Sister of St. Mary reflects on her influence on students

Tue, Dec 5th 2017 12:00 pm
Staff Reporter
Sister Mary Agnes Cobry, SSMN, is a retired religious sister after spending much of her career teaching. (Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer)
Sister Mary Agnes Cobry, SSMN, is a retired religious sister after spending much of her career teaching. (Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer)

Over her 78 years in religious life, Sister Mary Agnes Cobry, SSMN, has taught the young and the cheered the elderly. All the work she has done has been to please God on the day she meets Him.  

"In entering (the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur), I think the climatic point was I felt someday I would see God face to face, and I wanted to say, 'This is what I've done with my life.' I wanted to do something worthwhile in my life," she said.

Now, just a few weeks shy of her 97th birthday, Sister Mary Agnes sits in her small room at St. Mary's Center in Buffalo, reflecting on the 40 years she spent teaching. There are priests, sisters and at least one doctor who can point to their former teacher as making their lives worthwhile.

From her window she can see her old school, Annunciation, and remember when it had three floors. This was before the fire that leveled it to just one floor. She joined the religious life less than a year after graduating high school - March 19, 1939.

Like most religious sisters at the time, she became a teacher. She had her first class as an 18-year-old postulant. "But I had an experienced sister who guided me along the way," she said.

She taught in Buffalo, Kenmore and Lockport, as well as Binghamton, Lowell, Mass., and Sumter, South Carolina. In those days, sisters would be sent where needed, with little say in the direction of their careers.  

"Years ago, we didn't know until like Aug. 15 when the changes would be read out. Then we'd hear for the first time that we were going here or there. It's not that way now. They talk it over with you first, to find out your opinion," she said, adding that when she first went to Massachusetts, she didn't see her family for two years.

"I taught 40 years all together. I've said if I had a dollar bill for every paper I corrected, I'd be a millionaire," she laughed.
Sister Mary Agnes taught most grades, but generally stayed with the junior high grade levels. She keeps a photo of Shirley, one of her eighth-grade girls from Lowell, Mass., on her windowsill.

"She's been wonderful. She has paid the tuition for students who have gone on through high school," Sister Mary Agnes said, modestly overlooking the influence she must have had on the student.

Other students keep in touch. One wrote her a letter, years after graduating, thanking sister for instilling in her a "command of the English language, she said she could thank me for that. I love teaching grammar."

Another student went on to be come a doctor. He has named Sister Mary Agnes as the best teacher he had. That includes his professors at medical school.

Then there is one little nameless boy that can thank Sister Mary Agnes for his life. It was the late 1960s. Sister was teaching eighth-grade at Holy Spirit Church in Buffalo.

"It was there that I experienced, what I would call the providence of God while I was on playground duty," she recalled.

As the children were lining up at the end of recess, one student said he heard a very funny sound coming from someone's backyard. Sister decided to investigate. She took her eighth-graders to the fence that separated the playground from the neighbor's yard.

"There was a little child hanging on a slide. His arms were flailing by his sides. My kids were all along the fence. I shouted to the child standing next to me, 'Tommy, get over that fence as fast as you can. That child is strangling.' It was the first cold day in September, Sept. 27. He had sneakers on. He stepped back to get his stance and he went over the fence like a deer. I told him every move to make." The boy on the slide, about 2 1/2 years old, wore a hooded sweatshirt. His hood caught on a railing causing the zipper to press into his windpipe.  "I said, 'Now Tommy, push him up to release the pressure, open up the zipper, pull him out of his jacket and stand him up.'  He did all those things."

Then sister instructed Tommy to rub the boy's throat to get the blood flowing. Another boy, Venus, ran to the front door to get the aunt who was babysitting.
The aunt said, "'Thank you, sister.' I said, 'Don't thank me. Thank God.'"

After 40 years of teaching, Sister Mary Agnes went into nursing home ministry, starting off by vising homes in Lockport, Gasport, Newfane and Ransomville.

"I did that for five years with the diocese and loved every minute of it," she said.

After moving to Queen of Heaven Parish in West Seneca, she continued to visit homes on her own.

"The nursing home visits, I absolutely loved that. I'd get tired from doing other things, but when it came time to go to the next nursing home, I'd come alive," she recalled.

She would go to Garden Gate Health Facility, Seneca Manor and one other place whose name escapes her. When her legs started bothering her and she had trouble walking from room to room, she took on prayer ministry, something common among the sisters who, like Sister Mary Agnes, have trouble with mobility.  She now uses a walker to get around and oxygen when she sits still.

"People would ask me to have the sisters pray for somebody and I'd put those on our bulletin board," she explained.

After 18 years at Queen of Heaven, she came to St. Mary Center, motherhouse for the eastern province of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. Cards and notes from her former students stack up in her room, reminding her of the influence she had and the good work that continues through those students.
"Hopefully, I did some good," she said.  

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