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Mary Ann Fath, known at St. Catherine University as ‘Sister John Deere,’ dies at 84

December 18, 2018

Mary Ann Fath, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, spent 44 years working for St. Catherine University — 40 of them lovingly tending the grounds and gardens of the university’s scenic St. Paul campus.

She died Dec. 9 at age 84 at Carondelet Village, the senior living facility built and run by the sisters that is on the St. Catherine campus.

In her last years, she lived in the memory care unit of Carondelet Village. Associates said her tending of the campus was the memory she held on to most securely; in her retirement she could still be spotted picking up litter.

Fath was born in 1934 on her parents’ farm just east of De Graff, Minn. She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in Graceville, where she was introduced to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

When she was 18, she moved to St. Paul and made her first entry to the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet community. She took her first vows in 1955, earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Catherine in 1956 and took her final vows in 1960.

The Sisters of St. Joseph St. Paul Province are well known for their education, health care and social justice ministries. The order founded St. Catherine University and Derham Hall High School (now Cretin-Derham Hall High School) in St. Paul, the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park and numerous area Catholic grade schools.

The order also founded and for years ran St. Joseph’s Hospital. It still operates St. Mary’s Health Clinics for the area’s uninsured and underserved, and several other ministries.

Fath’s first vocational work was in food service at locations in St. Paul and later Grand Forks, N.D. She transferred to St. Catherine’s in 1972 and retired in 2016.

For 40 of her 44 years on campus, she served as a groundskeeper. Students nicknamed her “Sister John Deere” to honor the campus figure who always managed to take time from her earthy duties to chat with passing students, faculty, staff and visitors.

If staff and students couldn’t find her in the gardens or greenhouse, they could usually find her on the sidelines and stands cheering the school’s soccer and basketball teams.

Jim Manship, the director of facilities management at St. Catherine, was nominally in charge of Sister Mary Ann. “She was a very self-guided worker,” Manship said. “She would take a task and go do it.”

Much of it was strenuous physical labor, but Fath enjoyed the work. From growing up on a farm, she knew what needed to be done and how to do it. Manship said there was little need for him to check the quality and thoroughness of her work.

Administrators finally persuaded her to retire in 2016. “She didn’t want to retire, but she accepted it gracefully,” said her friend, Sister Peggy O’Leary.

Fath was most comfortable in her work clothes, either the crew’s simple polo shirt or an old pair of her father’s overalls.

It was common for Fath to go straight from tending the grounds to daily services at the chapel within Carondelet Village.

“She’d come in the front door from St. Catherine’s, she’d put her green jacket and her hat in the closet, come down the hall to go to chapel, take off her shoes and go in with stocking feet for mass everyday,” O’Leary said.

“Mary Ann was a woman of strong faith, but she didn’t wear it on her sleeve,” O’Leary added. “She loved to be outside and she loved the earth.”

Fath died with O’Leary, as well as family members, by her side. Fath is survived by sister Lois Huges and brother Joseph Fath. Funeral services have been held.

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