Sister Mary Milano SNDdeN (formerly Carmen Therese)
October 27, 1931 – July 21, 2019
“At my return, I shall find heaven in our little house; what a joy for my heart! I could never tell you how happy I shall be to find myself again in your midst.” (Letter 38, Saint Julie Billiart, Foundress, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur)
Mary Isabel Milano was the fourth of five children and long-awaited daughter of a loving Italian American family. She grew up during times of economic hardship, but love was plentiful. Her neighborhood was fun-filled with children and cousins who became life-long friends. School was anything but fun. Mary was scared of the nuns and was constantly compared to her three older brothers. In high school, she had different nuns, but learning was still a challenge. Mary’s best friend attended a different high school, Notre Dame High School, staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Mary accompanied her friend to lots of extra-curricular activities. She experienced the Sisters interacting with the students and parents in ways that Mary described as “friendly, cheerful, human and humane.” It didn’t surprise Mary when her friend decided to enter with the Sisters of Notre Dame.
To support her friend, Mary went to a vocation talk at her own high school. The first thing the priest said was: “Don’t listen for a friend.” What Mary heard resonated with her heart and opened the door for her to look at her own vocation. She went to talk to the priest because she knew the thought of her entering would break her mother’s heart because, as Mary often said, “My mother started planning my wedding the day I was born!” The priest listened and gave her great advice: “Mary, ask your brothers if they will help you. They will be your support.” He was right. Her brothers all thought her entering religious life was a great idea and her father was ecstatic. Mary began praying with and pondering scripture. With prayer, and the rest of the family’s support, Mrs. Milano resigned herself to the situation and Mary prepared to enter the Sisters of Notre Dame with her best friend.
Mary’s friends were sure both of them would be home within weeks. They were half right. Mary’s friend left one month after entering. She asked Mary to leave with her. Mary replied, “No. Something in this just seems very right for me. I think this is what I’m supposed to do.” Her friend went home, and Mary stayed. Years later she would describe the tears she shed, the kindness and care she experienced from both her fledgling friends in the postulate and older Sisters, and the deepening sense of ‘rightness.’ Mary continued into the novitiate and received the name Sister Carmen Therese, which she would be known by until 1969.
As Mary continued through formation, it was not always easy. It was hard to be so far from home. Letters helped, and Mary so appreciated families of other Sisters reaching out to her, and visits from Chicago when her own family and friends found a way get to Cincinnati. Mary’s father and brothers continued to be very supportive of her call to religious life. Without her knowing it, her parents sent out invitations to family and friends for a Mass held at her home parish the day she pronounced her vows. After the Mass they had a reception at their home in Mary’s honor, and then they came to visit her. It was her father’s way of showing her how proud he was, and her mother delighted in planning a big reception.
After her vows, Mary was missioned to teach third and fourth grade. She enjoyed teaching and would teach every grade between 2 and 8. With each new mission Mary’s Notre Dame family expanded as Sisters became life-long friends and mentors. When her father became very ill during her first year teaching, the Superior flew to Chicago with Mary, taking her straight to her father. He recovered, and words could not express how much the care of the Superior meant to Mary and her family. Illness or not, it was a joy-filled occasion. Mary never forgot the Superior’s kindness. Her second mission was close enough to Chicago that her family could visit, and she could be present with them when her father died. Mary’s third mission was even closer to home and, besides teaching, she was the cook for the community. She could call her mother for advice, and her mother regularly visited. Each visit included a request that Mary come home. Mary knew that was not her call, so she volunteered for a mission in Detroit. Later she would accept a mission back to Ohio and elsewhere.
In 1963 Mary took on two new roles, both suited her gifts and both were challenging: principal and superior of the community in which she lived. When asked if she found serving as a principal satisfying, she responded: “Yes – the challenges and demands force one to take risks, accept failures and learn through mistakes or hasty decisions. These experiences prove to be the molder of strength and womanliness.” Mary added she would find just teaching MORE satisfying. The role of Superior brought a different set of challenges. She was much younger than many of the community members. How could she tell them what to do, how to live and hold them accountable? It was not easy for Mary, but she brought her own experience of good role models and her compassionate heart to the task. Mary clearly saw the need for training that would help superiors understand, work with, and appropriately challenge Sisters and help them more fully become who God created them to be.
