The last servants: Sisters who founded Omaha’s Marian High prepare for their final act

June 9, 2024, 10 a.m. ·

Nuns sing along during Mass
Sister Joan Houtekier (from left), Sister Barbara Kennedy and Sister Sarah Derby sing along during Mass in the chapel at Our Lady of Sorrows Convent in Omaha on Sunday, April 28, 2024. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press)

Sister M. Angeline Hakel doesn’t worry about tomorrow. Or the days, months and possibly years that follow. “I’m hoping and trusting God to get me into heaven,” she said. 

For now, Hakel, 97, spends her days at the Servants of Mary Motherhouse, a convent situated next to Marian High School in Omaha. She tracks important social justice issues online – human trafficking and abortion. She doesn’t get around as she once did, she admits, so guests now come to her.

“Everything is much slower for me,” said Hakel, who made her final vows in 1951 with the Servants of Mary, a religious order founded in France 1845. “You’d be surprised how I can make mistakes these days. But I’m still learning and couldn’t be more grateful. I just love the life I have.” 

The order, which founded Marian High School, is down to 50 members in the U.S. Hakel is one of 21 Servites, as they’re called, still living in the 99-year-old convent. They are its final residents.

The remaining sisters are gradually transitioning from the convent into senior living facilities. Eventually, when the community’s last member dies, it will mark the end of the order’s presence in North America.

“I am sure all of us thought we would like to live here, make our vows here, celebrate our Jubilees here, die here,” said Sister Jackie Ryan, who heads the order’s leadership team. “That was not going to be.”

The Servites’ story has become a common one. In 2022, there were reportedly fewer than 42,000 nuns in the United States, a 76% decline over 50 years. At the rate sisters are dying, one estimate said that there will be fewer than 1,000 nuns left in the United States by 2042, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Sister M. Angeline Hakel
Sister M. Angeline Hakel stands during Mass in the chapel at Our Lady of Sorrows Convent on Sunday, April 28, 2024, in Omaha. At 97, Hakel is the oldest member of the Servants of Mary religious order in Omaha, which is home to the vast majority of Servits, as they’re known, in North America. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press)

Like Hakel, many of the sisters in Omaha have come to cleareyed comfort with the future.

“This is what it is and what we must do,” said Sister M. Peter Caito, 87, who joined the Servites in 1955 and came to the motherhouse from Michigan after 62 years of teaching. “God made everything beautiful, so enjoy it.”

The Servites’ roots in the U.S. date to 1892 in Indiana. More sisters followed and the order expanded west to Iowa and Illinois. Westward expansion continued and the Catholic Church considered the United States mission territory. Parish priests called for sisters to teach in their schools. 

In 1918, the Servants of Mary established a school in the newly formed Holy Name Parish in Omaha. Two years later, the order bought 20 acres of land outside of Benson with the intention of moving the motherhouse from Cherokee, Iowa. Construction soon began on their convent. 

In 1954, the Servites broke ground for an all-girls high school and expansion of their motherhouse. Marian High School opened one year later.

A photograph circa early 1960s of sisters in the Order of Servants of Mary
A photograph circa early 1960s of sisters in the Order of Servants of Mary hangs in the hallway of Our Lady of Sorrows Convent in Omaha. The convent has been home to the order’s members, called Servites, since the 1920s. The sisters established Marian High School in the 1950s. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press)

Throughout the past century, Servites taught in and led Catholic schools, including Marian, in Omaha and across the country.

At its peak in 1968, the order’s United States-Canada-Jamaica Community had 268 members. Decades ago – as their median age continued to rise – the order stopped seeking new members. Today, 50 Servites reside in the U.S., seven in Canada and two in Jamaica. 

Sisters residing in the United States, Ryan said, have been asked to come to Omaha to be in fellowship as they plan their exit from the motherhouse. 

That departure involves a gradual transition to Immanuel senior living facilities – the place the Servites chose to relocate their community. They wait for openings, with the hope that their transition will be complete by December 2026. 

“We have a theme for our transition – ‘we’re all in this together,’” said Ryan, 76, who made her final vows in 1970. 

