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Benedictine Sister Mary Stella known as prayerful, peaceful presence

Benedictine Sister Mary Stella known as prayerful, peaceful presence - (05-10-2017)

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Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration Mary Stella Cunniff, OSB passed away on Oct. 3, 2017, in Clyde, Missouri.

She was born Mary Elizabeth on Aug. 9, 1920, in Nashville, Tennessee, to Martin and Sarah Shea Cunniff. She was the oldest of seven children. She had two brothers and four sisters, one of whom was Benedictine Sister Mary Grace Cunniff, OSB, who passed away in 2015.

Mary Elizabeth attended public school for one year before transferring to a Catholic school taught by the Sisters of Mercy. After high school graduation, she enrolled in a business course and took the Civil Servants Exam. To her surprise, she was offered a position as a stenographer in Washington, D.C.

She attended Mass every morning with her roommates and often went to evening church services that included exposition of the Blessed Sacrament followed by Benediction. She also read about perpetual adoration in a magazine her cousin subscribed to called “Tabernacle & Purgatory,” published by the Benedictine Sisters in Clyde. 

Feeling a strong call to religious life and not really liking business work, she ended up only working in Washington, D.C. for one year. She didn’t feel a calling to apostolic works such as nursing or teaching. Instead, it was the prayer life of the Benedictine Sisters that drew her, to be in a place where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. She entered the Benedictine Sisters on July 4, 1942.

“I was just thrilled with the chapel and wanted to spend a lot of time there,” she once wrote. She made her first monastic profession on Jan. 29, 1944, receiving the name Sister Mary Stella, and took her perpetual vows on Feb. 19, 1949. She also had the honor of taking part in the Consecration of Virgins ritual in 1961.

She started out working in the correspondence department and then was the cook in the infirmary kitchen, main kitchen and bakery at Clyde for 17 years. Her cooking skills were also utilized in the San Diego, Tucson, Arizona, and Kansas City, Missouri, monasteries.

It was in Kansas City where she would also patiently, kindly and quietly feed the poor who came to the back door. She also worked in the altar bread department at Clyde and as a portress in Tucson.

“After we were allowed leisure time, I took up piano because I always wanted to take lessons but never had the opportunity. I also loved flowers and started growing roses as I thought they would give joy to others besides giving me good exercise,” she wrote.

The most recent years before she moved to Our Lady of Rickenbach healthcare center in Clyde were spent in the Tucson monastery. Her quiet, peaceful presence was a magnet for people to come up to her in chapel and start a friendship that sometimes developed into weekly visits by donut-carrying friends who needed a good ear to listen to their stories. Sister Mary Stella had that, indeed.  

She was a steady, cheerful, faithful and humble presence in all her years in community. She also had the reputation of being one of the best pie bakers in the history of the Congregation.  

When she transferred to Our Lady of Rickenbach, she was united with her younger sister, Sister Mary Grace, who was already a resident. They were often seen sitting together sharing quiet conversation. Sister Mary Stella would also greet all passersby with a gentle smile, a few words and just be a prayerful, peaceful presence.

Sister Mary Stella is survived by her sister, Teresa, her brother, Tom, many nieces and nephews and her monastic family. Her funeral liturgy and burial at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Clyde were held on Oct. 5, 2017.