SISTER JEAN MARGARET BOWLER
1913-2006

Sister Jean Margaret Bowler ended her very interesting autobiography, written with the assistance of Sister Christa Marsik in 2005 and 2006, in this way:

Now I am in the final stages of my life, and I look back smiling as I recall the joy and happiness I have known in my years as Sister Jean Margaret. I realize that from my earliest days I have been surrounded by love — family closeness, even as a young child — with loving parents and family members from whom I never left until my entrance into Dominican life.

My heart was made to love, and this love was nourished from my earliest days, and still is, not only by family but all the memories of happy days in the classroom and the daily activities I enjoyed. I am sure the love in my heart overflowed to my students, and I always felt it was returned … I was always happy, and I cannot imagine being unhappy when your heart is overflowing with love.

In her life story, Sister Jean Margaret told us much about her family background. Her paternal grandparents, Pat and Maggie Bowler, devoted Catholics, were from Ireland, and when they came to the New World they settled first in Canada, then moved to Michigan. They parented seven children, four of whom were lost in a typhoid epidemic. At first, the men all worked in logging camps. As adults, all three of the remaining sons were successful and became landowners of farms near Clare. Joseph was a lawyer, and William, Sister Jean Margaret’s father, was first a teacher, then a farmer. In later life, he held a job as a mail clerk, then became a contractor and road builder. Her maternal grandparents, Chester and Belle Bates, traveled from Indiana to Michigan. Chester Bates also worked in logging camps, and was considered the best at the very dangerous work of breaking up log jams.

While William Bowler was teaching in a Michigan rural school, he met Jennie Bates, who was not a Catholic until her marriage. William and Jennie married and settled on a farm in the Clare area, where their children — Ellis, Theodore, Margaret, Belva (the future Sister Jean Margaret), James (who died at an early age of pneumonia), Eddie, and Lucetta (called Dolly) — were born. Their household included an extended family, not only themselves and their children, but also the children’s paternal grandparents, their father’s two brothers, Theodore and Joseph, and their mother’s sister Ellen. Theodore owned the farm next door, but William Bowler’s family worked it as well as their own, since Theodore worked on the train as a mail clerk. Joseph had leg problems, found physical labor hard, and became a lawyer.

Belva Ellen was born on April 28, 1913. She shared the name with her cousin, Belva O’Rourke, who later became Sister Patricia Marie, and who died in 2003. Sister Jean Margaret wrote:

Our farm house was big, more modern than many of the surrounding farms. I recall how excited we were when we got electricity and running water in our house … My father purchased a Shetland pony and a riding cart for us … I recall how delighted we all were when Dad purchased a car.

Sister Jean Margaret wrote about taking frequent trips into town in the cart, and visiting their Uncle Joe’s office. He would give them “treat” money that they spent at the candy store.

The Bowler youngsters at first attended Randall School, a rural school, then the family moved into Clare where the older children finished elementary and high school in the public schools. Sister Jean Margaret wrote that the church in Clare was a mission of Rosebush, and there was a small school taught by three sisters. She and Margaret made their First Communion and were confirmed there. “There is no proof because of a fire that destroyed many records.”

Ellis and Theodore were planning to become lawyers, and the family moved to Detroit so that everyone could attend school and live at home. The younger children were enrolled at St. Theresa School, and Belva also spent her high school years there. She wrote, “I was happy at St. Theresa; I enjoyed my classes and liked the sisters.” Her father supported the family well by leasing and operating a gas station, assisted by his sons and some of their friends while they attended college.

The year 1930 was an auspicious one for the family. Belva’s two brothers graduated from law school, Margaret finished secretarial college, and Belva graduated from high school. Within a month, on July 2, she was one of the ten girls from St. Theresa who entered the postulate at Adrian. The family moved back to Clare; and, in response to requests from golfers, her father turned the farm that had previously belonged to his brother Joseph into a golf course.

Belva, in her postulant garb, began the 1930-31 school year as a third-grade teacher at St. Patrick School in St. Charles, Illinois, and returned to Adrian at Easter for Reception on April 7, 1931. Dressed in the habit and known as Sister Jean Margaret, she returned to St. Charles to finish the year. “Imagine my class when I walked in!”

In August 1931, the required canonical novitiate year began. During her novitiate, she taught primary children at St. Joseph Academy, and shared their dormitory. “I became not only their teacher, but also their playmate, and even their substitute mother.” She and her group professed their first vows on August 2, 1932, and she remained in Adrian as a full-time student at St. Joseph College (now Siena Heights University) for the next school year.

Her teaching assignments kept her in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio schools. In August 1933, she was sent to Oak Park, Illinois, to teach junior high students at St. Edmund School. The next year she was again with junior high students at Blessed Sacrament in Toledo, Ohio, where she remained for three years. She then spent four years at St. Laurence in Chicago. During the summer of 1938, she finished her college work at St. Joseph College in Adrian and received a bachelor’s degree with a major in Latin and minors in Greek and English.

In 1941, she began her high school ministry at St. Mary High School in Adrian. Her study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor during the summers was interrupted in summer 1943 by surgery, but in September 1944, she received a master’s degree in Latin. During the 1943-44 year, her brother Eddie, who had been a Navy pilot, died. She wrote, “I was not strong enough to attend his memorial service, but Ted and Louisa came and spent time with me.”

