Sister Margaret Usuka

Sister Margaret Usuka

November 13, 1926 – March 21, 2018

As a Congregation encompassing a diversity of peoples and cultures, we want to develop a world-wide perspective which makes our own, wherever we are, the concerns of all peoples. (Constitutions #26)

In 2003 Sister Margaret wrote: “God’s action in my life is obvious to me, because on a human level it’s so unlikely that I would have become a Sister. My background certainly isn’t typical of those who entered the convent when I did. For one thing, my parents were from Slovakia and were Byzantine rite Catholics. They were not overtly religious, but they gave me a real understanding of justice. I didn’t go to Catholic schools, and I didn’t know any Sisters. I used to sit in our little Byzantine chapel, where the priest would come from 50 miles away to say Mass, and think, “someday I’m going to find out what this is all about.” Keeping that promise to myself has led me on a lifelong odyssey. It is actually thanks to Fr. Francis X. Lasance and a book he wrote called ‘The Catholic Girl’s Guide” that I started thinking about the vocation question: “What am I going to do with my life?” I also read St. Teresa of Avila, who made the contemplative life attractive to me. But my motivations were more humanitarian than spiritual at that point: I wanted to make a difference, to reach beyond myself and serve the less fortunate.” 

How to make a difference was not immediately apparent to Margaret. She was working in the offices of a shoe manufacturing company when she found Fr. Lasance’s book. Margaret wrote to him asking advice. He sent her letter to the Superior at the Summit where he had served as chaplain for many years. The Superior wrote back to Margaret, and after a few weeks of correspondence, she suggested that Margaret come to Cincinnati for a visit. Margaret accepted the invitation. After a week at the Summit, Sister took her to visit the candidacy in Columbus. Margaret felt very welcomed in spite of the fact the liturgy and culture were foreign to her. She made the decision to enter the community and returned to Pennsylvania to share her decision with her family. The Sisters were not sure she would come back, but she did. Margaret entered at Mount Notre Dame on July 16, 1945.  

While Margaret was used to a large family, it was not an easy adjustment. She was older than most of the other postulants, came from a different Rite, had not attended Catholic school, knew very little about the Roman Rite practices, and her family was too far away to attend visiting days. A novice was assigned to give her catechism lessons,;a friend of the community visited her every visiting day, and she continued to feel welcome. As a novice, Margaret was given the name Sister Ignatius and prepared to teach. In between her studies, Sister Ignatius helped in the bakery, the kitchen and with secretarial work. Her teaching assignments to various parochial schools around the province placed her in 3rd through 8th grade classrooms. While she found some assignments easier than others, she deeply appreciated the mentoring of Sisters she worked with. 

Sister Ignatius listened when one principal strongly encouraged her to further her studies in Art. She was just finishing her Masters when a call from Kenya came for a Sister who could teach art. Part of her motivation for entering had been to serve as a missionary, so Sister Ignatius volunteered. Thus began for her more than 30 years of making God’s goodness known to, and finding God’s goodness in, other cultures.

Sister Ignatius joined other Sisters of Notre Dame at St. Lawrence Teacher Training College where she taught sections in Religion, Math and Art. She also gave Methods courses and supervised students during their teaching practice sessions.  At Maragoli, Sister Ignatius collaborated with the Guadalupe Fathers to establish a secondary school for girls. After six years of struggle, the school was accepted by the Kenya Ministry of Education. During that time, Sister physically helped build the parish church, including designing and creating the stained glass. 

In 1977 Sister had gone back to her baptismal name and exchanged the Kenyan heat for that of Arizona. There Margaret gained experience with Hispanic culture while serving as principal at Glendale. Her desire to serve as a missionary continued to beckon, and in 1978 Sister Margaret responded to a call to serve the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska. She spent five years in Western Alaska among the Yup’ik Eskimos in St. Marys, Mountain Village and Pilot Station. In these villages Margaret worked with the local Church communities as coordinator of the Religious Education programs, as home visitor and prayer leader. She also developed a deep appreciation for the people and their traditional culture. As Margaret lived the simple life-style and shared the lives of the people, she was accepted by the people as one of their own. In 1984 Margaret took on a new ministry, this time among the Athapaskan Indians at Koyukuk in Alaska’s Great Interior. There she served as the Pastoral Administrator responsible for animating the faith community through religious education, training of Church leaders, and sacrament preparation. For Margaret, her work was about helping the people “…make their religion more meaningful in their everyday lives and to help them see Christianity as something aligned to their own traditional religious and cultural values, how the two systems can really work together.” When Sisters expressed concern about the poverty in which she lived Margaret wrote: “I agree with you in seeing Koyukuk as a most abandoned place. However, life is not ‘hard’ in any pressured sense. It is true that much of our time is given to provide water, wood, shelter and food but we are blessed with these things, we just have to go and get them. When I think of the people in Ethiopia and I also remember in the bush areas in Kenya - when there was not enough rain people died, starved or survived on bananas.”

In 1990 Margaret exchanged the beauty of Alaska for the beauty of Utah as she accepted a mission to serve at the Tekakwitha Center outside of Roosevelt, Utah. There she gave much of her time to rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol abuse on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservations. Margaret taught arts and crafts at the Thunder Ridge Shelter for teenagers and the Red Pin Alcohol Center for adults. At the Ute Library and Adult Education Center, she also tutored people working to earn a high school degree. With fewer than 100 baptized Catholics on the reservation, Margaret opened her home for Bible discussion and daily Communion services. While in Utah she was honored for her ministry by the local parish. Part of the tribute read: “Her strength and commitment are so obvious… it took us, the ladies of the CCW, four years to get her to accept this honor. This is because, she says, ‘she was only doing her job’. We see it very differently and are so proud to honor Sr. Margaret Usuka as St. Helen’s Woman of the Year.”

