Women In Our History

Sister Alvara Graham -1907
Sister Michael Esper 1874-1907

- by Catherine Podvin, OP

In our early Congregational tradition, the names of Sisters Alvara Graham and Michael Esper were always associated. They died nine days apart at
St. Joseph Convent in Marblehead, Ohio.

Very little is known about Sister Alvara, not even her birth year. She was born in Ireland and probably educated there. After working for a short time, she received the habit in 1877 at Holy Rosary Convent on Second Street, New York City, and was professed in 1878. It is possible that she was still in her teens. After a few years of teaching in the eastern part of the country, she was sent to Michigan, the "Peninsula of Promise."

Sister Alvara was one of the sisters who ministered for a time at St. Joseph Hospital and Home for the Aged in Adrian. She was also one of the sisters who, in 1893, opened St. Joseph School in Marblehead, and later was assigned to St. Joseph School in Wyandotte, Michigan. In 1901, she returned to Marblehead as superior and principal.

Elizabeth Esper, the future Sister Michael, was the daughter of Catherine (Horger) and Jacob Esper, German immigrants who had settled on a fertile farm in Springwells, Michigan, now known as Dearborn. One of 13 children, Elizabeth was born on August 20, 1874. The Espers were dedicated Catholics, and it is not surprising that two of their daughters entered religious life (Elizabeth became an Adrian Dominican and another daughter entered the Agnetian Sisters of Fon du lac, Wisconsin), and three of their sons were ordained priests.

Before her entrance, Elizabeth studied music and kept house for her brother, Father Michael Esper. She was 26 when she entered the Congregation in 1900. After profession in 1902, and known as Sister Michael, she taught music in Michigan schools: Gagetown, Bronson and Ruth. Her last assignment was in Marblehead, where Sister Alvara was superior and principal.

It was at Marblehead that Sister Michael suffered a severe heart attack, and discovered that she had a very serious heart condition. Sister Alvara cared for her compassionately, until she herself was struck with pneumonia and died on January 14, 1907. It is possible that she was somewhere between 45 and 50 years of age. Just before her death, she promised that she would ask the Lord to allow her to come back for Sister Michael in nine days. Strange as it may seem,

Sister Michael died nine days later, on January 23, 1907, at the age of 32.
This coincidence was the source of a story told and retold for a while throughout the Congregation.

Since it was the custom at that time to bury the sisters in the areas where
they died, Sister Alvara was buried in Marblehead. At the request of her family, Sister Michael was buried in Adrian. It is interesting to note that three of her nieces also became Adrian Dominicans: Sisters Evangeline, Michael, and Lambertine Theisen.