It’s now nine decades since 107-year-old Sister Agnette Bengal departed her hometown of Westphalia to give her life to Jesus Christ and His Holy Church as a Sister of Christian Charity. In the latest edition of Liguorian Magazine, Sister Agnette explains why she never doubts God’s continued faithfulness.
“I have great hope in young people. I trust in God’s faithfulness in guiding the Church and our world. I believe Jesus’ words: ‘Behold I am with you always’,” says Sister Agnette who resides at the Sacred Heart Convent in Wilmette near Chicago.
Here is how Sister Agnette looks back upon her life and, also, looks forward to the future with trust in God. She begins with her early years as one of 14 children in Westphalia.
* Question: How did you discover your vocation?
* Answer: The seeds of my vocation were planted and cultivated within the fertile soil of my family. My parents were blessed with fourteen children they raised with dedication, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love.
I attended St. Mary’s school from first to eighth grade. Sr. Theresina (SCC), my first-grade teacher, prepared me for my first confession and holy Communion when I was but seven. In the lower grades, I received the sacrament of penance once a month and holy Communion frequently. Later I received Communion daily. I was confirmed in 1922. In May 1926, our priest gave a retreat for the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, which I made.
As I grew older, I felt religious life was my holy vocation. My motive to enter and become a sister was to become a saint and help save souls for the dear Lord by word and example. I had the example of three of my sisters, who also experienced God’s call to religious life and responded with an enthusiastic yes. My calling expresses itself in this letter I wrote at age fifteen to Reverend Mother Edward, SCC, dated September 7, 1929, asking permission to enter Maria Immaculata:
“Esteemed and dear Mother, no doubt, you can guess the purpose of this letter. Herewith, I wish to apply for admission into the community of the Sisters of Christian Charity. During the course of my last school year, I prayed much to find out my true vocation. I feel that I’m drawn towards your community in which I hope to secure my soul’s salvation and serve the Lord according to the rules.”
“I finished the eighth grade in May. I was busy helping my mother. Now my dear parents allowed me to enter this autumn. They are planning to bring me to Wilmette per auto during the last week of September around the 24th. They plan…to take me to see my sister, Sr. Dorothea, at Donaldson, Indiana, visit Chicago, then to Wilmette to Sr. Marina. Just what day they intend to tour we cannot tell. Will it be satisfactory…if we arrive on any one of those days?
“Please accept fond greetings from my (family)…Hoping to receive a favorable answer soon, I am your obedient child, Regina Bengal.”
I received permission from kind Mother Edward and entered Maria Immaculata on September 26, 1929.
* Question: How have you experienced God’s goodness in your ministry?
* Answer: The words “Lord, it is good to be here” are displayed on the wall of our chapel at Sacred Heart Convent in Wilmette. This has definitely been my experience during my ninety years of religious life.
In response to God’s continuing call, I have tried to live in love and “give Christ’s love to everyone in cheerful wholehearted service,” a phrase from our Sisters of Christian Charity charism statement.
During my life as a sister, I have worn many hats: from elementary school teacher to provincial councilor, to an advocate for children, local community treasurer and seamstress and so on. The Lord has sustained me with great peace and a heart for others. The words of one of my favorite hymns gradually became more real to me: “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.”
The Lord often took me at my word, although not always in ways I would have chosen. Having lived in community for ninety-plus years, I know that demands on one’s time and talents can be exhausting, but when each day is lived with God as the center of all, the experience is life-giving.
I owe a great deal to my early years of growing up within a large and loving family. I learned the meaning of sharing, caring, and appreciation for life’s simple pleasures and joys. My faith in God and experience of God’s goodness was nurtured by faith- filled and self-sacrificing parents who generously gave four of their children to God’s service.
I recall the day a dear friend came to my room to say good-bye as she moved to be closer to her children and their families. We both knew we would likely never see one another again. After making the sign of the cross with holy water, we prayed for our usual list of intentions: our families, the Sisters of Christian Charity, the needs of the world and our Holy Father, Pope Francis. We then exchanged hugs as we realized that it was our mutual bond of love and prayer that would sustain and strengthen our friendship across the miles.
* Question: What gives you hope in the Church today?
* Answer: I have great hope in young people. I trust in God’s faithfulness in guiding the Church and our world. I believe Jesus’ words: “Behold I am with you always.” I have confidence in the leadership of Pope Francis, bishops, clergy, religious, and active laypeople.
I appreciate the value of acceptance and patience with God’s work in my life and in the lives of others, and above all in the power of prayer. God guides this world and his Church and will never leave either orphaned.
My positive attitude is based on faith, hope, love—and a love of puzzles. My sister, Sister Marina, and I have completed many puzzles together. We have had the joy of seeing a mass of pieces become a picture. Hope in the Church can be like a puzzle, especially today when there seems to be so many unending challenges. Wholeness exists among the pieces interlocked together. We, though many, are one in the body of Christ.
* Question: Do you have advice for Church leaders on seeking out the unchurched?
* Answer: Trust the inner goodness of each person. See each person as God does. Give each person room to grow and develop according to his/her potential. Believe in God’s presence in each person. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Try to have a listening ear and an understanding heart when others share views that may not align with your own beliefs. Be open to having your schedule interrupted. Welcome the untimely phone call and unannounced visitor who arrives “after hours.” Follow Jesus’ example when he welcomed Nicodemus at night. Share your gift of truth, faith, and life freely and generously, no matter how it is received by others. God’s word is alive. Be convinced that God will bring forth an abundant harvest if we continue to labor in the vineyard with love and generosity.
© Liguorian, 2021; visit liguorian.org to learn more and subscribe.
* Photographs below: Sister Agnette Bengal with Sister Anastasia Sanford (left) and Sister Monica Cormier (right) at the Sacred Heart Convent in Wilmette. Photo: Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic