SNOHOMISH — When Sister Mary Ann Conley arrived at St. Michael Catholic Church, the convent she moved into was a nearly century-old farmhouse. She learned her way around as part of her ministry. In 27 years of service to the church, she drove the area’s rural roads to help people who are homebound.
On Monday, Conley said goodbye to the Snohomish parish that for years was home. She is returning to her native California. She’ll live in Santa Maria, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with other members of her Sisters of St. Francis order.
At 80, Conley is well past typical retirement age. Still, she expects to stay busy helping others at her new home, the Marian Convent, and the nearby St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Santa Maria.
“She is an ‘Energizer Bunny’ at 80 years old,” said Judy Bartelheimer, liturgical coordinator at St. Michael’s. While Conley’s primary ministry has been visiting homes and care facilities, Bartelheimer said the nun has been an active and spirited presence in the parish.
Bartelheimer said when her family’s Snohomish farm donated corn as part of a fundraiser, Conley was out in the fields as a picker. “She makes wine. She takes part in social activities,” Bartelheimer said. Conley’s return to her Franciscan order “is their gain and our loss,” Bartelheimer added.
Earlier this month, Conley reflected on her life of service.
One of five children, she grew up in the Wilmington area of Los Angeles. A nun who was her teacher at Saints Peter and Paul School in Wilmington “sensed I had a vocation,” Conley said. “I loved the sisters there.”
She was 18 when she entered the Mount Alverno Convent in Sierra Madre, California, near Pasadena, and 21 when she took final vows in 1957. “Next year will be my 60th Jubilee,” she said.
Before Vatican II brought changes to the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s, she wore a brown wool habit. Today, the only outward sign that Conley is a nun is the Tau Cross pendant she wears. Resembling the Greek letter, it’s a symbol of the Franciscan order.
Before coming to Washington, Conley taught school for 20 years in California and Montana. She then taught religious education in Bothell for a time. In Snohomish, her mission evolved from teaching to bringing the church to people who can’t come to Mass in person.
She made regular visits to bring Holy Communion to people in their homes. “And I visited nursing homes,” she said. The Delta Rehabilitation Center, once known as the Snohomish Chalet, and Snohomish Health and Rehabilitation, long called Merry Haven, were regular stops.
“Usually I’ll say a prayer, read the Gospel for the coming Sunday, and share a few thoughts. I’ll give them Communion and bless them with holy water. For some, I just pray the ‘Our Father,’” Conley said. “It’s such an honor to have this ministry.”
She also has been a spiritual assistant to a Kirkland group of the Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order, known as Poverello. And she has taken part in Cursillo retreats at Camp Don Bosco in Carnation, where Catholics gather to deepen their faith.
That farmhouse convent Conley moved into at St. Michael’s has been gone for years. In 2001, when the Rev. Dick Ward was leader of the parish, the church raised money to build a new convent. Because Ward was then chaplain of Snohomish Fire District 4, the old house was used for a practice burn before a new convent home was built.
“I got to light the match,” said Conley, recalling that she wore protective gear and had mixed emotions watching the old house burn. Conley has lived in the new convent with only her cat Maya since another nun, Sister Pauline Risse, left the parish in 2014.
As Conley sees changes in the church, her faith endures. Last month, Pope Francis spoke of creating a commission to explore the possibility of women serving as deacons. Asked about a future when women might become church leaders, Conley said “I don’t want it for myself, but there are so many qualified women.”
“I just feel so blessed. God has been so good to me, and people have been so good to me,” she said.
In the church foyer recently, a banner expressed parishioners’ gratitude. They’d dipped their hands in paint and pressed them to the cloth. “Thank you Sister Mary Ann,” it said. At a goodbye party before her departure, the nun returned their thanks.
“I just said ‘My heart is full. You will have a place in my heart,’” Conley said. “Words can’t express how much I love everybody and will miss them.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.