“Who was Sister Alma Marie Messing?”

Family, friends, and former colleagues are united in grief over the loss of Sister Alma Marie Messing, O.P. (1926-2021).  Sister Alma Marie, who worked as a high school science teacher and in various capacities at the Museum of Science and Industry, died at the Dominican Life Center in Adrian, Michigan at the age of ninety-four on Thursday, May 20, A.D. 2021.  If she had lived just five more days, she would have reached her ninety-fifth birthday.

This was not a matter of a Catholic layman or laywoman becoming a priest, monk, nun, brother, or sister late in life. Rather, Sister Alma Marie was already a member of the Order of Preachers when she went to work at the Museum of Science and Industry (M.S.I.) and did so as an extension of her work as a science teacher. [The Dominicans are a mendicant order with many members devoted to teaching.  They are divided into (a) friars,[1] (b) cloisters nuns,[2] (c) sisters,[3] (d) priestly fraternities of St. Dominic,[4] and (e) laymen.[5]]  Sister Alma Marie had been a member of the Adrian Dominican Congregation for seventy-six years at the time of her death.

Born Carolyn Mary Ann Messing on May 25, A.D. 1926 in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to Frank and Alma (Treppa) Messing, she was the first of three children.  Her younger brothers Frank and Don were born, respectively, in 1929 and 1939.  A happy childhood included frequent visits to both sets of grandparents.  She was fortunate enough to even have one set of great-grandparents still alive when she was a little girl. 

The Messing children often rode their bikes to see their grandparents.  Carolyn seems to have been particularly close to her maternal grandparents and later recalled her grandmother’s love of cooking, Monopoly games and the midnight snacks that followed at the Treppa home.  The Messings and Treppas vacationed together and for her the highlight of a trip to New York City was seeing Mr. Peanut (the Planters Peanut Man).

Carolyn grew up in St. Clare of Montefalco Parish, which was staffed not by secular (diocesan) priests but by Augustinians.  This was a new parish and initially Masses were celebrated in the Colony Theater.  The Messing children received their elementary school education in the parish school, which was staffed by Dominican Sisters of Columbus, Ohio. Young Carolyn chose to attend the new Dominican High School in Detroit and was a member of its charter class in 1940.  It was in that school that she first encountered the Adrian Dominican Sisters.  Ironically, given her future as a science teacher, as a high school student she enjoyed studying math and Latin but had no great love for science.  She was a member of the drama club and was the youngest member of the Catholic Theater of Detroit.  The highlights of her experience included being able to perform in plays staged by the University of Detroit.  She was thrilled when the Detroit radio station WXYZ accepted a play she submitted for a radio drama.

Carolyn was her class valedictorian and knew by the time she graduated that she wanted to join the Adrian Dominican Congregation.  She admitted this was not because she felt a calling but rather because she felt inspired by the Adrian Dominican Sisters and wanted to contribute to their work.  Her parents supported her but wanted reassurance she was not doing this out of unhappiness.  She persuaded them that she was not joining the congregation to escape something and on June 25, A.D. 1944, her parents drove her and Don to the convent at Adrian to drop her off.  The hardest part for both Carolyn and Don was being parted from him because he had just turned six years old.  They played for a few hours before Mr. & Mrs. Messing left with Don, who did not understand what was happening, and repeatedly asked Carolyn why she was not leaving with them, which caused everyone to shed tears. 

Decades later, Sister Alma Marie recalled that a Dominican sister who saw the emotional parting said, “She’ll never make it.”  She explained to an interviewer in 2019 that she had not really thought about what would happen when she parted from her family at the convent beforehand.

Following her postulancy, Carolyn became a novice sister in January of 1945 and received her religious name.  She chose “Alma Marie” to honor her mother.  Upon completion of her novitiate year in January of 1946, she received an assignment to attend Sienna Heights College (now Sienna Heights University) in Adrian, only to be reassigned weeks later to St. Joseph, Michigan to replace a Dominican sister who had been a science teacher.  That sister had suffered a blood clot and needed time to recover.  At that point, the Adrian Dominican Congregation expected her to teach science while continuing with her college coursework, which she managed to do.  She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mixed Science in 1946.

Subsequently, Sister Alma Marie earned a Master of Science degree in Biology from Institutum Divi Thomæ in Cincinnati, Ohio.  [The Most Reverend John T. McNicholas, O.P. (1877-1950), Archbishop of Cincinnati (1925-1950) and the electrical engineer and inventor Dr. George Sperti (1900-1991) and the electrical engineer and inventor Dr. George Speri Sperti (1900-1991) co-founded the Institutuum Divi Thomæ as a graduate research school in 1935, though according to one scholar the decline had begun in the 1950s.[6]] She spent three years there and earned her degree in 1949.  Henceforward, she taught science mostly at either the high school or college level.

