Sister Agnes: pioneer theologian still happily learning

Photo Caption: Sister Agnes Cunningham, SSCM, of Champaign was named one of seven “pioneering women” by St. Xavier University this summer.

By: By Jennifer Willems

CHAMPAIGN — As a child, Sister Agnes Cunningham, SSCM, wanted to be a trapeze artist, a detective and a dress designer, and it’s easy to believe that this talented, articulate woman could have succeeded in any of these careers.

What she eventually chose to do, however, is use her agile mind, her powers of deduction and her eye for beauty to animate others with the love of God and to awaken in students of all ages and walks of life an appreciation for early church history and the saints and scholars who shaped it.

This week, Sister Agnes is completing six years of service as superior of the Champaign community of the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary, although she won’t be leaving either behind. She plans to remain in Champaign and work on various projects, including writing a spiritual history of her international community and continuing to translate the 1,200 letters of their founder, Father Francois Delaplace, CSSp, from French to English.

“I’m an old, happy nun,” said Sister Agnes, who looks younger than her 85 years, especially when she’s chuckling over a good story. “No life is free from ups and downs, trials and challenges, but I’ve never regretted anything I’ve done.”

Born in Yorkshire, England, Sister Agnes was still a toddler when her parents, Michael and Monica Cunningham, immigrated to the United States. Settling in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, she started attending first grade at Nativity School when she was 4 — mostly to give her mother some time to rest while pregnant with Sister Agnes’ sister, Helen.

She laughs as she remembers falling off the bench behind her desk when she tried to make room for her guardian angel, whom she imagined to be a bit plump. She also was honored to be chosen to throw flower petals before the Blessed Sacrament during a Corpus Christi procession through the neighborhood.

One of the family’s moves brought them to St. Gall’s Parish and the only school in the Archdiocese of Chicago that was staffed by the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary. Eventually Helen Cunningham would go to the community’s Holy Family Academy, a boarding school in Beaverville, and Sister Agnes followed after getting everyone from the principal to the cook to write letters to her parents and winning a scholarship.

It was at the academy that she discovered a love for French and Latin and developed a desire to enter consecrated life. Her mother asked her to wait, however.

“She said, ‘You know, Sisters don’t really get a lot of education and God has given you a good mind. I’d like you to go after college,'” Sister Agnes recalled. “I just started praying and I had everyone I know pray and pray and pray.”

Her parents relented and Sister Agnes entered the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary after graduating from Holy Family Academy in 1940. She professed first vows in January 1943 and final vows in January 1949.

“Somebody once asked me what were the things I had to give up when I entered the convent and I said, ‘Studying — I love to study — and travel,'” Sister Agnes told The Catholic Post.

“Well, I have studied more than I ever dreamed I would in this congregation and I’ve traveled more,” she said. “As life went on I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been to Canada, France, Argentina, Cuba, Cameroon to do workshops for the Sisters, to do translations, to do retreats, to do study days, to do consultations.”

Sister Agnes holds bachelor’s degrees in church music from the Gregorian Institute of America at the University of Toronto and English literature from St. Louis University in St. Louis. She earned a master’s degree in theology with a concentration in Scripture from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1962.

But she wasn’t done yet, thanks to “a wise, foresighted superior” who asked her to go to Europe and get a doctorate in theology. Sister Agnes demurred on the grounds that she was already teaching at Mundelein College in Chicago and that the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary had no institutions of higher learning.

“That wise woman said, ‘This isn’t about us. This is about the church. The church is going to need women well formed in theology. I would like you to be our contribution,'” Sister Agnes told The Post.

She would become the first woman to apply to and be accepted at the Facultes Catholiques in Lyon, France, where she received a licentiate in moral theology and a doctorate in patristic theology. When she returned to the United States she worked with Msgr. Edward Duncan at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois and still found time to teach future priests (and bishops) as the first woman theologian at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein.

Sister Agnes was honored as one of seven “pioneering women” by St. Xavier University in Chicago in June for her work at the Mundelein seminary.

Even after leaving St. Mary of the Lake to work in leadership for her community, Sister Agnes has continued to help those who seek out her expertise about the early fathers of the church — including a Benedictine abbot with whom she remains in contact.

She attributes a renewed interest in patristics, in part, to the influence of Pope Benedict XVI. Sister Agnes said she thinks people also are drawn to the church fathers because they knew what it was like to confront challenges to their faith on a daily basis.

“They were believers who were theologians, spiritual leaders and pastors. It’s rare to find anybody after them who combined all three of those gifts,” she told The Post, adding that it’s “the wonderful integration” of those gifts and the wisdom that flows from it that is attractive to people.

She often encouraged the seminarians to follow their example by continuing their theological learning for as long as they lived and to be “men of prayer and fidelity to the Gospel and to the Lord Jesus.”

Sister Agnes practices what she preaches, devoting the first hour of her day to prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament and morning prayer as often as she can.

“I’ve never regretted it,” she said of her busy life. “I’ve been very happy.”

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