two family members live, work and pray together in another
type of family, the Benedictine community.
Sister Mary Ann keeps busy as the priory's guest coordinator.
"I love to meet people," she says. "I try to make
them feel as much at home as I can."
She's also an avid sports buff whose favorite teams include the
Twins, Vikings and, naturally, the U-Mary's Marauders. "I don't
miss a football game," she says.
With some motherly prompting, Sister Thomas occasionally takes
time off, too. This summer she and Sister Mary Ann enjoyed a six-day
vacation, in which they traveled across Wisconsin to visit assorted
grandchildren and great-grandkids.
"One of the real joys of community is the tremendous support
you receive from other sisters," says Sister Thomas. "It's
a support I feel always. To have one of those members be my mother
is an extraordinary blessing."
Reprinted with permission of The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota.
[Sister Mary Ann Welder and Sister Thomas Welder are natives of
Napoleon, Logan County, North Dakota. Their ancestors have ancestral
roots to the Kutschurgan Catholic villages in South Russia (today
near Odessa, Ukraine).]