Remembrance of the Life of Mary Agnes Richter SL
Jan. 1, 1925 — Feb. 10, 2018
Sister Mary Agnes began life on the first day of 1925, born in her mother’s hometown of East Las Vegas, N.M. She was the only child of an older couple residing in Bernalillo, N.M., where her father, Ludwig Richter, worked as a butcher. She was named Emma Marian Richter after her father’s mother. He was at the time 45 years old, a non-Catholic born in Hamburg, Germany, who had immigrated to the United States in 1900 at the age of 17. Emma’s mother, Petra Spiegman, was 32, from a hard-working Hispanic family in East Las Vegas. By time Emma was school age, her parents had moved from Bernalillo back to Las Vegas and Emma was enrolled in Immaculate Conception School. Much later she wrote in her autobiography, “I was educated by the Sisters of Loretto from first grade thru high school. The joy and example of the Sisters contributed much to my vocation. Those Sisters were great.”
In February of her senior year, Emma wrote to Reverend Mother Edwarda, “After much prayer and consideration, I have fully decided that I would like to enter the Loretto Society. Sister Ceceliana has explained to me that there will be a class entering in June and I would like to go then. I do not as yet know the exact date of graduation, but I am sure I could be at Loretto by June 8th. … I shall look forward with pleasure to further negotiations.” Sister Eudocia O’Bryan wrote in recommendation of Emma, “I have just had a talk with Emma Richter and I think she is a number one good woman … religiously inclined, … dependable and trustworthy. … She told me the family was once well off but they are poor now and she is glad, as she learned to work and save and is happier than when they were rich … and she was spoiled. Now she works to help the family. … She is open and honest, humble and willing to serve God the best way. She has always wanted to be a Sister.”
Emma arrived at Loretto in June 1943 and was received into the novitiate Dec. 8 that year, taking the name Sister Mary Agnes, by which she has been known ever since. Mary Agnes’ father had not understood why she would want to join Loretto but had permitted her to do so nonetheless. On Sept. 15 while she was a postulant, her father was baptized into the Catholic Church, and on Nov. 22 he died in Las Vegas.
Sister Mary Agnes pronounced her first vows on Dec. 8, 1945, and was sent immediately to Bisbee, Ariz., where she took charge of the first and second grades. In her autobiography, Mary Agnes summarizes her early years of teaching: “I loved my two years at St. Patrick’s, Bisbee. My next mission was Sacred Heart in El Paso, where we found many beautiful souls to work with. I taught 100 first graders per class who did not know a word of English. It was a great privilege. It was during this time that I became extremely interested in slow learners and the mentally retarded, which in those days was unheard of.
“From El Paso I went to Mora, N.M. I considered this a very interesting and important time. It was my job to get up and build fires at 4:30 a.m., to help Sister Malachy to milk the cow, to help Sister Charles Therese take care of the chickens. On Saturday we would go to the missions. While the priest heard confessions, we taught religion, then after two or more stops we would return to teach CCD to all the children who did not attend our Catholic school. The cold was one of the hardest hardships — with all of this, I loved it.
“Quite by accident, the pastor, superior and I were changed to Taos, N.M. This was the old Taos, where we had to carry water to our classrooms and clean the outdoor bathroom. Again we went to the missions on Saturday and Sunday. After this kind of life, I was ill-equipped to come to St. Louis! I taught two years at Immaculate Conception, Maplewood, and was asked to go ahead to acquire my MA. I asked to go into special education and was sent to St. Colletta’s.”
Mary Agnes started her studies in 1960, 16 years before the passing of Public Law 94-142 which guaranteed a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for children with special learning needs. Mary Agnes’s master’s degree studies at St. Colletta’s and Cardinal Stritch College prepared her to make an early and unique contribution to special education. When she returned to St. Louis, she worked with Monsignor Behrmann to create an innovative classroom at St. Pius V Elementary School where children with special needs would receive individualized instruction while participating as much as possible in playground and lunchroom activities and other aspects of school life with their age peers.
From 1960 to 1980, Mary Agnes developed and administered the special classroom curriculum, and mentored younger teachers working with children with special needs. In 1976, when the “least restrictive environment” law was passed, Mary Agnes was hired by both St. Louis University and Fontbonne College to organize and conduct special education courses for teachers. In recognition of her innovations and early contributions to the field of special education, Mary Agnes was included in the biographical index of Outstanding Teachers in Exceptional Education, 1975.
In 1980, Mary Agnes returned to El Paso, where she remained for seven years. She taught in the elementary grades of Loretto Academy, and later was a director of religious education in the diocese. Between 1988 and 1992, she went twice to Denver to teach and tutor children with special needs at Loretto Learning Center and returned to St. Louis to teach again at Pius V and at St. Barnabas Learning Center in O’Fallon, Mo. In her final, work-related move Mary Agnes settled again in El Paso in 1993, where for the next five years she created possibly the crowning jewel of a lifetime of innovation on behalf of children with learning disabilities.
Mary Agnes poured her heart and soul into a special CCD program to prepare children with special needs to receive the sacraments. Mary Agnes developed and directed the program on the Loretto Academy campus, staffing it with volunteers whom she trained, including Sister Crucita Jaramillo, students and faculty of Loretto Academy, and several adult students from her special education courses at UTEP.
Sister Mary Agnes retired to an apartment at Loretto Motherhouse in 1996, continuing to travel to the Southwest for extended periods annually until she moved to the Infirmary in 2013. She gave the Archives many of the letters she treasured from former students and parents. One father wrote: “On behalf of my family and my son, Charlie, who does not speak, I would like to extend my overwhelming gratitude. I cannot overstate how much his First Holy Communion has meant for our family.” A former student wrote: “It’s less than a week till I graduate from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology. I consider you one of the key people that have helped me get here. The first day I walked into your 5th grade class was one of the luckiest days of my life. Thank you!”
Mary Agnes herself wrote with gratitude: “In my vocation I have found an overwhelming Love, a happiness that could never be expressed, and the grace to serve Christ in the teaching of little children.” Sister Mary Agnes Richter was in the 75th year of her religious commitment when she died quietly, Feb. 10, 2018.
— By Eleanor Craig SL