Sister Miriam Ehrhardt
Tribute: Sr. Miriam Ehrhardt
December 3, 1934 - June 20, 2023
This tribute was read at Sr. Miriam's funeral vigil.
Her quilt piece says it all! On it Sr. Miriam has the Pillsbury dough-boy, arms raised with a loaf of bread in one hand and rolls in the other. She explained, “My entire makes people smile, and that was her hope too -- especially in baking, a favorite part of her work.
Myrna Frances Ehrhardt was born on December 3, 1934, to Merle and Emma Dworak Ehrhardt in Marshalltown, Iowa. The Sisters of Humility had been in Marshalltown a long time. In fact, St. Mary’s was the first mission established outside Ottumwa in 1878.
Myrna followed previous graduates of St. Mary’s High School to Ottumwa Heights College. After completing one year, on September 8, 1953, she entered the Congregation of the Humility of Mary. The St. Mary’s High Lines newspaper of that month pictures her saying “good-bye” to Sr. Victorine, recently appointed Principal of the school. Myrna received the habit and her name in religion, Sister Miriam Thomas, the following summer. After having had Sister Mary Nicholas as their Novice Mistress for one year, the class had quite an adjustment to Sister Mary Florence, who was more prone to call postulants and novices into her office for “conferences.”
Sr. Miriam Thomas professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in July 1956, and made final vows in 1959. Surviving classmates are Srs. Joann Kuebrich, Cathleen Real and Jeanette Kopel. Although Sister Miriam Thomas did not return to her baptismal name after Vatican II, she came to be called simply “Sister Miriam.”
While in the novitiate, Sr. Miriam Thomas completed the Associate of Arts degree at Ottumwa Heights College. One classmate said that Chemistry and English Literature classes almost sent her home. Early on, she had made it known that she did not want to teach. So, after profession, she was assigned to the dietary department at Ottumwa Heights, where she served for ten years. That meant working with Srs. Anthony, Assumpta, and Dolorosa and their assistants. That meant cooking for all resident students of both high school and junior college, the professed sisters, novices and postulants, the chaplain, and guests of any of these. The postulants and novices were assigned to serve in the two dining rooms and to help with “the kitchen dishes”. That meant all the cooking vessels, as distinguished from the “dish room” where the students’ dishes were done.
On October 8, 1957, the entire Ottumwa Heights complex – Motherhouse, Novitiate, Junior College, and Academy – was destroyed by fire. Postulants were sent to Davenport, where they attended classes at Marycrest and lived at St. Vincent Orphanage. Novices and some professed sisters moved into a large home on Elm Street in Ottumwa that had recently been purchased by St. Joseph Hospital. Sister faculty and staff occupied available rooms at the hospital and in the student nurses’ building.
While the new Ottumwa Heights was being built, the professed sisters, novices, postulants and college students lived in the Bachelors Officers Quarters (BOQ) of the former World War II air base outside Ottumwa. The city of Ottumwa made the facility available to the community and classes were held in other buildings on the campus. Sr. Miriam Thomas worked under the direction of Sr. Mary Raphael, serving the BOQ residents, volunteers and other workers who did so much to make it all work, and keep working out there. Being part of the planning for the “new Heights,” under the extraordinary direction of Mother Mary Magdalen, was a unique opportunity for Sr. Miriam as well. Everyone was glad when the move to the “new Heights” was begun in late summer of 1959, with the dedication a year later.
Sr. Miriam Thomas traveled to Milwaukee and Boston for Food Service Workshops in 1965 and 1966 before her assignment to Sacred Heart Convent in Great Falls, Montana. The convent was the former Mother House of the Montana Sisters of Humility. That community was founded in 1907 at the request, really insistence, of Bishop Joseph Linehan, the first bishop of Great Falls-Billings Montana. Then Pastor Linehan and Sister Mary Francis had worked to establish the Marshalltown school that Sr. Miriam eventually attended. Faced with a huge diocesan territory with few Catholic schools, the Bishop begged for Humilities to help. Sister Mary Frances answered his appeal, and became Mother Francis of a new legal corporation founded by the Bishop there. Forty years later, in 1947, after favorable votes by each group, the Montana and Iowa sisters amalgamated.