In 1968 Mary was sent to Rome, with another SNDdeN, to study at Regina Mundi. Mary would remember the classes as being out of date, but the other experiences were “wonderful!” She and her companion took the opportunity to explore Rome, got to know other students from around the world, got involved in the Better World movement, got to know Sisters from around the SND world who were participants in the life-changing General Chapter of 1969, and were present for the canonization of Julie Billiart, the foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Kenya was a new mission for the Sisters, and their representatives at the Chapter asked Mary to think about coming to Kenya to serve. Her experiences in Rome allowed God to plant seeds of future directions in her heart. She came back to the United States for a year, during which one particular seed grew.
At the end of that year, Mary was on her way to Africa. She later said, “When I got off the plane in Kenya, I went directly into teaching in a secondary school for girls in the western province of Maragoli. I expected to teach teachers, but the new school was just starting to serve girls who could not get into the government schools.” Academics was the focus of the government schools. The Sisters had realized some girls did not have enough fundamental education to pass the entrance exams, and there were few jobs available when they finished school. The new school would address both fundamental education and offer vocational training. The Sisters taught the students typing and sewing – both marketable skills in the Kenyan economy. Mary spent five years in Kenya and felt she learned as much as she taught. She would value her Kenyan experience and pray for the work of Notre Dame in Kenya for the rest of her life. Mary also happily embraced any opportunity to return to Kenya for a short time.
When Mary returned to the United States she served as principal in Rockford, Illinois. It wasn’t long before another seed, planted in Rome, was ready for harvest. Her work with the Better World retreats and her own experience of the practice of spiritual direction led to her request to be trained in spiritual direction. Mary received permission to be part of a nine-month training program with 39 other men and women from around the world. At the end of the program Mary did a summer internship at a Jesuit Retreat house and worked for a year doing youth retreats with the Christian Brothers.
In 1981 all of Mary’s training and experiences bore fruit in a different way: as Novice Director for the Ohio Province. In this role, she oversaw programming and worked individually with the Novices. Mary worked with other Sisters working with women at various stages of incorporation into the Sisters of Notre Dame to develop programming. She also collaborated with her peers nationally and attended an international meeting of SNDdeN formators in Congo. Her attentive listening and love for Notre Dame were gifts she brought to this work as she encouraged the women she worked with to “put a little more flesh” on their articulation of their continuing discernment of God’s call and lived experiences of Notre Dame.
When she completed her term as Novice Director, she served for a short time coordinating programs at Mt. Notre Dame while building a full-time ministry as Spiritual Director and retreat director. She loved the work and said, “This ministry brings me great joy. I love the absolute awe that comes with hearing the story of a person and with being able to see the ultimate potential of that person. It’s an avenue to all kinds of relationships with a wide range of people who all have this deep longing for God.” After her retirement she added, “…that ministry fit me like shoes fit your feet– it was just wonderful and I had marvelous experiences with people!” Mary helped with retreats in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. She served her own Sisters, members of other religious orders, and lay people through the ministry of spiritual direction until 2006.
Mary had already started volunteering in the Province Offices at Mt. Notre Dame. In 2006 she became a ‘part-time volunteer’ and regular receptionist. Her pleasant voice answered the phone while her smile and warm, affectionate greeting welcomed those who walked through the door. Mary helped with multiple small tasks: mailings, copying, filling candy jars, attending to recycling, serving as narrator on videos, and much more. Her “small” contribution kept things clean, organized, and running smoothly while she provided a listening presence that made visitors and staff feel valued. Mary said of the work: “I really love doing it – keeps me off the streets. I really enjoy greeting people. And assisting wherever I can…..” Even after “retiring”, she continued to help a few hours a week as long as she could.
In community Mary shared the same gifts that added such meaning to her various ministries. She listed “homemaking” as a hobby. Mary loved to garden, walk, swim, meet new people, and she especially loved preparing and sharing meals with friends and family. She worked with others and on her own to create prayer shawls for the sick and to reach out to people in need. Mary loved to travel, especially with friends or family. She wove community, certainly with the Sisters she lived with at any given time (especially Carol with whom she lived for over 30 years), and also with their families and friends. For Mary, community included all those with whom she worked on faculties, committees, task forces, those with whom she gathered for prayer, faith-sharing, service, celebrations and all sorts of province meetings. She wrote: “… I am eternally grateful to Notre Dame. I would never have seen the world the way I’ve seen it. I would never have met the people I’ve met. I would never have had the opportunities for study, for input, for ongoing life experiences which have been marvelous.”
