Before I sat down to talk with Sister Margaret Hall, she warned me that she doesn’t talk very much. “And really,” she added, her baby blue eyes looking at me with concern, “there isn’t very much to talk about anyway.”
I wasn’t worried about running out of things to talk about. It’s very pleasant being in Sr. Margaret’s company. Her room in Our Lady of Grace Hall is bright, lit by a large skylight that allows her to work on her sewing projects. The furniture is minimal and decorations consist of just a few old pictures of family and miscellaneous treasures collected through the years. Two work tables are set up and it is clear that this is where Sr. Margaret spends most of her time. Later she brings out a cart and she shows me boxes filled with squares of fabric and tools she keeps for her quilting, and explains how she sews them without a pattern.
We let the conversation take us along naturally; like letting a piece of driftwood bob and wind its way downstream, sometimes getting snagged on something large and beautiful and sometimes slipping too quickly away.
“Oh! I forgot to tell you,” Sr. Margaret exclaims delightedly, “I also coached sports!”
I am somehow no longer surprised to learn of yet another ministry. Among many things, this wonderful Sylvania Franciscan Sister has also been a math teacher, sculptor, food pantry director, mosaicist, grounds steward and quilter.
In 1933 Sr. Margaret Hall was born in Detroit to Angela and John Hall and was the fifth of seven children. Family and friends called her Mickey. They learned to rely on her creative eye and her help with math homework because Margaret Hall is one of those rare humans whose gifts draw from both the left brain and the right brain.
When Mickey was just a girl, she read an advertisement for an Ivory Soap contest that challenged young artists to transform a bar of Ivory soap into a sculpture. One small white squirrel later, a sculptor was born.
Two years after the end of WWII, when Sr. Margaret was around 13, she began working to convince her father, the fun-loving John Hall, to allow her to enter the Sylvania Franciscans. “My dad wanted me to finish High School but my girlfriends and I really wanted to go into the convent so finally he gave in,” she explains.
She was not the only one of the family to make that decision; her sister Marilyn also entered the convent and her brother Jack entered the seminary.
Her father was only 47 years old when he lost his life to cancer. It was the year Sr. Margaret became a novice and she remembers feeling grateful to have the solace of the Franciscan community.
Something striking about Sr. Margaret and all that she does is her lifelong desire to understand and tell the Franciscan story. She shows me a statue from her portfolio and as I’m admiring the strong fluid lines she’s sculpted, she works to make sure that I see the story she was trying to tell and explain the intellectual and spiritual process she went through to come to this final work.
Math was something she understood, and it, too, was a way to be closer to the kids and share the Franciscan values that are the story of her life. Looking through her photographs and clippings I see beautiful handmade signs that encourage the students to remember to “Concentrate on Fundamentals,” “Persevere and Stick with It,” and to “Read Carefully and Deliberately.”
"Of all the Franciscan values, compassion is number one for me," she says.
She had her chance to practice great compassion in her next ministry. After teaching for almost 40 years in three states, she saw an advertisement for a food pantry director in a poor county in Missouri. She clipped it out and took it to the leadership council to see if they would let her apply.
“I wanted the chance to help people in need directly,” she says.
In 1993 the Sisters sent her to the Ozarks with their blessings and Sr. Margaret proceeded to build the Texas County Food Pantry into the largest in the state, serving an average of 450 families per month. In 1995, shortly after her arrival, the need was the greatest and the pantry managed to provide food for nearly 800 families that year.
It was when she moved to Missouri that she made the decision to stop wearing the habit because it seemed like a good time to make the transition, and she was one of the few Catholics in the county.
“Once I was talking with a woman on the street and she had me wait so she could run to get her daughter to show her a real Catholic.
"Everyone was very nice and I ended up making a lot of very good friends there,” she says. Her friend list includes Malcolm, who, at the time of their first meeting, had some hygienic issues.
“I left the room and gathered up soap, a clean towel and shirt and other things and came back and handed them to him. I was afraid that he would be offended, but he was really happy and grateful, so I showed him to the bathroom and let him clean up. We became such good friends over the years,” says Sr. Margaret.
While living in Missouri, Sr. Margaret opened Loretto House, a charming residential space that she transformed into a place of personal growth for women.
“We would get together for cooking classes, a quilting group and other projects,” Sr. Margaret says.
These days, her ministry is through art. You’ll find her usually working at Alverno Studio on beautiful tiles that sell in All Good Things Art & Gift Shop, many of which are of her own design.
Her signature pieces are two frogs, built on the acronym Forever Rely On God (FROG.) One FROG she calls Amadeus and the other is Frankie; Frankie has been worked into three art installations around the campus, making a walk around campus a bit of a treasure hunt. Sr. Margaret Hall’s life continues to be a hunt for goodness, kindness and compassion, and a commitment to living a very Franciscan life in both heart and deed.