Mercy Sister M. Ann Francis Henkel looks back over her long life, recalling people and experiences with a quick smile and a ready laugh.
“I can’t believe that I’m 100 years old,” said Sister Ann Francis, who celebrated her 100th birthday on Saturday, Aug. 21, at the Mercy Convent in Nashville. “My mind is clear. I can recall things. It’s a gift that God has given me.
“My own joy now is reminiscing and thinking about things in the past,” she added.
Sister Ann Francis celebrated her birthday with a Mass and small party with her fellow Mercy Sisters at the convent on Aug. 21. The next day, mindful of the need to protect Sister Ann Francis and the other sisters from the coronavirus, a long line of cars carrying generations of nieces and nephews drove down the convent’s driveway to wish the woman they affectionately call Aunt Dorothy a happy birthday while she sat and waved back happily.
Sister Ann Francis was born on Aug. 21, 1921, in Loretto, Tennessee, the fourth of the eight children of Herman and Annie Hemmen Henkel. “I was the middle child,” Sister Ann Francis said. “Poor me, I had to put up with the older ones and the little ones I had to take care of,” she joked.
Her parents’ families were among the first German Catholics to settle in Lawrence County in the 1870s, establishing several Catholic churches there.
When Sister Ann Francis was 4 years old, her parents moved their family to Nashville, where her father went to work with his brother building houses.
They lived on Osceola Avenue off Charlotte Pike and became parishioners at what was then the newly established parish of St. Ann. Sister Ann Francis likes to remind people she and St. Ann Parish were born in the same year, 1921.
“We became very involved right away because our family was very church oriented,” Sister Ann Francis said. “It was always, ‘what are we doing at church.’”
At home, the family prayed the rosary every night, she said, and one of her aunts and several cousins had become religious sisters. Her older brother Albert Henkel became a priest for the Diocese of Nashville, which included all of Tennessee at the time, and he served as pastor of Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville for 38 years, the longest serving pastor in that historic church’s history.
Sister Ann Francis attended St. Ann School through the eighth grade. It was there that she was introduced to the Mercy Sisters. “I had the Mercy Sisters the entire time” as her teachers, she said.
After graduating from St. Ann, she went to high school at St. Bernard Academy, which was also run by the Mercy Sisters.
“I loved them,” Sister Ann Francis said of the sisters. “They were kind, thoughtful, prayerful, understanding.”
Her last two years of high school, she was a boarding student at St. Bernard. “During that time, I saw how they really lived,” she said.
In 1939, the summer after she graduated from high school, Sister Ann Francis joined the order at age 18. She was one of five young women from Nashville to become a Mercy Sister that year.
When she told her parents that she wanted to become a Mercy sister, her mother was thrilled, although her father wondered aloud if she might be too young. “Luckily, we had Mercy Sisters in Loretto,” when her parents were living there, Sister Ann Francis said. “They knew what I was talking about.”
She made her first profession of vows in 1940 and her final profession of vows in 1945.
“I have really enjoyed it,” Sister Ann Francis said of her 82 years as a Mercy Sister. “I enjoy the connection with the sisters. I love to be at all the community masses. I want that connection.”
The Mercy Sisters also gave Sister Ann Francis the opportunity to pursue another passion of hers, teaching.
“Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “When we played school in the summer, I was always the teacher.”
And it was the Mercy Sisters who provided her with a model of the ideal teacher. “Along with wanting to be a teacher, I have always seen the teacher as a kind sister.”
Sister Ann Francis began her nearly 50 years as a principal, teacher and librarian in her hometown, teaching at the old St. Patrick School in Nashville.
“They needed a sister in Nashville to take the place of a sister who had gotten sick,” Sister Ann Francis explained.
“At that time, you never knew where they were going to send you.” When she was asked, “How would you like to go to Tennessee?” she answered, “I would like that.” When they asked, “How would you like to go to Nashville?” she quickly answered, “I would like that even more.”
She started her teaching career with six years at St. Patrick. From there she served in Catholic schools from one end of Tennessee to the other, including two stops in Springfield where she helped open Our Lady of Lourdes School there in 1948, and helped close it in 1965. “I don’t know if I was a good omen or a bad one,” she said with a smile.
Other assignments were in Memphis, Johnson City, Alcoa, Kingsport, Knoxville and Nashville, where she taught at the old Cathedral School and St. Edward School and was principal of Christ the King School.
Her teaching career, in a sense, ended where it had started: St. Ann School in Nashville. She was a teacher there from 1978-87 and then served for three years as the school librarian before she retired in 1991.
“I loved teaching,” said Sister Ann Francis. “For a number of years, I had the little ones, first and second grade” and later taught the middle grades.
“I love the first grade,” she said. “When they came, they were eager to learn. As the year went on you could see their minds opening up, and in June they were a different little person.”
It was a similar progression for the students in her second grade classes, Sister Ann Francis recalled.
Her fellow Mercy Sisters said Sister Ann Francis “was a very good teacher” and “quite a seamstress.”
The sisters who live with her at the Mercy convent joined Sister Ann Francis outside the convent’s entrance as her family drove by with signs and shouted greetings from the driveway wishing her a happy birthday and letting her know they love her.
“She is amazing,” said Vickie Catignani, one of Sister Ann Francis’ many nieces. “I tell her when I grow up I want to be just like her.
“She’s loving, caring for everyone else and she always puts herself last,” said Catignani, whose late mother Margaret Catignani was Sister Ann Francis’ younger sister.
About 85 of her relatives joined the caravan of well-wishers.
“She had one request. That everyone give her a card and that they schedule an individual visit with her,” Catignani said.
Sister Ann Francis said she is happy living with her fellow Mercy Sisters at the convent. “The sisters are wonderful to me. I feel part of the community,” she said. “They’re kind. They’re watching for my wants. I think that’s beautiful.”