Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
‘Aged like fine wine,’ Sister Rose Mercedes Armstrong leaves the century mark behind
by Sister Bernadine Casey SNJM, for the Inland Register
(From the Sept. 8, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
At her 100th birthday celebration last month at the Convent of the Holy Names, Holy Names Sister Rose Mercedes Armstrong (left) enjoyed a moment with her sibling, Holy Names Sister Dolores Marie Armstrong, herself 96 years old. (IR photo from the Sisters of the Holy Names)
Blind and somewhat deaf, but still sharp in mind and wit, Holy Names Sister Mary Rose Mercedes Armstrong turned 100 in August. She was unable to understand the fuss made over her birthday. “I’m being honored for something I had nothing to do with,” she said in reference to festivities for the event at the Convent of the Holy Names in Spokane.
Previously, in an interview, she recalled aspects of those 100 years - childhood; years in education, government service and politics; a lifelong desire to live for and to serve God.
Sister was born in San Francisco in 1905, the ninth of 10 children, three years before the big earthquake there.
“My father was not good with hammer and nails, and after the quake, jobs in San Francisco were mostly in construction, so he moved us to Seattle, then a developing city where there was more work,” she said.
She remembers when Seattle’s fire engines were drawn by horses, and how, with second-grade classmates, she loved to stop in to look at them at the fire station near Immaculate Conception parish school.
“The horses seemed to know us,” she said. “We prayed every time the siren sounded.”
She remembers the laying of cement and tracks for streetcars, because wheels were getting stuck in the mud; the first Ford automobiles and, with enthusiasm, the first electric iron.
In 1924 she finished high school at Holy Names Academy in Seattle and entered the Holy Names Novitiate at Marylhurst, Ore. She was the third of four siblings do so.
She loved to teach – “people, not subjects” – and disliked having the recess and dismissal bells interrupt work with her students.
Sister studied English and theology at Gonzaga University, and earned a master’s degree in library science and research from the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. A love for research enabled her to continue teaching, as she directed students at both Marylhurst College in Oregon and Holy Names Academy in Spokane, in finding material for term papers.
She recalled how the bigotry of the postmaster in Oswego, Ore., the major town near Marylhurst, led to her serving for 20 years as a postmistress at Marylhurst College, and another 20 years of work in a Portland post office.
Mail arriving at 8 a.m. in Oswego, half an hour away, would not be delivered until 4 p.m. So the province leadership applied for their own post office. Sister took and passed the civil service exams, and received the authority to handle U.S. mail.
The day her commission arrived was a “most important” one. It was signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The new post office served not only the college and the other campus buildings, but also a wide range of area beyond. Sister had to rise 45 minutes ahead of the community and get her own breakfast in order to open at 8 a.m.
She remembers with admiration the patriotism of the college students who, during the World War II years, gave up candy in favor of 25-cent stamps for government war bonds. When they had 25 stamps, they were entitled to a $25 bond.
Active in politics, she attended precinct and state meetings, and calls herself “the eyes and ears” of Congressman Tom Foley, because for 15 years she kept him informed about what people were thinking.
She served as librarian at Holy Names Academy, Spokane, for 12 years, then moved into active retirement at the Convent of the Holy Names, and, eventually, into the Care Center there.
Sister was always happy in the community, but “broken-hearted” at the change from the habit. “I kept it. I wanted the whole world to know I belong to Christ,” she said.
A regular Saturday visitor to the “liberry” in childhood, she read constantly and carried a love of reading throughout her whole life, until blindness took over.
“Being blind and at the Care Center is difficult, but I ask nothing of God regarding my life. That is God’s business, not mine.
“I’m just a tough old bird!” she exclaimed, adding that if she were to live life over again, she would make the same choices; if she has advice for people now, it is to “live honorably, with a high regard for truth.”
A tough old bird Sister Rose Mercedes may be, but words on one of the tables at the birthday party said it better: “Aged like fine wine.”