In Great Falls, Sr. Miriam came closer to “teaching school” in that she coached girls’ sports in junior high grades at St. Joseph’s school. She and Srs. Rosalia Riedel and Harriett Ping enjoyed camping and other trips during those years. With their retelling, some of their stories became legends.
After five years in Montana, Sr. Miriam was assigned to the new St. Pius Elementary School in Rock Island, Illinois in 1971. The church was very modern; it was built “in the round,” in keeping with teachings of Vatican II. The sisters had a new convent where each one had the luxury of her own room. There were usually young sisters there, taking classes at Marycrest College to finish their degrees. Sr. Miriam was also a volunteer “coach” for girls’ sports there.
Sr. Miriam went back to Ottumwa Heights and was Food Service Manager for the last years before the sale of Ottumwa Heights to Indian Hills Community College in 1980. Sr. Sue Sellers was Director of Roth Hall, the former novitiate, then a residence for lay women. Sr. Sue had a car so they often went for an evening drive, stopping at Graham’s for ice cream. Sue also drove her to Marshalltown for visits and became friends of Sr. Miriam’s family too.
After hearing Sr. Miriam often complain about how hard it was to find good help, Sr. Sue filled out the job application form, with a pseudonym, and mailed it in. After a brief phone call, an interview was scheduled. At the appointed time, Sr. Sue dressed in a white uniform, sat with her back to the door, feet on the desk, waiting in Sr. Miriam’s office. When Sr. Miriam came in, she was flabbergasted when she saw her. They laughed just as hard every time the vision was recalled.
While Humility of Mary Center was being built in Davenport, Sr. Miriam assisted Sr. Kathleen Hanley who was coordinating the move. Sr. Miriam moved to the Center with the congregation, continuing to serve as a cook, baker, and food services coordinator for more than 20 years. She loved to bake, especially pies. She was happiest when anyone brought fresh apples or rhubarb; she would make pies and sauce. Scones and kolaches were also special, and warm cinnamon rolls on Saturday mornings.
Sr. Miriam lived in several apartments in Davenport. A favorite place was the second floor of one building, where she and Srs. Sue Sellers, Harriett Ping, and Carolyn Mullen each had their own place. Their doors were often open. They moved from one to apartment to another, sharing news, looking for help, or borrowing something – almost like a dorm. Sr. Carolyn, not a football fan, was a faithful host for Super Bowl parties.
Sr. Miriam’s “dream job” was as cook at the new ministry, Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat, according to classmate, Sr. Joann Kuebrich, its founding director. Their team included classmate Sr. Cathleen Real, and Sisters Dolores Schuh, Harriett Ping, Joan Sheil and Marie Ven Horst, who all became good friends. Sr. Miriam loved everything about the place and prepared “country cooking” menus. She loved to welcome and interact with guests. Srs. Miriam and Joann often spent several days at a time there, staying in the beautiful Victorian House. In 2011 Sr. Miriam was honored at a Mass of Thanksgiving for her service to “The Prairie.”
After retirement Sr. Miriam remained at the Center, eventually living in the East Wing, just steps away from its little kitchen. She would bake her specials there, too.
Sr. Miriam’s death came, almost without notice, and when attention was focused on the upcoming Assembly. I have heard more than one person say, “I can’t believe that she is gone.” But, maybe Sr. Miriam played “doughboy” on us, wanting us to smile once more. For, even though her classmates chose not to publicly celebrate their 70th jubilee last Sunday, her God had something else in mind and took her home to celebrate with her dear parents and Bob.
Written by Sister Mary Rehmann, CHM