Sister Agnette, 107, to celebrate 90 years of religious life

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Sister Agnette, 107, to celebrate 90 years of religious life

Sister of Christian Charity Agnette Bengal celebrated her 107th birthday in February 2021 and will celebrate 90 years of religious life in June. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Sally Turbov, director of nursing, speaks in Sister Agnette’s ear and makes her laugh, while Sister Monica Cormier joins in. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
While holding a bowl of ice cream, Sister of Christian Charity Agnette Bengal points out members of her family in photos to her fellow sisters, Sister Anastasia Sanford (left) and Sister Monica Cormier (right) at Sacred Heart Convent in Wilmette. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic
Sister Agnette (before she was a religious), left, poses for a photo with one of her sisters who entered the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. Photo provided
Sister Agnette in 1969. Photo provided
Sister Agnette and her biological Sister Marina pose for a photo. Photo provided
Sister Agnette poses with her biological sisters. From left to right, Sister of Christian Charity Marina Bengal, Teresa Bengal Spitzley, Poor Handmaid Sister Bernard Bengal, Sister Agnette, Matilda Bengal, Poor Handmaid Sister Dorothea Bengal, and Anna Bengal Spitzley. Photos provided

When you are 107 years old and living at Sacred Heart Convent in Wilmette, you can have ice cream anytime you want it. For Sister of Christian Charity Agnette Bengal, that time is usually following her afternoon nap. Maple walnut or chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce are among her favorites.

Sister Agnette celebrated her 107th birthday with a party on Feb. 4 and will celebrate a second milestone — 90 years of religious life — on June 29.

Born in Westphalia, Michigan, Sister Agnette was taught by Sisters of Christian Charity in school and entered the community, which is based in Wilmette, when she was 16. By age 19, she was teaching in schools. Her older sister Margaret, later Marina, also joined the community.

“We wanted to teach children,” Sister Agnette said. Two of their other sisters joined the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

While teaching in local schools, Sister Agnette earned bachelor’s degree from Loyola University Chicago and a master’s degree from St. Louis University. She served as principal at many schools and served as her community’s local superior, provincial councilor and treasurer. Sister Agnette was also academic dean for sociology at Mallinckrodt College in Wilmette.

When asked what life was like in the community in the early years, Sister Agnette said it was much like her life growing up in family of 13 on a farm — you did what you were told and everyone pitched in.

Today, her days are much simpler. She mostly gets around in a wheelchair because her doctors don’t want her walking. But if the nurses or other sisters are late taking her to chapel, she has been known to take herself, walking behind her wheelchair as she pushes it down the hall.

Sister Agnette is hard of hearing but she enjoys word search puzzles and playing solitaire. She can still read fine print and knows how to pull up photos on smartphones.

Sister Caroline Schafer grew up in the same small town as Sister Agnette and has lived with her for 21 years.

“She was always energetic. She was always very dedicated to her work,” Sister Caroline said. “She could never do enough for anybody.”

The other sisters could see their community’s constitution lived out through Sister Agnette’s actions, she said, especially in her prayer life.

She recalls that when Sister Marina was still alive, she and Sister Agnette lived across the hall from one another and would call out “good night” to each other before going to bed. Sister Agnette often helped her sister in the sewing room too, Sister Caroline said.

“She came from a small farming community in Michigan where the church was the center of the town, and still is,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Sister Anastasia Sanford would take Sister Agnette out, pushing her in the wheelchair as they delivered clerical material between the convent and the nearby province center, the community’s administration center.

They would stop in the kitchens and Sister Anastasia would give Sister Agnette a couple of her freshly baked cookies.

“She’d be alternating cookies as we continued our walk. Sometimes through the park. Sometimes to the back by our cemetery and make a visit to Sister Marina and pray a few Hail Marys,” Sister Anastasia said. “It was fun walking with her and I’m looking forward to doing it again once the weather gets warmer.”

Despite some physical ailments, Sister Agnette is still very lucid, she noted.

“She will point out every flower, every dandelion. She never met a dog she didn’t try to pet. She loves little children,” Sister Anastasia said.


  • women religious

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