Groundskeeper extraordinaire “Sister John Deere” helps to keep the St. Paul campus looking beautiful.
On a steamy July afternoon, a red Volkswagen skids to a stop at the curb where 77-year-old Mary Ann Fath, CSJ, sits in the shade, taking a reluctant rest after a morning of mowing lawns and whipping weeds.
A 20-something woman jumps out and deposits a bag of Bing cherries on the picnic table. “I thought you might like them,” the woman explains. “They were on sale.”
The Sister bows her head in bemused gratitude and then waves as the young woman drives away. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen her before,” Sister Mary Ann shrugs. “But I guess she’s probably seen me.”
Thanks to her five-decade career, Sister Mary Ann likely has encountered every student who has stepped on campus since 1972; at the very least, her work has touched their lives. Though she began her calling as a nun with the moniker Sister Louis Joseph, she may be better known as “Sister John Deere,” a student nickname that acknowledges Sister Mary Ann’s many years helping to keep the campus lawns and green spaces trimmed and tidy.
Whether she’s cheering on the basketball team, removing snow from the sidewalks or pacing the sidelines at a soccer match, Sister Mary Ann is something of a University mascot. “Part of what makes her legendary is the fact that she’s been consistently present, and the students notice and appreciate that,” says Brian Bruess, vice president for enrollment managment and student affairs.
Though her cropped white hair, sensible glasses and green golf shirt make her easy to spot, being noticed has never ranked high on Sister Mary Ann’s list of priorities. “Being outside,” she says, spreading her arms wide and beaming as a breeze rustles the leaves overhead. “I love that I get to be outside.”
A farmer’s daughter
Sister Mary Ann grew up with cows, sheep and chickens (“all the good stuff”) on her family’s farm in DeGraff, Minnesota. She still recalls the childhood ache of losing a prized Nut Goodie candy bar under a haystack. “My mother’s fudge was even better, but I still remember how sad I felt about that,” she says with a laugh.
Getting the most out of meals, clothing and tools was important to her Irish-German parents. Sister Mary Ann carries on that tradition of thrift by taking meticulous care of the campus’s fleet of lawn machines and continuing to wear the bibbed railroad overalls that once belonged to her father.
“One year for Christmas we told her we wanted to get her a new set of bibs, but she wouldn’t hear of it,” says Corinne Ritt, facilities office coordinator. “That woman knows how to stretch a dime.”
Young Mary Ann first began to consider the sisterhood in high school after meeting a delegation from the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Aberdeen, South Dakota. She’s careful to note, however, that she did not choose the vocation. “It chose me. He chose me,” she says, pointing heavenward.
She entered the convent in 1952, taking her first vows in 1955 and her final vows in 1960. At no point did she consider what her career within the sisterhood would be. “I just do whatever comes along,” she says, ticking off a life list of jobs that has included grading papers in parochial schools, planting flowers, tending to the elderly and making meals for the other Sisters. “I don’t like cooking, but no one complained about mine,” she says, chuckling. “I suppose that’s because no one else wanted the job.”
In 1972, as many Catholic grade schools and high schools began to close, Sister Mary Ann brought her talents to St. Kate’s; 70 Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet were living on campus at the time. She’s watched the mood and priorities shift as each successive generation — from Baby Boomers to Millennials — has left its own mark on the campus. “The hippies were awfully friendly,” she says. “But today’s students are a lot less trouble.”
Now more than 12 years past “retirement age,” Sister Mary Ann has accrued more vacation time than she cares to use. “What would I do anyway? I’d just get bored,” she says, adding that the on-the-job exercise helps her look and feel younger than her years.
Her daily devotional also does wonders: “I do like to stretch out on the floor while I say my Rosary. That really helps my back.”
Laura Billings Coleman writes about higher education and health at ProBonoPress.org, a creative firm specializing in nonprofit and community development.