Sister Celine Marie Werner, MM

Born: December 30, 1911
Entered: October 14, 1928
Died: January 13, 1987

On Tuesday, January 13, 1987 in the Maryknoll Nursing Home God called Sister Celine Marie Werner from long suffering to the fullness of Life she had set her sights on from childhood. Celine was brought into this world in Fowler, Michigan, 75 years ago on December 30, 1911, the child of Joseph and Helena Motz Werner who had come to the U.S. from Germany.

Dorothy Anna, as she was then known, grew up in a hard-working farm family consisting of three brothers and five sisters. Not quite 17 she entered Maryknoll on October 14, 1928 and made her First Profession on January 6, 1931, her Final Profession three years later. She came, in her words, because I felt that was what God wanted me to do.

After achieving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics at Mt. St. Vincent’ s while at the same time studying Mandarin, Celine was assigned to Fushun, Manchuria in 1936 where she helped train young women to become religious in a diocesan community. Her love for the Chinese was keen and it was a sad day when she had to accept repatriation in August, 1942 after eight months of internment.

Novitiate work in Manchuria soon became novitiate work in New York. Many Maryknollers today remember Celine, the Assistant Novice Mistress, very strict, yet caring and appreciative of humor.

In 1946 she was assigned to Fushun-Hopei for two years, but then was sent to the Philippines where she served on the faculty of Maryknoll College until 1964. During this time she not only taught full time but secured an M.A. and PH.D. in English, the former from Ateneo de Manila and the latter from Santo Tomas. It was during this post-war period that her excellence in teaching developed. Students and faculty alike recognized her gift.

Letters from Manila to our Center Conmunications Office in 1958 and to Mother Mary Coleman in 1961 show the emphasis of her educational effort most clearly. She wrote: “Our Aim – to train lay leaders who will bring the spirit of Christ to the masses of people here – is gradually being realized.” She sought above all to extend Maryknoll’s educational efforts to include the poor wonen of the Philippines. This goal of Celine’s became the driving force of her later years in mission. She was a delegate from the Philippines to the General Chapter in 1964 and after that, she taught at Mary Rogers College for six years. Students of that time remember Celine as one who asked the impossible of them – and got it! Her enthusiasm for literature lured the most recalcitrant student into the deep waters of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Yeats. Training future missioners to be open to great minds and large vision was her teaching credo.

In 1970, Celine wrote to ask permission to leave the College to look for a teaching position in either the Southern United States or Guam – both requests emphasized Celine’s constant, clear desire to live in community and serve the needs of the poor. Her desire to work in the Southern U.S. had been seeded by her students in the Philippines who confronted her with their observation that dignity and equality were not a part of the lives of all in her country. The discovery that this was indeed true led her in 1970 to choose Bishop College in Dallas, Texas, where she found herself in a position to overcome the just suspicions of faculty and students as to why a white woman, with her qualifications, would choose to be on the faculty of a struggling Black Christian College.

At Bishop, aware of their financial bind, Celine wanted to take a lower salary but, for the College to be in line with accreditation requirements, this was not allowed. However, she arranged to give back part of each salary check to be used for scholarships for needy Black students. She was there at Bishop College, to, in her own words, “help disadvantaged youth come to a realization of their own worth and power, by enabling them to develop their intellectual powers and skills, and by awakening them to a deeper, wider vision of life.”

For Celine, teaching was not a job or even a profession. For her, it was a way of life. She did not “do for” but rather hers was an “imparting to”, and “enriching of” the other. This carried over into her personal relationships as well. Whenever she was with a person, even up to her dying days, she talked not of herself, but was deeply involved in their hopes, their struggles, their fears. Always, with Celine, there was that enormous excitement of getting others to realize their potential. She did this with such intensity that she was chosen, by the students, as “Teacher of the Year” five times during her years in Dallas. She was not chosen because she was easy, but because in her classes the students learned. Once at Bishop, a young, tough Ex-Marine blurted out to Celine, “You wouldn’t even give Jesus Christ an A!” And her thoughtful reply was, “No, I wouldn’t, if He didn’t deserve it.”

A letter to Celine, received in May of 1986, from Dr. Robert Dixon, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, read, “I regret that your current state of health will not allow you to return to the college this fall. During your years here you have made an outstanding contribution to the education of young men and women…students and faculty have asked continuously about your return. I am confident that the president, Dr. Daniels, would want me to remind you that Bishop College is your home. When you are able to return we will welcome you home.”

Celine’s move from Dallas to Baltimore was a difficult one because it meant leaving behind an involved, loving community who shared her own intense drive to work for justice; it meant leaving the young men and women to whom she had dedicated fifteen years of her life; and the Central American refugees and Sanctuary workers with whom she shared life in Dallas; it also meant admitting that there was something happening within her that she could not control, try as she would. But in true Celine style, she steeled herself to enter a new phase of her life. Dependent she would not be. One of her first acts in Baltimore was to study the map of the City and obtain bus schedules so that she could get to wherever she wanted to go “on her own.” She made her own contacts and soon began tutoring young Black children after school and a 76 year old Black gentleman two evenings a week. The fact that woman with Celine’ s intellect, a woman who was exhilarated when faced by students who would call forth her best, could also enthusiastically teach fundamental sounds and words to those struggling with illiteracy, was a great example to all of us.

Regarding Celine’s influence in the Eastern U.S. Region, members have commented that what stands out for many of them was Celine’s singlemindedness – she had a tremendous vision for justice – on behalf of which she would not hesitate to debate you.

When Celine’ s sister Helen, of Maryknoll, was here in October, I asked her if she knew how much Celine loved her. Helen said, “oh, Celine has always been Maryknoll to me – she is both my inspiration and my challenge.” And I think that is what she has been and will continue to be to us in the Eastern U.S. Region – our inspiration and our challenge. Celine was never terribly happy with us when we were focusing in on ourselves. She wanted the focus outward. She had a strong desire that we, as Maryknollers in the U.S., not stand out, but rather that we be part of the collaborative effort of all persons dedicated to justice and peace.

Celine was ever grateful for the love and care which she received all her life and expressed this so often. She thanks us still – and in the light of that I would like to end with a paragraph from her Christmas letter: “My great treasures are the many people who have filled my life and have become such a real part of me. You will always be with me. Know that whatever influence I have now or later, it will be used for your benefit.”

Celine, dear, we will hold you to that. Please use your influence to send us challenges that will help us to emulate you in your struggle for justice for all oppressed peoples.

We are happy to have with us today Father Timothy Gollob, Celine’s pastor and team member from Dallas. He has come at Celine’ s request, to celebrate this Liturgy which she prepared. And we welcome and extend our sympathy to Celine’ s sister, her nieces, and her dearly loved community from Dallas. We join with Celine’ s brother, who is not able to be with us, and our Sister Helen who is joining us in prayer from the Maryknoll Cloister in Guatemala.