Along with the 21 who still live in the convent, 12 live independently in houses or apartments, 10 already reside in a senior living facility and seven live elsewhere in the U.S. Sister Hakel is the oldest, while Sister Lisa Sheridan is the youngest at 62.

Nuns play a post-brunch game of Scrabble
Sisters Carol Kowalski (from left), Margaret Stratman and Zita Sharrow play a post-brunch game of Scrabble at Our Lady of Sorrows Convent in Omaha on Sunday, April 28, 2024. A total of 21 sisters belonging to the Servants of Mary religious order still call the convent home. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press)

As the sisters have aged, the order has transitioned from active to contemplative. “Our ministry has become one of prayer and presence,” said Sheridan.

Still, coming to terms with the long-term plan took time, Ryan said. 

“There was at first emotion: grief, fear, wondering. In the course of the past two years, we’ve moved to: ‘this is something we accept.’”

Marian’s president, Michele Ernst, said the Servites have been bold in charting their final steps as a religious community. 

“These women are in charge. They have a plan, and they are in the driver’s seat – as they’ve earned the right to be. They’ve gotten out in front of what they know is coming.” 

When the time comes, Marian High School will assume operational ownership of the nearly 60,000-square-foot building. Marian bought the convent from the order in 2019 and will make a final payment in September.

Because the Servants of Mary and Marian High School have history, Ryan said, it was the obvious decision that the convent be placed in Marian’s care.

Sister Jackie Ryan
Sister Jackie Ryan, prioress of the U.S. Jamaica Canada Community of the Order of Servants of Mary, celebrates Mass in the chapel at Our Lady of Sorrows Convent on Sunday, April 28, 2024, in Omaha. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press)

Ernst said the school is grateful. It will continue to honor the Servites’ legacy long after they no longer have a physical presence on campus. 

“Everything we were founded on remains,” Ernst said. “We have everything they dreamed of for Marian and brought to reality. Our job is to embrace that and carry it forward – in their name.”

Marian’s leadership team has already started exploring possibilities for the space. 

In its current state, Ernst said, the building is geared to office and living space. Ernst asked Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, an Omaha-based firm, to project potential uses for the building, including community use during the summer, weekend and evening hours when school isn’t in session. 

Whatever the outcome, she said, the building’s next use must benefit Marian students and be self-sustaining. “It will be a difference maker for Marian in the education space.”

Marian’s plan is to determine by year’s end, after receiving input from community leaders and planning experts, how it will use the space. 

One portion will remain untouched: the cemetery north of the convent.

The sun rises over the Servants of Mary Cemetery in Omaha
The sun rises over the Servants of Mary Cemetery in Omaha on Saturday, May 11, 2024. The cemetery will be the final resting place for the remaining sisters in the Servants of Mary religious order. The cemetery will remain even once the sisters’ convent transitions over to Marian High School. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press)

“That is sacred space,” Ernst said. “That’s our history.”

Two-hundred sisters have been buried in the cemetery, with Sister M. Patritia McGuire (who died in 1925) and Sister Alice Kotwick (who died in October) the bookends. Plain white crosses mark their graves.

Ryan said the cemetery serves as a visual reminder of the Servites’ lives of service and devotion.

“When I think of the cemetery, I think of courageous, faithful, compassionate women who came before us – and we are standing on their shoulders.”

Hakel said she hopes to donate her body to a medical cause. Her ashes eventually will be buried in the cemetery. Sisters Ryan, Caito and Sheridan also plan to be buried there. 

The fact that she’s the youngest among the sisters living in Omaha isn’t lost on Sheridan, who made her final vows in 1998 and is a member of the order’s leadership team. She realizes hers someday could be the final burial in the Servants of Mary Cemetery.

Yet, she said she doesn’t dwell on that day. “I think as time passes, on my journey down the road, you become aware life is going to look a particular way.”

Ryan said knowing where they eventually will spend their remaining time is reassuring to the Servites living in Omaha. 

“They know they have a place to go while they’re living and while they’re dying.”

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