With books and news, 101-year-old nun aimed to stay ‘interested’

| Christina Capecchi | June 20, 2018 | 0 Comments
Sister of St. Joseph Marguerite Turgeon, 101, stands June 6 next to a miniature Victorian house she assembled that is on display at Carondelet Village in St. Paul where she lived.

Sister of St. Joseph Marguerite Turgeon, 101, stands June 6 next to a miniature Victorian house she assembled that is on display at Carondelet Village in St. Paul where she lived. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Getting enough sleep is important at age 101, but on a Monday this spring, Sister Marguerite Turgeon stayed up till 11 p.m.

It had been a full day: 9:30 a.m. Mass, lunch with her fellow Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the “Dr. Phil” talk show at 3 p.m., finishing a book on the making of the U.S. Constitution, fielding phone calls, visiting with a friend and tuning in to MSNBC for extended coverage of the revelation of the day: that Michael Cohen’s “mystery client” is Sean Hannity.

“I was riveted,” Sister Turgeon said. “There’s so much going on.”

Staying engaged in matters large and small had been a key to aging well for the Minneapolis native then living at Carondelet Village in St. Paul, a retirement community comprising many women religious. She credited good genes, pointing to her French heritage, and eschewed conventional anti-aging elixirs like wrinkle cream, a fact belied by her un-creased skin. A niece once bought her Oil of Olay cream, but after applying it a few times, Sister Turgeon said it felt wasteful to use up the entire jar.

Also, she pointed out, religious life is free of worries about finance and child-rearing that age parents. She was humble as she reflected on her longevity, sitting in the corner of her one-bedroom apartment dressed in a royal blue sweatshirt, a color as vibrant as her state ­— not diluted or diminished.

Sister Turgeon died June 16. In April, she spoke with The Catholic Spirit about being a centenarian.

Only five years ago she began taking pills other than Tylenol — around the same time she stopped practicing yoga. She did not need a hearing aid or wheelchair, just a walker to make her way around, and she could read standard-size print with her trifocals, a fact she took full advantage of, regularly borrowing from the community library. “It keeps you interested,” she said.

A focus on being interested versus interesting, in many ways, defined Sister Turgeon, whose 85 years of religious life were founded on faith and shaped around service.

She was the ninth of 15 children born to Edward, a mechanic, and Melvina, a homemaker. They prayed the rosary together every night before bed and were taught by Sisters of St. Joseph at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. Sister Turgeon remembered bringing flowers to their Mary shrine and experiencing the peaceful quiet of the chapel — a welcome contrast to her bustling home life, where siblings shared beds and silence was scarce. In fourth grade, when a nun asked how many of the students planned to enter religious life, Sister Turgeon raised her hand. “I thought I had committed myself,” she said, chuckling.

Just as surely as Catholicism seemed to be the only religion back then, so, too, did the CSJs loom large as the obvious order. She never dreamed of marriage or motherhood, and she didn’t feel a pang of sacrifice when she joined the convent in 1933. Instead, she was struck by little perks: “When I entered, we each had our own little cubicle. It was such a delight to be all by myself.” She immediately recognized the power of communal living, she said. “I felt a strong bond of community with the sisters all along.”

Religious life was a choice she did not make in isolation. Two of her sisters also joined the Sisters of St. Joseph and a brother became a Marist priest.

Over the decades, religious life presented one adventure after another.

“I did things I never would’ve thought of doing because I was a sister and I had the community beside me,” Sister Turgeon said. That included nine years of teaching, two decades in hospital administration and then, beginning in her 50s after she took a two-year course, occupational therapy — a professional highlight. Working as the activity director at a retirement center and bringing fun to others’ lives felt deeply fulfilling. It tapped into her artistic talent, prodding her to assemble a 3-foot miniature Victorian house gifted to the retirement center. She taught ceramics, empowering the seniors to help make intricate furnishings to adorn every square inch — sinks, rugs, clocks, beds. The dollhouse is now perched in the front lobby of Carondelet Village, greeting visitors.

Sister Turgeon enjoyed an array of creative pursuits. She made quilts, painted in watercolor and sewed more than 70 dolls, including dozens of Raggedy Ann dolls and originals she named Cuties. She delighted in the labor, threading curly yarn hair and painting cheerful faces to surprise her nieces and great nieces.

The way Sister Turgeon combined attention to detail with big-picture thinking — tracking news about the country and the Church as she continually brushed up on their histories — astounded her fellow CSJs.

“I just want to be like her,” said Sister Kevin Bopp, 78. “I have learned from Sister Marguerite how to live day by day, to take things as they come.”

That was crucial at 101. Her 102nd birthday would have been Aug. 5, and Sister Turgeon couldn’t help but imagine the day she’d be reunited with her parents and 14 siblings, all of whom have died.

“I know for sure that I’m going to die,” she said. “Every day I feel that it’s coming. I’m at peace with it because I’ll meet with my family again. It’s hard to envision heaven. I keep thinking, ‘What is it going to be like?’ It’s going to be a great adventure.”

Read more from Christina Capecchi in her monthly column, Twenty Something.

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