S. Mary Agnes McCann
By Josh Zeller, Communications Intern
To the end of her life, S. Mary Agnes McCann was always writing. In 1930, she was hard at work on a fourth volume of her comprehensive The History of Mother Seton’s Daughters: The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, Ohio, when she was suddenly struck by illness; she died a year later at the age of 80. But her legacy as an historian of the Congregation has lived on long after her death, and in examining her life, one can see the spirit of mercy and compassion contained not only within the pages of her writings, but also without in her teaching ministry, to which she was passionately devoted.
Sister was educated at the nascent Cedar Grove Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was one of the star pupils. As she interacted with the Sisters of Charity who taught there, she found herself called to religious life, and entered in 1867 (Mother Margaret George died just a year later); she remained at the Academy to complete her studies in “languages, philosophy, and science”. Years later, she furthered her education at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C, where she received her Ph.D.—the first Sister of Charity to do so.
Her teaching ministry began in 1868 at St. Francis de Sales School in Newark, Ohio; after two years of service, she found herself back at Cedar Grove Academy in 1870, but this time as a teacher—she remained there for 20 years. One of her students was the late S. Mary Alexine Byrne, who recalled the excellent grounding she received in Latin, literature, and chemistry. S. Mary Alexine had one particularly vivid memory of S. Mary Agnes, which highlighted her dynamism and expertise: a student asked, “We have symbols for water—H2O—and sulfuric acid—H2SO4. Why isn’t there a symbol for air?” S. Mary Agnes responded, “The number and variety of gases surrounding our Earth is so great as to defy symbolic representation.” Such a “reasonable and conclusive” response was typical of S. Mary Agnes; S. Mary Alexine relates, “Her leadership and adaptability in solving all kinds of school problems was generally recognized; hence Cedar Grove flourished during her incumbency.”
Except for a few years in Bay City, Michigan, Sister mostly ministered in Ohio, and eventually settled into the College of Mount St. Joseph (now Mount St. Joseph University), where she taught until her death. All the while, she was publishing writings on Catholicism and the Sisters of Charity, debuting with Mother Seton, Foundress of the Sisters of Charity in 1909. She would go on to publish eight works, including a work of poetry, Little Blossoms of Love, Kindness, Obedience, in 1910. It was appropriate that she be the Congregation’s chronicler, for, during her long life, she witnessed firsthand a small Community of 130 Sisters grow to 1,130 in number by the time of her death.
When the news of S. Mary Agnes’ death came in 1931, countless telegrams and letters arrived at the Motherhouse in condolence, as clergy and former pupils expressed their love for S. Mary Agnes—her obituary relates that “[a]ll stressed her charity and kindness.” Her prodigious scholarly gifts reached many and her contributions to the education of young minds touched even more.
Byrne, S. Mary Alexine. Recollections from Cedar Grove, 1884-1887.
“S. Mary Agnes McCann.” Intercom, Jan./Feb. 2003.
“Venerable and Well Known Sister Dies: Sister Mary Agnes McCann” (obituary)