Sister Alma Marie spent twenty-seven years as an educator in three communities in Florida (West Palm Beach, Miami Shores, and Fort Lauderdale); three communities in Michigan (Adrian, Utica, and Detroit); three communities in Illinois (Wilmette, Chicago, Rockford); and Nassau, Bahamas. This included four years at Barry College (now Barry University) in Miami Shores and one year at Siena Heights College (now Siena Heights University) in Adrian, both of which are sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Congregation.  She taught at St. Ann High School from 1949 to 1950 and at Rosarian Academy from 1950 to ’56 in West Palm Beach; St. Joseph Academy from ’56 to ’58 in Adrian; Central Catholic High School from ’58 to ’59 in Fort Lauderdale; Barry College from 1959 to 1963 in Miami Shores; Aquinas College from ’63 to ’65 in Nassau;[7] St. Lawrence High School from January to June of ’65 in Utica; her alma mater, Dominican High School from ’65 to ’67 in Detroit; Regina Dominican High School from ’67 to ’68 in Wilmette; and Bishop Muldoon High School in Rockford from 1968 to 1970.  Each stint at a high school was a short one because she was going from school to school setting up science programs.

In 1967, Sister Alma Marie’s parents arranged for her to travel around the world with Sister Paul Marie Villemure.  They reached twenty-three countries.  It must have been a whirlwind of a voyage considering that Sister Alma Marie taught at two different schools that same year.

While she taught at Barry College, Fidel Castro (1926-2016) the Communist dictator of Cuba (1959-2008), exiled a multitude of professionals (and other people who objected to the Marxist revolution in Cuba) from that island and Barry College faculty members helped many of those refugees acculturate in Florida, most notably Sister Mary Kenneth Duwelius.  Sister Alma Marie later recalled one incident in which she and Sister Mary Kenneth went to the airport on the evening of Easter Sunday and welcomed a young couple with a baby whom they brought back to Barry College. She felt particularly attached to the baby boy whom she played with while Sister Mary Kenneth helped the parents gather things they would need.  Sister Alma Marie was touched to receive a letter from him decades later. While on the Barry College faculty, Sister Alma Marie spent her summers in Washington, D.C. conducting cancer research at the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.)

After the closure of Muldoon High School in 1970, Sister Alma Marie enrolled at The University of Chicago in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago to pursue a Ph.D.  She spent the next three years there as a full-time doctoral student only to be sent back to Sienna Heights College to teach math and science for the 1973-74 school year. At that point she had done everything to receive her Ph.D. but write her doctoral dissertation.[8] 

Subsequently, Sister Alma Marie returned to The University of Chicago to write her dissertation and because she did not want the congregation to have to pay for her academic work, she submitted her resume to work at the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park.  Her parents had moved from their home to the retirement community of Eastland Village, and she was visiting them in August when she received word she had been hired “sight-unseen” and was to report to work in September.  Her initial job at the M.S.I. was as a “guide-lecturer,” as she put it.[9]  She was not supposed to wear her habit as a guide-lecturer, and so with her mother’s help she purchased two dresses to wear at Eastland Mall. 

Sister Alma Marie would wear her habit at home and don the guide-lecturer at uniform at work, she later recalled.  A promotion to an administrative role led to her drawing up schedules for the other guide-lecturers.  Eventually, she moved from the floor staff to the M.S.I.’s Education Department.  She spent the rest of her working life at the M.S.I., though she understandably needed a few months off in 1977 to go to Detroit to care for her dying mother.  [Her father had already died two years earlier in 1975.]  Sister Alma Marie worked at the M.S.I. for twenty-five years as a guide-lecturer, Elderhostel Coordinator, and researcher.  This included being a computer teacher for eight years and a programs assistant for ten years. 

Sister Alma Marie worked at the M.S.I.’s N.A.S.A. Resource Center, which brought her into direct contact with people in the space program.[10]  She helped develop both N.A.S.A. and M.S.I. workshops for teachers at the M.S.I. She and another M.S.I. employee held workshops at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center for seventeen years, and that continued after she retired. Looking back at that work, she later said she believed most of the teachers in those workshops were elementary school teachers.

Her Elderhostel work lasted for ten years.  [Founded in 1975, Elderhostel changed its name to Road Scholar in 2010.[11]]  Elderhostel arranged for senior citizens (fifty-five years old and over) to visit cultural institutions.  Sister Alma Marie’s day began at 5:00 a.m. because she wanted to get Elderhostel snacks out. After she retired in January, she was hired on contract to coordinate the last Elderhostel visit the following March. 

