Classically trained, 86-year-old Sr. Maria Theresa Magrie, IHM, has been singing her whole life for audiences large and small
MONROE — How do you solve a problem like Sr. Maria Theresa?
With all due respect to "The Sound of Music," Maria von Trapp might have met her match in Sr. Maria Theresa Magrie, IHM, the famous "singing nun" of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Since joining the Monroe-based religious community in 1955, Sr. Magrie has made singing a focal point of her ministry. She has directed music programs at Catholic schools around the country, performed the national anthem during countless professional sporting events, sang at famous weddings, and even now offers comfort to the sick and dying by singing to them during their final moments.
But when you ask Sr. Magrie about her fascinating musical life, she simply smiles and defers to her "agent."
Sr. Magrie, 86, lives in a memory care facility at the IHM Senior Living Facility in Monroe, which houses both retired sisters and lay residents.
Because of Sr. Magrie’s dementia, she doesn’t remember many names and struggles to tell stories — her "agent," fellow sister Sr. Anne Mamienski, IHM, who is a pastoral care associate, fills in the gaps — but Sr. Magrie never forgets a song and continues to learn new ones.
Sr. Mamienski describes Sr. Magrie as the busiest and most sought-after person at the facility. Sr. Magrie sings every day, either for groups of residents, where she leads them in popular songs, or privately, to the sick and dying.
“At 86, she is still singing beautifully, and she is requested all over the house — we sing in memory care, on the main floor, the second floor, which are more hospital kind of floors, almost every day,” Sr. Mamienski told Detroit Catholic.
Whenever Sr. Magrie sings, she stands, adjusts her posture, gripping sheet music that she doesn’t really need, and begins. As she starts to sing, her face lights up.
Born in Detroit in 1938, Sr. Magrie has been musically inclined since the beginning.
“My father was a musician, and my mother, too. She sang, and my dad played piano professionally,” Sr. Magrie said. “I got all of that good music from them.”
Sr. Magrie still has her father’s piano, which is kept in a community space down the hall from her bedroom. While her parents weren’t professionals, they were recognized locally for their musical talent.
“Sometimes they would go to nightclubs, and people would recognize them and have them come up and perform,” Sr. Magrie recalled. “This is way back, many years ago, but you know they didn’t do it as professionals, it was just something they did at home and at the clubs.”
Sr. Magrie’s parents encouraged her musical talent, but also supported her decision to enter the IHM order right out of high school at 18 years old.
“They said, 'We won’t stand in your way if that’s what you want to do,’” Sr. Magrie said.
Sr. Magrie went on to study under two famous opera singers — she can't remember their names — and performed alongside a famous German composer as well as American composer Aaron Copeland.
Her musical prowess brought her friends in high places. She sang at Lee Iaccoca’s second wedding in 1986, which took place on his yacht, and remained close to the family; she sang the national anthem during Detroit Lions, Pistons, Tigers and Red Wings games and became close to legendary Red Wings player Gordie Howe. To this day, one of her most cherished possessions is a photo of her and Howe.
“She was beloved everywhere she went,” Sr. Mamienski said.
However, in her conversation with Detroit Catholic, the experiences Sr. Magrie recalled most frequently without help were more humble in nature, such as teaching music at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills.
“I loved directing music. The brothers couldn’t handle the students at Brother Rice, but I could,” Sr. Magrie laughed. “I was blessed to have wonderful students, people who have come into my life, and I have been able to share my gifts with them when they needed it. I did a lot of weddings for my former students getting married or funerals of people from the different parishes where I played music.”
Before moving into her current home, Sr. Magrie volunteered at Trinity Health Oakland six days a week.
“I would play the organ and the piano (in the chapel), and I designed all the liturgies,” Sr. Magrie said. “I would go very early because there were so many people coming into the chapel because someone in their family was dying or someone was sick. They would stay for the Mass, and (afterward) we’d go up to their loved ones and spend time with them, too.”
For her volunteer work at Trinity Health, Sr. Magrie was recently the recipient of an Award for Exceptional Service (it sits next to the picture of her and Gordie Howe), a fitting tribute, as her greatest ministry is singing for those on their death bed.
“She loves to sing to the dying people,” Sr. Mamienski said, adding some families request Sr. Magrie to come sing to their relative every day until they pass away and then again to sing at the wake, funeral and graveside.
“There was an Italian woman whom she would go to sing to, but she could only sing the ‘Ave Maria’ or other Latin-based songs because the woman doesn’t know English,” Sr. Mamienski said. “Sr. Maria was the only one who could communicate with her … through music.”
In addition to singing, Sr. Magrie takes time for her other love: the six outdoor cats who live on the IHM campus.
“She gets so emotionally attached to people here that she is really crying when she sings to people who are dying, and so she goes out and sees the cats to lighten her spirits,” Sr. Mamienski said.
Sr. Magrie is quick to add she doesn’t sing to the cats, but she loves them dearly, just as she has loved every bit of her busy life.
“I’ve done music all my life,” Sr. Magrie said. “And I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Annual Retirement Fund for Religious Collection
Sr. Magrie is one of hundreds of retired religious sisters, brothers and priests living in the Archdiocese of Detroit. On Dec. 9-10, parishes will take up a special collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious, which provides financial assistance for the retirement and health care needs for religious in 297 U.S. communities.
In 2022, Detroit parishioners contributed $462,058.77 to the collection, which aided retired religious in local communities such as the Basilian Fathers, Pallottine Fathers and Sisters, Servants the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The nationwide collection is organized by the National Religious Retirement Office, which is supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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