Remembering Sr. Mary Walter Santer

Sr. Mary Walter Santer, OSU, in white, walking at the 10th plenary assembly of the FABC, December 2012. (Courtesy of N.J. Viehland)

September 20, an icon of Asia was honored by the Ursuline Sisters of New Rochelle, N.Y., as they celebrated the life of Sr. Mary Walter Santer. Sr. Mary died in Bangkok earlier this year after 56 years as a missionary in Thailand. She left for Thailand the year after her final profession, learned Thai and taught school for many years. Besides being a beloved teacher, she eventually became the executive secretary for the Conference of Women Religious of Thailand which set her on a path of becoming director of the Southeast Asia Major Superiors (SEAMS) in 1992.

In this position, she became a household name for sisters in all regions of Asia. She was their advocate and friend. Just two years ago she traveled to Kazakhstan at the request of one of the bishops of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference (FABC) to encourage a struggling community there. Kazakhstan was only one of the many unusual places she visited and assignments she took on during her 30 years as the secretary of that bishops’ conference and the leader of the FABC office of consecrated life of Asia initiated in 2004.

She worked tirelessly to promote partnership between religious women, men and bishops. She encouraged friendship, understanding and collaboration, even though she often found it challenging. In an interview by Tom Fox of the National Catholic Reporter in 2004, she was asked what she did for the bishops. Her light-hearted quip was: “I sharpen pencils.” She was greatly respected by the bishops and this respect won her opportunities to use her wit to say things to them that would have been difficult to say seriously, particularly when it came to women’s issues.

Mary Walter was also my personal mentor and translator. I had opportunity to listen to her wisdom and stories nearly every year at meetings of women religious: Asian Meeting of Religious (AMOR), Union of International Superiors General in Rome (UISG) and Southeast Asia Major Superiors (SEAMS), each of which met every three years. On my first visit to Southeast Asia as Director of the Hilton Fund for Sisters, she introduced me to sisters in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar in a period of three weeks. Traveling by train was her favorite mode of transportation, especially the overnight trip from Bangkok to Chang Mai in the north. She enjoyed her favorite rice dish along with the three-in-one coffee – a small packet of coffee, creamer and sugar.

Our travels by train, bus, car, plane and foot took us to remote areas of each country where sisters had projects. Getting around on foot was especially challenging for Mary because soon after she arrived in Bangkok as a young woman she contracted a strain of Hansen’s disease. This left her feet vulnerable to infection, requiring cauterization and the cutting away of damaged flesh. This gradually decreased the size of her feet until she had to wear specially made sandals that cupped those fragile feet to keep her upright.

I never heard Sr. Mary Walter complain about her condition and instead she always exhibited a delight in life. It was such fun to see her with the border patrols who knew her on sight. About three years ago however, she was called to the Bangkok immigration office and questioned about her frequent visits to Myanmar. She could truthfully tell them that she had many friends there to visit. But, she did more than visit her friends. Sr. Mary helped sisters manage their projects and reports for the Hilton Fund for Sisters, and found ways to transfer funds to their projects as well.

Sr. Mary was a missionary after the heart of St. Francis who is to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and sometimes in words.” This was evident in Mary’s great respect for Buddhism. She cultivated many friends, especially among the women monks, and applauded the change in movement of the monks from a life separated from the world to one where there is great involvement in social issues. We can read about their commitment to social justice nearly every day in news from Buddhist countries.

No doubt everyone who knew Sr. Mary will miss her dry wit and often amusing perceptions about even the most serious situations. I know I will. 

[Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison for Global Sisters Report.]

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