Sister Mary Marge Goeckner

Sister Mary Marge’s first lesson about change came when she was 10 years-old and was alongside her father, a county assessor, on one of his trips to visit local properties. One of the families invited them in for a meal. Finding the conditions meager and dirty, the young Mary Marge refused to eat. Later, her father scolded her. “My father said, ‘If you are going to behave that way, then that’s the last time you can go with me.’ I learned lessons in graciousness and would have many such lessons in changing from my parents.”

Invitations to change continued after she entered St. Gertrude’s in 1955. When she was a postulant, the professed sisters were not allowed to talk to new members. “I was inspired to enter community by my teachers who were sisters but now I couldn’t talk to them. This was very difficult. I would be in trouble one day and would pack my bags to leave. Sister Angela Uhlorn (another postulant) would listen to my tears and talk me out of leaving. I would do the same for her.”

Her vocation would be severely tested when she was teaching at St. Paul’s Elementary School in Nampa, Idaho. While watching the children on the playground one day, a second grader was hit in the chest by a baseball. The child died in Sister Mary Marge’s arms. “It was a devastating and faith-shaking experience,” she said. 

Change in the form of healing would come slowly over the coming years. Father James, a speech teacher and Benedictine priest at St. Martin’s where she was earning her teaching degree, invited Sister Mary Marge to counseling after she recounted the tragic experience for a class speech project. “He helped me tell my story and that was healing for me.” Later, a trip to St. Peter’s in Rome and an encounter with Michelangelo’s Pietá also brought healing. “When I first saw the Pietá, I cried. Mary must have felt that way as Jesus died in her arms.”

Sister Mary Marge would help her town navigate change when she was asked to develop and implement religious education classes (known as Released Time) after the closing of St. Gertrude’s Academy in 1970, which was a big change for the students. “One day an 8th grade student, fed up with me and school and life in general, came up to my desk and spat in my face and shouted, ‘I don’t have to do anything you say because my parents said this Released Time Program is a bunch of garbage.’

“With tears and spit running down my face, I wondered if our community and the town of Cottonwood could make it through this change. I sat at my desk and vowed to find a way to reach the children. I let the kids express to me their anger, pain, and fear around the changes in the church and in their town. It is hard for some people to change.”

Sister Mary Marge’s journey also includes continuous invitations to grow in leadership. After graduating from Seattle University Master’s Program in 1976 she went to Rome to study Monastic Studies (taking classes in Italian). Though she was soon called back home in 1977 after she was elected prioress. She served as the community’s leader until 1985 and was the second youngest prioress to ever serve in St. Gertrude’s history, after the foundress, Mother Johanna Zumstein.

In 1981, Sisters Mary Marge, Annunciata, Aquinas, and Joan were in a terrible car accident on their way to the funeral of Sister Helen Marie’s father. It was December. They lost control on the icy road and slid into a logging truck. Sister Annunciata was killed. Sister Mary Marge spent a year in rehab in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In 1985-86 Sister Mary Marge took Clinical Pastoral Education and served in Spokane, Washington, as a chaplain at Holy Family Hospital for ten years and then at Sacred Heart Medical Center for ten years. In this time she earned a counseling degree during summer sessions in Zurich, Switzerland. “I survived cancer and a horrific car wreck that killed Sister Annunciata; I have no fear of death! These experiences helped me in my ministry of pastoral care to those dying and those who survive.”

Sister Mary Marge is now the assistant prioress. She also served as assistant prioress during Sister Clarissa Goeckner’s first term as prioress. She spends Sunday afternoons on embroidery projects. “I understand the Rule of Benedict better now and continue to ‘listen with the ear of my heart.’ St. Gertrude’s offers spiritual nourishment for people, a place to listen and be changed by God. I have had so many opportunities. Community has provided me with that — the opportunities to go when I could go. Community has also pushed me — and you need a push every now and then.”