Remembrance of the Life of Mary Lou (formerly Sister Ann Kathleen Prendergast SL) Steele CoL
Mary Louise Prendergast was born in Fort Collins, Colo., of Catholic parents. Her father, John Prendergast, was a native of Ft. Collins and her mother, Mary Krogh Prendergast, came from Cheyenne, Wyo. She called herself Mary Lu; her family and others called her Mary Lou. She wrote in her autobiography many years later: “My early life was just a bowl of cherries. We had a cherry farm (4,000 trees) in Colorado, and that saw me through my early years nicely. I was the youngest of four girls, surrounded by love and security. … It made me insufferably sure of my own worth at a very early age.”
She attended public schools in Ft. Collins, and as a senior was offered a scholarship to Loretto Heights College. “I had never met a nun before in my life!,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I cannot describe how astounded I was by the group of women who became my teachers; Sisters Francis Marie, Francetta, Mary Florence, Marie Clyde, Frances DeSales, just to name a few.”
Graduating in June 1946, she had already applied to Mother General Edwarda to enter Loretto, saying in her application that joining Loretto seemed “the most worthwhile thing I could do with my life.” She began on Oct. 25, 1946, with the largest group of postulants ever. Unaccountably, on her novitiate application and again on her will at reception time, Mary Lou styled herself “Mary Lu.” Then, April 25, 1947, she changed her name again to Sister Ann Kathleen as she received the habit.
Ann Kathleen professed her first vows April 25, 1949, and her final vows Aug. 15, 1952. She taught high school briefly: a year at St. Joseph’s Academy, El Paso; a year at St. Augustine’s, Lebanon, Ky.; and three years at St. Patrick’s, Kankakee, Ill. Then, in 1954 Ann Kathleen began studies for a master’s in biology at St. Louis University while teaching biology at Webster College in Webster Groves, Mo. She became head of the Biology Department at Webster when she completed the degree in 1958, and at the same time enrolled in a doctoral program at Notre Dame University. In 1964, when Ann Kathleen completed her doctorate in virology, she was named director of the Webster College Science Department. These were the years of change and innovation at Webster. For 14 years Ann Kathleen was an energetic and gifted participant in Webster’s contributions to national curriculum reform in teacher education and the sciences.
In July 1966, Sister Ann Kathleen requested and received a dispensation from her vows, resuming the name Mary Lou and continuing to teach at Webster College for another two years. Next, she served a joint appointment for four years on the faculties of the University of Missouri and of John Burroughs, a prestigious college preparatory school in suburban St. Louis. A good friend and colleague from her Webster years, Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, invited Mary Lou to join the faculty of Hunter College in New York City, which she did in 1972.
In Mary Lou’s autobiography, written at the time she applied for Loretto Co-membership, she described her life after leaving Loretto and St. Louis: “It seemed a little hazardous to pull up stakes and go to New York, but I did it and it was the most fortuitous thing I ever did! I met my future husband there. Edgar Steele was a nuclear chemist who divided his time between industry and teaching. He was a master teacher! After teaching for a total of three years at Hunter, I applied for and received an appointment with Ed to King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We stayed in Saudi Arabia for 11 years, 1975-1986. … We had a wonderful life together… went around the world several times, spent a lot of time in England, bought some shore property in Spain, and all in all had a grand time. Ed always said our marriage was so successful because we had no financial difficulties and we had separate bathrooms.
“… Ed met many of my SL friends. He loved them all, and Sister M. Rhodes Buckler was one of his favorites. He attended the Estes Park Assembly in 1985 with me and it was his idea to send $1,000 dollars for people who might not otherwise be able to attend. He also expressed interest in becoming a Co-member. … But remorselessly, change continues and in 1990 Ed was diagnosed as having myelogenous leukemia, possibly as a result of his being a nuclear chemist. He died in February of 1991 and the world lost a generous, loving person.”
Mary Lou’s 1993 autobiography concludes this way: “My sister Kathleen and I were widowed in the same year so we decided to live together. As I am in excellent health, I feel I have one more “event” in me. The thing that is of deepest concern to me is the environment and I feel by becoming a Co-member of the Sisters of Loretto, I can have a means of working with an organized group on the environment.”
Mary Lou Prendergast Steele was accepted as a Loretto Co-member on Nov. 27, 1993. In her original commitment statement, which she renewed every five years, Mary Lou said in part: “There are many Sisters and Co-members who are my friends and I would like to associate more closely with them. I owe a great debt to the Sisters of Loretto for having educated me. My life after Loretto was extremely diverse and interesting because of my doctoral degree in virology. I may now be able to help others by using that expertise … for work on protecting the environment … and by providing a modicum of financial aid.”
In the years following, Mary Lou did indeed contribute to Loretto’s environmental efforts. She wrote in the late 1990s: “I have always been interested in the environment so that is my focus now. I attended a workshop on cosmology given by Brian Swimme, and I have become convinced with David Korten, that ‘As a species we humans have arrived at a defining moment. For the first time in our history we have both the opportunity and the necessity to assume conscious responsibility for our future.’ To this end I have been giving workshops on cosmology with Mary Fran Lottes and Jane Marie Richardson. I am also working on a unit on The Natural Step for fourth graders.”
Mary Lou died quietly in hospice in Zachary, Loa., on Feb. 8, 2018. She was in the 25th year of her co-membership and the 45th year of her Loretto commitment. She had spent her final years as she had hoped: “In a nutshell, I’d like to spend the last quarter of my life working on saving this tiny little piece of the universe which we call the earth and our home.”
— By Eleanor Craig SL