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Mother Martha Mary

An article in yesterday’s Forum (“a local newspaper” according to four-term Fargo mayor Herschel Lashkowitz) tells of a youngish guy in Grand Forks—a former chef to the stars—who is divesting himself of everything to join a religious community. No more $300k condo with custom kitchen and conversation pit. No more HumVee. What would motivate such a decision? Was this a binary choice or merely one from an array of possibilities? I hope it works out for him and God.

Then I recalled a piece by my friend Howard from the sesqui-centennial series. Let him tell you about it.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor

A Good Woman

There is a portrait of my great-grandmother holding a caliper in a wistful side-lit Vermeer-ish pose. I wonder if it evokes as much speculation from others as it did when I was a little boy. Do I remember her or merely the stories that have swirled about this remarkable painting? She died when I was three years old.

Martha Corwin Curtiss was born near Mason City, Iowa on 16 June 1868. Home-schooled on the family farm by her parents, she married Augustus James Tennant in 1888 and bore four children. By all accounts she was a good woman.

Her portrait attests to this, if such vanities are credible. The artist, Forrest Wentworth, posed Martha so that the light renders her permed but thinning hair as a nimbus, an aura of saintliness, as she studies the divider that once belonged to her only son Anson. The sinking of a ship had taken him away in 1915, and the succubus of grief took her husband Jim four years later.

Martha Tennant was inclined toward the positive, the here-and-nowness of every situation. Horizons energized her; boundaries did not. And though she lived comfortably, her greatest capital was human: her parents, siblings, husband, children, extended family and friends. She knew many remarkable people and was more inclined to tell entertaining insightful stories about them than to talk about herself. She knew, for example, Reverend Frances Manning, Agincourt’s pioneer priest. And Annabelle Miller, its pioneering madam. She worked with Maud Adams, Cissy Beddowes and Doc Fahnstock to improve the lot of women and children. She fought the abuse of animals and earned the reputation of an endearing eccentric. She worked within established systems of power (bishops, businessmen, politicos); she worked outside, beneath and beyond them in ways it is not for me to share.

And then her world veered suddenly toward the wrong, the dark, the unthinkable. Within four years she lost her husband and her only son—her anchor and her sail—while family and friends wondered how she would cope. As always, her course of action was unexpected: Martha Corwin Tennant (née Curtiss) joined a religious order and became Mother Martha Mary, SSM.

Monasticism crosses most denominational and even some sectarian lines. There are communities living the Rule of Saint Benedict, for example, who identify as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox. And their style isn’t all that dissimilar from Buddhism. Anglicans revived the monastic tradition during the 19th century rediscovery of their Catholic roots—including the Society of Saint Margaret, founded in 1859 and already transplanted to North America by 1873.

As a widowed mother of four, great-grandmother sought special dispensation for membership among the sisters and a special mission here in Agincourt. She joined the society in 1920 at age fifty-two and turned her special skills and the homeplace itself to hospice work, aided by her sisters-in-law Phoebe and Sophie Tennant. Regarding habits, however, she neither wore one, nor changed her habits of mind, going forward as if the tragedies of loss were mere interruptions. I wonder if most of her contemporaries ever knew she had become a nun. Widow’s black can look like that.

My great-grandmother, the nun. There aren’t many who can make that claim.


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