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 in Bismarck.

The priory founded the University of Mary in 1959, and sits on the same hilly campus that overlooks the cottonwood-studded Missouri River bottom.

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 life.

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 of energy.

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, Sebastian Welder.

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 for children."

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 call."

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 says, smiling.

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 you."

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 the convent.

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.

Fellow travelers

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).]

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