Mary’s brother, Carmen, once said to her: “Do you realize what wonderful people you live with and associate with?” Mary did, she loved being a Sister of Notre Dame – and she counted her family and friends outside of community on that list of “wonderful people.” She always talked of how good her brothers were to her, and her sisters-in-law, cousins, nieces and nephews, life-long friends – the list could go on and on. Letters, telephone calls, texts, visits, reunions – any and all opportunities to connect with loved one’s meant so much to Mary. A deeply prayerful person, she was attentive to doing her own inner work and allowing God to draw her deeper into mystery. But it wasn’t about just Mary and God. People made God’s love and goodness tangible to Mary. As she said, “We seek the divine in the other: the face of a child, a parent, a teacher who has heartaches. I’ve come to see the face of God in the other and in myself. God is in the midst of relationships: of loving other people and letting them love in return. I continue to seek that.”
Images from Scripture held great power for Mary. She wrote, “I think for me the image of the tree is most powerful. It is barren in winter, stripped of its leaves…. Then spring comes and, once again, birds and squirrels and bees will come to feed on it…. And, just as the cycle of life and death, life and resurrection happens in nature so it happens in our lives as human beings.” Now, as her Sisters, family, friends and co-workers gather to celebrate Mary’s life so joyfully lived, we give thanks for all the ways she nurtured us, provided shade for us, and through everything made God’s goodness known to us. We planned to gather to celebrate her 70th Jubilee. Instead, we celebrate her resurrection, knowing that she is celebrating with us and all her many loved ones who, with her good God, have welcomed her home. We miss her welcoming smile and embrace, yet we trust that she embraces each of us in the Heart of our good God, as we sing:
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful song. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name; good indeed is the Lord, his mercy endures forever, his faithfulness lasts through every generation. (Psalm 100:1-2, 4-5)
- Born October 27, 1931 in Chicago, Illinois
- Parents: Francis Xavier Milano (born in Chicago, Illinois) and Mildred Ungaro (born in Chicago, Illinois)
- Siblings: Rocco Milano, Gerard Milano, Carmen Milano & John Milano
- Baptized on November 26, 1931 at St. William Church
- Entered July 26, 1949 at Mount Notre Dame
- First Profession: January 26, 1952
- Final Profession: August 13, 1957
- Bachelor of Science in Education, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, 1962
- 1952-1953 St. Michael Parish School, Sharonville, Ohio
- 1953-1954 St. Alexander Parish School, Villa Park, Illinois
- 1954-1958 St. Robert Bellarmine Parish School, Chicago, Illinois
- 1958-1961 St. Eugene Parish School, Detroit, Michigan
- 1961-1963 St. Agnes Parish School, Dayton, Ohio
- 1963-1966 St. Victor Parish School, Calumet City, Illinois
- 1966-1967 St. Joseph Academy, Columbus, Ohio
- 1967-1968 Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish School, Glendale, Arizona
- 1968-1969 SNDdeN Generalate, Rome, Italy
- 1969-1971 St. Christopher Parish School, Columbus, Ohio
- 1971-1976 Maragoli Girls School, Hambale, Kenya
- 1976-1979 St. Rita Parish School, Rockford, Illinois
- 1979-1980 Institute for Spiritual Leadership, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois
- 1980-1981 Youth Retreat Ministry, Christian Brothers Spiritual Center, Adamstown, Maryland
- 1981-1988 Novice Director, Spiritual Direction and Retreat Work, Columbus Ohio & Cincinnati, Ohio
- 1988-1992 Spiritual Direction, Retreat Work, Coordinator of Programs at Mt. Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Ohio
- 1992-2006 Spiritual Direction, Retreat Work, Clerical Assistant at Province Offices, Cincinnati, Ohio
- 2007- 2019: Volunteer Clerical Assistant, Province Offices, Mount Notre Dame, Reading, Ohio
Died July 21, 2019 at Cincinnati, Ohio
Prepared by Sr. Kim Dalgarn SNDdeN