Further, in addition to her work at the M.S.I., she taught science at two Catholic schools in Chicago, Gate of Heaven from 1978 to ’79 and St. Ailbe from 1979 to 1983.  In so far as I have been able to determine, she never did receive her doctorate.

In retirement, she lived in Chicago, until 2018, when she moved into the Dominican Life Center in Adrian.  That was her true retirement.  Sister Alma Marie’s relationship with N.A.S.A. continued after her retirement from the M.S.I. as she gave workshops for teachers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and at schools. She only stopped her annual visits to Johnson Space Center after a Chicago blizzard prevented a flight one year.

Sister Pat McKee helped her find parishes, including St. Cletus and St. Michael’s, where she could do after-school enrichment activities for children such as cooking and crafts.  She also did “sidewalk learning” where one day a week she would setup a picnic table and for two or three hours would teach something like how to play cards so the children could entertain themselves.  At St. Ailbe, she also provided preschool care after she retired. 

Sister Alma Marie was able to devote more time to crafting, which included knitting, embroidery, gourd art, and origami.  The Dominican Institute for the Arts invited her to join after her quilt of the Visitation was accepted by the Dominican Sisters International in Rome.[12]

Her parents preceded her in death, as did one of her brothers, Frank Messing III.    She is survived by another brother, Donald J. (Nancy) Messing, nieces, and nephews.  They are joined in grief by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, as well as by her former colleagues at the M.S.I. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 mitigation protocols, the Dominican Life Center was closed to the public, but the Adrian Dominican Sisters livestreamed her wake and funeral in the St. Catherine Chapel, which were held, respectively, on Monday, May 24, A.D. 2021 and Tuesday, May 25, A.D. 2021.  She is buried in the Adrian Dominican Congregation Cemetery.

Credit: Adrian Dominican Sisters Caption: This is an interview of Sister Alma Marie Messing conducted by Peg O’Flynn on March 19, A.D. 2019.

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End Notes

[1] Dominican friars are sometimes called the Black Friars in English-speaking world because of the black cloaks they wear over their white uniforms. The most famous Dominican friar was Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a theologian and philosopher who synthesized Aristotelean philosophy with Christianity to create a new philosophical school known as Thomism.

[2] Dominican nuns predate Dominican friars because Saint Dominic founded the first Dominican convent in 1206 for a group of women who had been Albigensian heretics whom he had reconciled to the Catholic Church, and he founded the first Dominican community of friars (to be governed under the Rule of Saint Augustine) in 1214.  Pope Honorius III recognized the Order of Preachers and gave them universal authority to preach in a series of papal bulls issued in 1216 and 1217.

[3] Self-governing congregations of Dominican sisters who went about teaching began to appear in the 19th Century.

[4] Priestly Fraternities of St. Dominic are comprised of secular (diocesan) priests who are affiliated with the Order of Preachers, live under the Rule of St. Dominic, and accept the direction of Dominican friars.  It can be traced back the Third Order of Dominicans, which before 1968 had both secular priests and laymen.  After 1968, the secular priests and laity affiliated with the Order of Preachers had to live under separate rules.

[5] Today, the Lay Dominican Fraternities are governed under the Rule of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic promulgated by the Master of the Order of Preachers in 1987.  Saints Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) and Rose of Lima (1586-1617) were both Dominican laywomen who lived under the Rule of the Third Order of Dominicans in their family homes.  

[6] John A. Heitmann, “Doing ”True Science”: The Early History of the Institutuum Divi Thomæ, 1935-1951, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 88, No. 4 (October, 2002), p. 703

[7] She was the headmistress at Aquinas College as well as a science teacher.

[8] Graduate students in that position often joke about having the letters “A.B.D.” (as in “All But Doctor”) after their names.

[9] That would be an accurate description of the job, but I believe at the time the M.S.I. still referred to docents as Demonstrators.  By the time I held that job, we were called Program Interpreters. 

[10] This was appropriate because the founder of her order, Saint Dominic (1170-1221), is the patron saint of astronomers. 

[11] That name, is of course, a play on Rhodes Scholar, as in the recipient of a postgraduate award to attend the University of Oxford thanks to a scholarship established posthumously by Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) in 1903.  Rhodes was the founder of the De Beers diamond mining concern and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.

[12] The Visitation was the event described in the Gospel of Luke (1:39-56) when the Virgin Mary, then pregnant with Christ Jesus, visited her cousin, Elizabeth, then pregnant with St. John the Baptist, and Elizabeth felt John move.

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