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COLUMN ONE : 5 Seekers of Good Find Evil : They were country girls from Illinois who grew up to be ordinary women of extraordinary faith. In their 60s, they worked as missionaries in Liberia, where even their best intentions could not protect them.

5 Seekers of Good Find Evil. FIRST OF TWO PARTS

December 26, 1993|RICHARD E. MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SISTER AGNES MUELLER / She did advanced study in theology. She, too, was a teacher and a nurse.

Agnes Mueller was born in the prairie town of Bartelso, Ill., population 389. She was the fifth of nine children, and by one account her father's favorite. Paul Mueller, an older brother, says she and her high school friends liked to hang out at a bowling alley across from home. "She was the type to run around quite a bit, not to the point where you'd think she would get into trouble," he says, "but at the same time you wouldn't think she was going to join a religious order."

Her older sister, Mary Ann, however, had become an Adorer of the Blood of Christ. The prospect interested Agnes, especially the possibility of becoming a missionary. She joined the convent at Ruma and went to St. Louis University. Like Barbara Ann Muttra, she became a nurse. She worked and taught at hospitals in Taylorville and Red Bud, where she was gentle, quiet-spoken and well-liked. "She was a very private person," Sister Clare Boehmer says. "I lived with her a full year, and I don't think I ever heard her complain." She was more reflective than quick. "Agnes, I think, asked a lot of questions of life," Sister Clare says. "Life didn't just happen to her. She really questioned it."

After 18 years of nursing, she went to Dubuque, Iowa, to attend the Aquinas Institute. She became the first woman there to earn a master's degree in theology. She quit nursing to teach. In time, she came to an important conclusion. The Catholic Church, she decided, had been locking itself into a patriarchal emphasis on the Scriptures that tended to miss an important point. God, she said, is not just father but also mother.

She was not forward about it. "She was never one to push her ideas onto anyone," Sister Clare says. "She respected others' views. But she wanted them to think about hers." Indeed, a tape recording of a class she taught for parish catechists in Herrin, Ill., opens with Agnes addressing a man in the group. "I may have to ask pardon of you," she said, "before I even begin." But then she went on unflinchingly. "To be able to realize that God speaks to all people, and that God's presence can come to us through all people, we (should not) limit God. . . .

"We (must) realize that it might be the face of God coming to us in a Hispanic, or a black person, or a Lutheran, or someone from Arabia or the Far East," she said. Sometimes, she added, the face of God might even be reflected in a woman. "If God is all in all," she asked, "how can he be only he?"

At the same time, her quiet way of questioning and reflecting brought her to another conclusion: It is as necessary for women as it is for men to go out into God's world and make it a better place.

"That's where God is," she said. "Right there, in that struggle, in that hassle."

After a sabbatical to attend the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., she took herself at her own word. She volunteered for Liberia.

SISTER KATHLEEN McGUIRE / A teacher and an administrator, she had a doctorate in education.

Kathleen McGuire was born in Ponds Settlement, Ill., a place so small it was hardly a town. Her father had a farm there, and she grew up much like the Kolmers up at Waterloo.

She attended one-room schools at Daly and Keane. Every summer, nuns from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ came to a church at Ponds Settlement, called St. Patrick's, to teach religion. By the fourth grade, they had impressed her so much she wanted to become a nun.

She graduated from the eighth grade as valedictorian and left for high school at the Ruma convent. "She would have gone sooner," says Pauline McGuire, her mother, "if we would have let her." After high school, she took her vows. She earned a degree in English from St. Louis University, with minors in Latin and philosophy. She embarked on teaching and administrative assignments at a succession of elementary and high schools in Illinois and Iowa. In between, she earned a master's degree in English literature from St. Louis University and a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts.

Through it all, she hewed to something her mother had taught her. Pauline McGuire always said that what one did was just as important as whether one prayed. "Her God," Kathleen wrote years later, "was as much interested in what she did outside of 'prayer time' as in her prayer--and, in fact, was not at all interested in her prayer if she did not do right at other times."

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