In 1945, she moved to St. Edward High School in Elgin, Illinois, then returned to Michigan for three years at St. Paul in Owosso. Beginning with 1951, she spent eight years at Dominican High School in Detroit, during which she returned to Clare in 1956 for her father’s funeral. About her years at Dominican High, she wrote, “I was able to arrange and plan many get-togethers for the sisters in Detroit, and even now some sisters will remind me of the wonderful times they had at my parties.” During the summer of 1958 she and her mother joined another sister and her family on a trip through Europe, and she wrote of how much they enjoyed their travels. At Sister Jean Margaret’s wake, Sister Mary Willard Reagan remembered the years at Dominican High.

Sister Jean was the Latin department chairperson, the food procurator for the forty-plus nuns, and the school cafeteria manager who presided over the lunch program for 1,200 girls with the aplomb of a maitre ‘d. For those of you fortunate enough to have dealt with a school lunch program sponsored by the United States government, you know that among its routine staples is the product known as tapioca. Sister Jean Margaret spent time and talent raising this institutional item to new heights.

Fundraisers were also a constant at Dominican High School. The magazine drive was major and always a towering success. The winners remained the same year after year — Sister Jean Margaret and the seniors of 210.

Sister Jean Margaret was brought back to Adrian in 1959 for two years at St. Joseph Academy. In 1961, she was assigned to Lansing for sixteen years: eight years at Resurrection High School, two years at Monsignor Gabriel High School, and six years when it became known as Lansing Catholic Central High School, where the Christian Brothers also ministered. The school became nationally known for its promotion of the JCL (Junior Classical League), a newly formed Latin organization. With the students, she attended many of its conventions, both nationally and abroad. At the wake, Sister Ann Marie Petrie shared some memories:

I was missioned near Lansing, and sometimes we would go to Lansing Catholic. Every time we went there was a party, and we always thought that she had planned it especially for us. I would always think, “Isn’t this special!” I needed that gift of hospitality. That was the way she was!

Sister Carleen Maly also had some memories from that time to share.

I lived with Sister Jean Margaret in Lansing. There I saw her hospitality. Every year we’d leave to go away for the summer, and when we came back to Lansing she’d be there at the door to welcome us just as though we’d never been there before.

r Jean Margaret’s mother was ill, so in 1977, Sister Jean Margaret left the classroom to care for her. She and her mother moved to Venice, Florida, and in June 1982, they moved back to Clare, Michigan. The Christmas season of 1982 was a sad one for her and her siblings, as her mother died at that time.

In her autobiography, Sister Jean Margaret wrote of meeting and becoming acquainted with celebrities, although she didn’t always give the dates: Bill Robinson, in Chicago in the 1940s; Sidney Poitier, on a summer trip to Nassau with students; Ann Landers, in Lansing; Helen Hayes, while at a JLC meeting in Ann Arbor; and Goebie Gunther, the famous animal trainer, in Venice, Florida. “He truly believed, and proved, that animals could be trained by love and not by any kind of physical pain.”

In 1982, Sister Jean Margaret took on a change in ministry. She served as a parish minister at St. Mary Parish in Durand, Michigan, for twenty years. Sister Ann Marie Petrie remembered:

When she was in Durand, I was nearby. We would go over there frequently and share her hospitality. There was always a wonderful dinner. Whenever she got together with people, before the meal was over she’d say, “Isn’t this the best time we’ve ever had?” Every time was always the best time!

That the people among whom Sister Jean Margaret worked appreciated and loved her is shown by the respectful and affectionate coverage of her ministry in Lansing Catholic Central’s newspaper and in St. Mary’s parish newspaper.

In 2002, she was assailed by illness and returned to Adrian, to the Maria Building of the Dominican Life Center, where she died in June 2006. At the wake, Sister Carleen Maly said:

She had an uncanny ability to relate to high school students. Even last year, when we hosted students who attend Dominican high schools from all over the United States, she offered to be a prayer partner. This year she said that she didn’t volunteer, but if we needed her help she would give it. She said that she didn’t feel up to par.

Sister Jean Margaret’s wake-remembrance service was held in St. Catherine Chapel on June 13. Several of her relatives were present: her sister Lucetta (Doll) Austin; her niece Jane Bowler; her nephews Michael, Fred, and Patrick Austin and their wives; several other relatives; and many of her Dominican friends. Sister Joan Sustersic, Prioress of Holy Rosary Mission Chapter, welcomed those assembled, and summarized Sister Jean Margaret’s life and ministry.

Initially, the move to Adrian was difficult for her. She missed being close to her family … As she began to feel better and her health improved, she appealed to her niece Jane to come to take her on visits to her home. She rarely missed a family party.

On June 7, she became ill during the night and was transported to Bixby Hospital, where they diagnosed a stroke. When it became apparent that they could do no more for her in the hospital, she returned to the DLC (Dominican Life Center).

She was a terrific story teller, and had a wonderful sense of humor. She had many gifts — among them calligraphy. God blessed her abundantly, and she shared her gifts.

Sister Jean Margaret’s funeral liturgy was held on June 14. Father Roland Calvert, OSFS, was the presider and homilist. Father Joseph Aubin, who had ministered with her in Durand, concelebrated. Among his remarks, Father Calvert said:

Sister’s speaking ability has been noted. It was probably a combination of her Irish background … as well as her studies of Cicero and other ancients. I remember when I stopped in her room, that her speaking style was what you might call oracular.

Father Aubin, who had known Sister Jean Margaret in Durand, spoke of the many years that she had ministered there. He called her “a party person,” who always said, “Isn’t this the best time that you’ve ever had?”

On June 10, 2006, Sister Jean Margaret began her new life in eternity, with her God and all the loved ones who had preceded her. She was ninety-three years of age, and had celebrated her seventy-fifth year in the Congregation just a few weeks before. Her family and her Dominican friends will miss her, but would not keep her from the party that she is now celebrating.