Sister Mary Augustine Kuper, MM

Born: February 19, 1887
Entered: August 14, 1922
Died: March 19, 1977

Sister Augustine Kuper died at 10:15 P.M. on March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph, at Phelps Memorial Hospital. Sister was 90 years old.

Gertrude Mary Kuper was born in Baltimore, Maryland on February 19, 1887, attended schools there graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree from the College of Notre Dame in 1909 and with a Masters Degree in Psychology from Columbia in 1912. She entered Maryknoll in 1922 transferring from the Community of the School Sisters of Notre Dame where she was serving as Registrar at her Alma Mater. She was Professed in 1924 and made her Final Commitment in 1927.

These are all simple facts and we could go down the list of others, such as where she served as a Maryknoller beginning with Korea, Philippines, Hong Kong, the Center, Panama, New York Chinatown, Chicago, Valley Park, and Bethany; in various capacities — as teacher, principal, promoter, portress, bookkeeper, housekeeper but from these statements, we would never really know this woman, this Maryknoller, who shared our life, our aspirations. Who is she? What is the spirit that motivated her to meet the challenges of her day, to be a missioner, a simple messenger of the Word?

Yesterday as I read her letters, listened to other Sisters who lived with her, who knew and loved her, I met Sister Augustine as though for the first time. Of course I knew her, the person with a shade over her eye, a magazine under her arm ever ready with the facts on the current issues of the day with a twinkle in her eye as she recounted one of her famous stories. But this woman now became a person with strong feelings who loved and received love graciously and lived life to the fullest. Listen to her and draw your own conclusions as to what characteristics make her a true missioner.

In 1922, at a time when she was completing her 10th year and her temporary vows as a School Sister of Notre Dame, she answers Mother Mary Joseph’s letter of acceptance into the Community as follows:

“We are very strange creatures, we mortals. I do not know what I would have felt if that second paragraph of your letter had blasted my never too trusting hopes, but will you believe it? When I slowly realized that the long waiting was over and I could go, a black cloud of misgiving come down upon me and I never felt so mean and cowardly as then. I felt that I was deserting my colors, shirking the post to which I had been assigned… My heart bled for those, my friends whom I was deserting and I wondered whether I could take advantage of this new found freedom… It seems so queer to be arranging for next year’s routine, getting out the new catalogue, discussing ways and means with the teachers… all the while knowing that I shall play no part in the wonderful drama of the of the school year ‘22-’23. It will seem strange not to be here. But I am not sorry. I shall often miss the girls, of course; but I expect to be kept too busy to daydream and I shall find life at Maryknoll so full of new interests and work… I trust I may fit in somewhere as a useful member of (Father Walsh’s) staff of workers.”

She then asks to remain at Notre Dame until the end of summer school when all of the Sisters would be back and she could turn over the work to her successor. Then she slyly adds a P.S. “You are keeping my name for me, aren’t you?” Her Superior wrote: “One ideal seems to have animated her even before she entered: to devote her energies and life work to the foreign mission fields. She feels impelled to follow her desire (and) this is nourished by the needs of more vocations for your esteemed community.” Was this the driving force that enabled her to leave a well-established community and take upon herself new conditions which must of necessity be difficult in a young community like ours?

In 1925, at age 38 she completes her first year at Gishu, Korea by writing: “A year ago today the gates were opened wide to twelve of us and we saw visions of a glorious life ahead. It seems scarcely possible that 12 whole months have slipped into eternity since then. I wonder how the angelic bookkeeper finds our accounts for the past cycle. It seems quite an empty time in positive achievements and even the hidden life of the soul, to me at least, turns to no golden pages emblazoned with great deeds. The story reads on in even tenor and would seem more like plain chant than an ecstasy of song. Just so we have given a tiny bit of glory to the good God by our loyal daily service.”

“Duties of a small household fill the days with the constant exchange of little responsibilities which have come my way in a way never experienced before. My life was so different as a teacher and at home. I did so little about the house that I have felt like a bull in a China store… A certain timidity about doing things in which I had no practice made me hesitate taking hold as I wish I might have done. It is hard to regulate one’s life in a small place so that justice holds the proper sway. At present, fleas are putting us to the torture. Day and night we are tormented with the invisible army, and we testify with our blood to the battle waged.” Aren’t these some of your own experiences?

Then listen to these about language study. “The language is still in the brushwood stage – hard to wade through. As the lessons proceed and the new vocabularies pile up, the old stock grows musty and whiskered with queer cob webs. That’s the discouraging part – the forgetting what we thought once we knew. If we know the words, the grammatical forms elude us; if we have the right idiom in mind, the words escape us.”

Then after 2 years in Korea, her main work being writing letters home for funding for the industrial work, she hears a rumor that she’ll probably be sent to help start the school at Malabon. She writes: “I thought I’d live and die in Korea, and I’ve given my heart and soul to this beautiful country and these simple, loveable people; but I don’t belong to myself anymore, and if you want me elsewhere, I’m only too glad to go. I know this is useless, but I want you to believe me when I say that God has always let me find happiness wherever He has placed me, and it’s only the first wrench that costs anguish. Soon our adjustable natures feel once more at home in new surroundings and among strangers.”

And if we think that anyone of us is a strong booster for women’s rights, listen to this – an excerpt from a lecture given in New York City at an Archdiocesan Mission gathering in 1949: “In going to the Orient as missioners, we set ourselves this task: To make known to the women of those lands all the rights and privileges that Christ gave to women.”

One final anecdote which gives the underlying beat of her whole life was her remark just a couple years ago. “I can’t do any work now but I can still smile. And so my apostolate is to keep the corners of my mouth turned upwards.”

So we join Sister Augustine in her joy as she discovers all that the Lord has in store for her because she has loved with every bit of her humanity. We thank Him for the life that now forms another brick in the foundation that is “Maryknoll” built by the Lord to serve His people as simple messengers of His Word; for a life which is an inspiration and a challenge to us in death to live our God-given humanity in our day.