Sister Carmen Lechthaler, MM

Born: November 23, 1903
Entered: October 15, 1928
Died: March 11, 1992

As we come together to celebrate the life and passing of our Sister Carmen Lechthaler, we gather in appreciation of the varied experiences, contributions and spirit of one person to mission, the Church, and Maryknoll. At the age of 89, after 64 years in Maryknoll, and almost 50 years experience in 4 cultures, Carmen slipped quietly back to God at 11:30 a.m. on March 11, 1992. Carmen was in our 4th floor health facility since 1989.

Born on November 23, 1903 in New York City and named Mary Matilda, she was the oldest of three daughters of her parents, Francis and Mary. Mary Matilda graduated from New York City’s Public Grammar School #169 and attended George Washington High School with a focus on commercial courses. Before entering Maryknoll she worked for 8 years as a stenographer for New York City investment banking firms.

Mary Matilda entered Maryknoll in 1928 from St. Rose of Lima parish in New York City at the age of 25. At Reception she received the name Miriam Carmel which she used for many years. When she entered the Spanish milieu and adopted the name Carmen, this was the name she preferred and by which she was referred to in the Community for her remaining years. First Profession was on January 6, 1931 and Final Profession 3 years later in 1934, both at Maryknoll.

Scattered over the years, Carmen studied art at Columbia University for 6 months, finished her high school work at the Venard in 1932, followed by 3 years at Maryknoll Teachers Training College and, later, after a further year at MTC, received her Bachelors of Education degree in 1946. In addition to formal education, Carmen studied Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish, mostly with private tutors.

Carmen’s life and person were characterized by mission zeal, enthusiasm for pastoral ministry, community spirit and an underlying impatience for change when change was indicated and agreed upon with others. In 1935 she went to China for 10 years where she was involved in catechist formation and Chinese novitiate work in the dioceses of Wuchow, Kongmoon, Kweilin, and, briefly, in Hong Kong, with women from those dioceses. While in Laipo, Kweilin, Carmen was also local superior. In 1945 she was repatriated with others via India back to the United States because of the South China war. For a brief period Carmen taught in the Bronx until she was assigned to Panama in 1946.

In Panama Carmen became the principal of St. Vincent’s School and also taught three grades. During Carmen’s time at St.  Vincent’s, the Panamanian Government gave official recognition to the school. Today, the school is called the most Catholic of the Republic’s schools and noted for its pioneer effort for liberalization of poor people in the port city. Carmen was local superior and in addition to that and her education work, developed ministry with adult groups, especially the large number of illegal Chinese refugees in Panama City.

After 3 years Carmen was assigned in 1949 to Hawaii where she taught elementary school classes, mostly grade 7. It was during this time that she yearned to return to China or to work again with Chinese people. Carmen did not feel she was a success as a classroom teacher although she was known to be always well prepared, maintained discipline, often by the sheer force of her personality, and achieve the goals of teaching. A return to the Chinese apostolate was not to be and in 1959 Carmen was assigned back to Panama, this time to Puerto Armuelles where she again taught 7th grade. At the age of 58 Carmen studied Spanish in Panama where she remained until 1968 when the school was closed and she was assigned to Guatemala. Carmen was then 65.

In Guatemala Carmen was involved primarily with an inter-parish team in a mountain area. Her ministry involved visits with local families, work with catechists, courses on matrimony, literacy, prayer/reflection, bible study groups, leadership formation and Cursillos. Carmen was particularly fond of informal education work with women. The education programs impressed the women’s husbands to the extent that they encouraged their wives to pursue more. The women, in turn, shared their opportunity and learnings with other women and so the education had a spiral effect that increasingly influenced both women and men.

Despite the keen sense of loss realized by our members in Guatemala, in 1971 at the age of 68, Carmen thought she might like to join the Senior Unit in the States and she spent a short time in Gallup, New Mexico. However, there were not enough poor people, ethnic groups, Spanish-speaking people, or enough of a liberated Church In her immediate orbit. Within a year Carmen was back in the then-called Middle America Region with the hearty agreement of all, but before the assignment was processed or formalized. Carmen resumed pastoral team ministry, especially evangelization and leadership formation, in Guatemala. In the latter part of her time there, Carmen was at the Huehuetenango house, a Center for our members in the area. Her management helped make things run smoothly when there were many ins and outs for meetings or rest. In addition, Carmen was active in part-time ministry in pastoral and liturgical work at the diocesan Catechists’ Center.

Carmen returned to the Center and took a Renewal Program after which she spent a short time at St. Anne’s in Ossining in a new living situation and ministry outreach, all of which turned out to be short-lived. A new opportunity with a pastoral team and Basic Ecclesial Communities in Oaxaca, Mexico beckoned her in 1982 to 1983. During this time Carmen began to become ill and suffer general deterioration. She returned to the Center in January 1984. At the time of the transfer, her Regional members supported the move for health reasons, but expressed keen sorrow because they felt Carmen’s years with them were precious ones and her pastoral ministry valued by our members, other Church team members and the local people.

Her Renewals, taken regularly, seem to have been sources of energy for Carmen, especially theological and scriptural input. Zen prayer became a part of her life. In community Carmen was known as one with a beautiful spirit of dedication, generosity, openness and concern, a good community person and an asset to any house. When Carmen became a Center member, she did part-time office work in Social Concerns. She was generally viewed as a joyous and lively member who joined in with any age group and mix of people. Most likely we will remember Carmen best by her spirit, captured in interview questions put to her when she was 73:

What is your personal reaction to your ministry? “I love it.”

How do you find challenging situations? “Stimulating!”

What are your hopes and aspirations? “To keep going.”

May we all find the same hope and enthusiasm to “keep going” in the spirit and example of our sister, Carmen. We pray for God’s blessing on she who spent her life in the mission of Jesus.

We welcome our Maryknoll brother, Joseph Towle, who celebrates with us the Eucharistic liturgy of the Resurrection. Joe and Carmen were together in a Guatemala parish in the early seventies. We also welcome Carmen’s family and friends.