Sister sisters are centenarians at the Mount

Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Sedonia May Isenbart, left, recently celebrated her 105th birthday. Her blood sister, Sr. Margaret Ellen Isenbart, who is 103, took part in the festivities. They are pictured in the chapel at Mount St. Mary’s in Wichita. (Advance photo)

Some things never change – even if you live for more than 100 years.

Sister Margaret Ellen Isenbart remembers the anti-Catholic vitriol of the 1928 presidential campaigns of Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee for president, and Herbert Hoover.

“You know all the degrading words they say today? They were there in those days,” she said.

Sr. Margaret celebrated her 103rd birthday on Nov. 21. But she isn’t the oldest Sister of St. Joseph living at Mount St. Mary’s in Wichita. Her blood sister, Sr. Sedonia May, born on Aug. 12, 1917, is 105.

Born at the end of World War I

Sr. Sedonia, whose hearing is now very limited, was born at the end of World War I south of Capron, Oklahoma, on her grandfather’s homestead. Sr. Margaret Ellen was born on her father’s homestead in Alva, Oklahoma. They were the seventh and eighth of nine children of Henry and Eva Kunzman Isenbart, who were blessed with four girls and five boys.

The sisters attended Sunnyside School, a one-room country school in Woods County, and Sacred Heart Catholic School in Alva. “We rented rooms in Alva and went to school during the week,” Sr. Margaret said. “My mother or my older sister would stay with us during the week.”

There were few modern conveniences on the farm, she said, adding that for years the family read and worked by the light of a kerosene lamp. One of her brothers, who she described as a natural-born mechanic, later refurbished an old generator for the family. “We got electric power earlier than many people on the farm.”

The radio was revolutionary

It allowed the family a connection to the world because they were able to listen to radio, Sister Margaret said. “We didn’t have one for years. And then when we did get the old Crosley radio you had three buttons and you had to get them in all in the same place.”

Sr. Sedonia entered the convent in 1936 and received the habit the next year. She spent decades cooking and housekeeping for her fellow nuns and in hospitals. She was also involved in prison ministry and taught GED and English as a Second Language classes. “Everything I do today I want to do to please God,” she frequently says.

Sr. Margaret entered the convent in 1943 and received the habit the next year. She attended Sacred Heart College in Wichita, graduated from St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, and received a master’s degree from Emporia State University. Sister taught for three decades in Kansas, Oklahoma, and California, before being trained in pastoral care.

Served for many years on Colorado

Sr. Margaret served in pastoral care for 16 years in the San Louis Valley in Colorado where Sr. Sedonia also served for a time.

Sr. Margaret also spent several years in home ministry when she took care of her brother and sister-in-law and, later, another brother suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and the mother of another Sister of St. Joseph who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Despite the unimaginable rise in technology available today, Sr. Margaret said, some things don’t change. “We want to be able to use the gifts God gave us,”she said. “I thinks it’s a marvel at how God has gifted us a human beings to be able to do the things we do. But, then, we try to play God once is a while.”

Sr. Margaret is often asked how she was able to have such a long and varied career. “It’s God’s extravagant love,” she answers.