My Aunt, The Saint

Sister Anna Marie stands between me and my sister Sheila in this 1972 photo, taken in front of our rented Bethany Beach cottage.

Sister Anna Marie stands between me and my sister Sheila in this 1972 photo, taken in front of our rented cottage in Bethany Beach, DE.

“Sister A. Marie is a treasure. You have given a Saint back to God,”Sister Mary Basil Roarke DC wrote to my maternal grandparents Marie and Taylor Branson in September ’42. Sister Mary Basil was my aunt Sister Anna Marie Branson DC’s community superior at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Endicott, NY. Sister Anna Marie was 25 then on her first mission with the Daughters of Charity, teaching third grade.

However, as Sister Mary Basil in 1943, wrote again to my grandparents, “Sister Anna Marie is indeed an unusual soul. I believe God has set her apart for special work.” Mary Basil was prescient.

Anna Marie was set apart for special work, and what made her an unusual soul, a treasure, and a Saint, I’ll explore in SISTERS, a book I plan to write about her and her sister Sister Serena Branson DC. (She lived an extraordinary life in her own right, which I will write about in another post.)

Sister Mary Basil’s notes were attached to Anna Marie’s letters home, which I’m reviewing for the book. These letters reveal eternity was central to her spirituality. After Anna Marie’s siblings visited her on Easter 1948, she wrote to her parents: “I felt in my very soul that all our ties have been formed by God and meant for eternity, and all the glorification He allows us now, though he means them to be consolations to sustain us on the way are simply shadows of things to come. “

“I know He can make you feel what He lets me feel — simply this to lift you above all earthly happenings, even for a brief moment and let you gaze into the glory for which we are destined together.”

Discovering these spiritual pearls has been wonderful for me because I didn’t know Anna Marie that well. She left for Bolivia when I was 3, and I remember spending time with her during visits in 1972 and 1974 . After 1974, I didn’t see her again.

Anna Marie was always Sister Anna Marie to us. That seems odd because you don’t typically address family that formally. I’ve discovered however she and Serena insisted upon being called Sister to separate from their family. When they entered the Daughters, they died to their old selves and became new persons in Christ, to paraphrase St. Paul.

Anne Branson, Marie and Taylor Branson’s third child, the daughter of the leader of the Marine Band, who grew up near Lincoln Park, went to Holy Comforter and Georgetown Visitation schools became Sister Anna Marie.

That woman earned her Master’s in Nursing, and was Nursing Director at Providence Hospital and the Old Soldiers Home in Washington, DC, Administrator of Elizabeth Seton Psychiatric Hospital in Baltimore, and the Astor Home for emotionally disturbed children in Rhinebeck, NY.

Anna Marie’s domestic career and achievements would be book worthy. However, she will be remembered best as a missionary among Bolivia’s indigenous poor from 1963 to 1982.

Political upheaval, military coups and numerous labor strikes characterized Bolivian life in those years, but Anna Marie remained intrepid, determined, and innovative.

In the ‘70’s, she trained women to become health promoters, who worked to improve their barrios’ health by educating others how to prevent diseases and manage chronic health conditions better. This kind of popular education preventive health effort was 20 years ahead of similar programs established in the states.

Anna Marie, in 1981, a year before she died, started a home for 30 street boys, who, as young as 7, were forced to live on their own because their families couldn’t afford to provide for them.

Anna Marie became Madrecita to these boys, cooked for them, gave them a place to sleep, and listened compassionately to their problems and troubles and encouraged them to get educations and learn trades.

Anna Marie slept in a small room that doubled as a supply closet, although she fretted constantly about living simply enough in a country where the average annual income was $100 and people lived in huts with muddy floors.

The program she began with Sister Stephanie Murray DC has blossomed into Amanecer, which now provides medical and dental services, vocational training, a school and shelters and homes for boys and girls. One home there is named Casa Ana Maria Branson. Learn more about Amanecer here.

I believe the Pope from Latin America who wants a missionary and mystic church would identify with the mystic and missionary Anna Marie from Latin America. And the time’s ripe to advance Anna Marie’s Sainthood cause, which I’ll try to do with SISTERS.

The challenge daunts and humbles me, but I trust Anna Marie will guide me. Isn’t that, after all, what Saints do?

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