Sister William Marie Villhard, MM

Born: August 8, 1913
Entered: December 7, 1939
Died: May 13, 1991

The opening prayer of the Liturgy for May 13 was, “Lord, send the power of your Holy Spirit upon us that we may remain faithful and do your will in our daily lives.”

We gathered here at the Center at the Eucharistic Liturgy, did not yet know it, but Sister William Marie, a woman whose life, word and witness was fidelity, had died that morning at Phelps Memorial Hospital.

Margaret Cecilia Villhard was born in St. Louis on August 8, 1913, one of four children of William and Katherine Monahan Villhard. After grade school, Margaret took a business course and worked until her entrance in 1939. She asked for and received her father’s name of “William” at Reception in 1940. As a novice, she began work in Mother Mary Joseph’s office and stayed there into Mother Mary Columba’ s term, as she made First Vows in 1942 and Final Vows in 1945. Those who knew Sister William Marie at this period used the same words then to describe her as those of us who knew her more recently. They wrote: “She is gentle”, “has a good mind and judgment and is a thorough and conscientious worker”, “a beautiful religious in every way”, and, if she has a weakness, it “would probably lie in being meticulous”.

In 1949, Sister William Marie was assigned to take a course in construction engineering, a first for Maryknoll and for Westchester Community College! Upon completion of the course, Sister William Marie was sent to the Philippines to supervise construction of Marian Auditorium at Maryknoll College. Here, her innovation, her ingenuity and, of course, attention to detail both delighted and frustrated her co—workers on the project.

In 1954, the clinic begun in Pusan, Korea in 1950 to serve those devastated by war in South Korea, was to be expanded into a hospital and Sister William Marie was assigned there to work with the U.S. military engineers and the Korean construction crew. The plans were drawn up and through shortages of money, material and manpower, faulty equipment and recalcitrant unions, Sister William Marie forged ahead, offering a “slump test” for concrete, alternately scolding and cajoling her workers to “do the job right” and, with U.S. military liaison men, scavenging for materials in post-war Pusan. The 8th Army Captain in charge of the project said in admiration: “She may be the world’s daintiest engineer, but she pours the best cement in Korea!” Her workers learned much from her and went on to become leaders on other construction projects, perhaps this was as important a contribution to Korea as the hospital building. The hospital opened for patients in 1964.

In November 1966, Sister William Marie began work in the Mother General’s office and remained there until last year at this time. This means that Sister William Marie has been a part of every single Congregational administrative group from Mother Mary Joseph until 1990. We stand in awe of this gift of self in service to the community; but it was not without cost. When she was asked to return from Korea, Sister William Marie wrote: “I am resigned to leaving; even though I cannot quite understand it all, the offering is made….” She loved Korea and the co-workers there who became her friends. But, when invited back by them to share in the Thirtieth Anniversary of the hospital’s foundation, she replied: “I humbly, happily acknowledge your affirmation of what I was enabled to do for the construction…but the expense of such a journey is far too great… I entreat you to use the money for your sick poor.”

Sister William Marie brought to the Secretariat the same exquisite attention to detail that characterized her work in the Philippines and Korea. She handled CBC, Maryknoll Nursing Home Board minutes, CGB minutes, record-keeping, and made a continuous effort, at least with our Board, to keep us on the straight and narrow path in terms of archival material, consistent filing, a sense of style and general good secretarial methods. She did it with gentleness and love, but she still “poured perfect cement” till the day she retired in March of last year!

We will remember many lovely, often unseen, facets of Sister William Marie; her love of nature, her joy in giving small, carefully wrapped gifts of chocolate or pens or cards; her willingness to do whatever was needed, and do it well and, above all, her love of and commitment to Maryknoll and our mission reality throughout the world.

Sister William Marie is at peace now. She has left us, the community, an enduring testament in her work, but more importantly, in the witness of her life of fidelity and strength, of gentleness and love. We offer our prayers today in union with Sister William Marie’s family.

We are grateful to have our Maryknoll brother, Father Michael Duggan, a missioner from Korea, here to celebrate the Eucharist of Resurrection for Sister William Marie.