Margaret joined her Sisters in Arizona in 1996. There she continued to reach out in service to Native Americans. In 1998, a desire to be closer to family brought her back to Ohio where she brought her creativity and artistic talent to her ministry as Sacristan at Mount Notre Dame. Her sewing skills created beautiful vestments and banners. Her use of color and appreciation of cultural diversity brightened the Chapel and enriched the worship experience of the community on Feast Days. Her green thumb and love of gardening enabled her to bring creation into the worship space through lovely plants and flowers that were rearranged daily. 

In community Margaret was known for her gentle smile and listening ear. She loved to walk, read, travel, sew and garden. Painting and woodcarving were special talents of hers. Letter writing became her way of staying connected when she was at a distance. She lived the Notre Dame value “where one of us is, all of us are.”  From Kenya she wrote, “By your prayers, you must help us to bring the riches of Christ into the lives so poor in so many ways.” From Alaska: “Thanks for writing to me. The Sisters have been so supportive during these first months that I have not yet felt alone.” Margaret wrote of trying to recognize Sisters in pictures sent after most of the community transitioned from the traditional habit, of gratitude at Chapter news, of tuning in to Voice of America to stay connected to what was going on at home, of gratitude for connecting with California SNDs also ministering in Alaska. Margaret appreciated time for prayer and retreat, and the opportunity to explore indigenous religious traditions. After participating in the Sun Dance and Vision Quests, she wrote home that they were “Spiritual exercise similar to our retreats because they are times of spiritual growth through prayer, aloneness and fasting.”

Margaret always attributed her family of origin and early life experiences as the source of her openness to other cultures and adaptability to different living situations. She stayed connected to her family through letters, phone calls and visits when they were possible. She was very grateful for the time she had with her sister, Ann, when Ann was ill.  

A few years ago Margaret wrote, “I know that the goodness I find in any culture enriches me and my life. I have gotten more out of my life than I had ever anticipated… Kenyans, Yupik Eskimos and Athabascan Indians in Alaska, the Ute, Pima and Yavapi tribes in the southwestern United States… How varied and colorful and vibrant the Body of Christ is! And how grateful I am now to have the time and space to integrate all of these experiences! From the Africans I learned total reliance on God for daily needs. The native Alaskans taught me to respect all living things and to live in harmony with all of creation. I now know from my own experience that we are all connected to the whole creation. My worldview has broadened to include all peoples and to appreciate the richness and diversity of the human family. I see the Body of Christ as a living reality.” 

In 1978, Margaret ended a letter with these words: “Thanks again for your letter and words of support. Let us pray for each other that we always do what God wants.” We, her Sisters in community, family and friends, thank Margaret for broadening our world view. We gather to celebrate the wonderful gift of her life and thank our good God for she expanded our sense of God’s goodness. We promise her our prayers and know, that in the Body of Christ, she continues to pray for each of us.

Bio Data
Born November 13, 1926 at Williamstown, Pennsylvania
Parents: George Usuka (born in Czechoslovakia) and Helen Bombak (born in Czechoslovakia)
Sisters: Mary, Betty, Ann, Helen Regina, Pauline
Brothers: Michael, George, John, Joseph, Stephen

Baptized on November 28, 1926 at Holy Ghost Greek Orthodox Church in Williamstown, Pennsylvania
Confirmed on November 28, 1926 at Holy Ghost Greek Orthodox Church in Williamstown, Pennsylvania

Entered July 16, 1945 at Mt. Notre Dame
First Profession: January 24, 1948
Final Profession: August 13, 1953

Bachelor of Science, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, 1958
Masters of Art, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, 1965

Assignments Included:
2/1/1949-6/1/1949 St. George School, Cincinnati, Ohio
1949-1950 Sts. Peter and Paul School, Reading, Ohio
8/1/1950-10/31/1950 Community Service, Provincial House, Mt. Airy, Cincinnati, Ohio
11/1/1950-6/30/1953 Community Service, Mt. Notre Dame Convent, Reading, Ohio
1953-1955 St. Robert Bellarmine School, Chicago, Illinois
1955-1960 St. Christopher School, Columbus, Ohio
1960-1966 St. Helen School, Dayton, Ohio
1966-1970 St. Lawrence Teacher Training College, Egoji, Kenya
1970-1977 Maragoli Girl's Secondary School, Maragoli, Kenya
1977-1978 Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Glendale, Arizona
1978-1983 Pastoral Ministry, St. Mary's Pilot Station, Bush, Alaska
1983-1984 Substitute Teacher at Springer Institute & Summit Country Day School, Cincinnati, Ohio (living at Holy Angels Convent, Cincinnati)
1984-1984 Religious Education Coordinator, St. Catharine Parish, Columbus, Ohio
1984-1989 Parish Administration, St. Patrick Parish, Koyukuk, Alaska
1989-1990 Pastoral Ministry, St. John/St. Peter Parishes, Galena, Alaska
1990-1996 Director of Blessed Kateri Center, Fort Duchesne, Utah and Pastoral Assistant at St. Helen Parish, Roosevelt, Utah
1996-1998 Assistant Librarian, Ft. McDowell Yavapi Tribal Library, Mesa, Arizona
1996-11/1/1996 Temporary Receptionist, New Arizona Family, Inc., Phoenix, Arizona
1998-2001 Community Service/Assistant Sacristan, Mt. Notre Dame Convent, Reading, Ohio
2002-2014 Sacristan, Mt. Notre Dame Convent, Reading, Ohio
2014-2018 Retired, Mt. Notre Dame Health Center, Reading, Ohio

Died on March 21, 2018 at Mt. Notre Dame Health Center, Reading, Ohio

Sr. Kim Dalgarn SNDdeN
March 21, 2018