As a 20-year-old, professing her first temporary vows with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, Irene Kundinger was presented with a covenant where she was to sign her name on the top line.
She solemnly signed her name not only on the first line, but on the second and third lines as well, indicating second and third year renewal of these temporary vows, she recalled in an interview with the Catholic Herald earlier this year.
When the mistake was pointed out to her, she said she replied quickly, “No problem, I’m not leaving. I’m here for life.”
True to her word, Sr. Irene, now 89, will mark 69 years in professed life with the Franciscans next month. As she looks back on her years in ministry, she said it’s been a happy life that has brought her many opportunities.
Religious life took the Park Falls farm girl to Asia, where she spent more than 40 years as a missionary in Taiwan, helping develop a special education program for students and teachers.
The oldest of Frank and Francis Kundinger’s 11 children – seven girls and four boys – Sr. Irene was first introduced to religious life by the sisters who taught her at St. Anthony School, Park Falls, in the Superior Diocese.
After graduation, she went to a public high school and while there, received a letter of invitation from the superior general of the Franciscans in Milwaukee.
Intrigued, Sr. Irene begged her parents to let her go, and when she turned 16, they finally agreed. She spent her junior and senior years at St. Mary’s Academy and in 1943, became a novice with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.
She attended St. Clare College – now Cardinal Stritch University – and taught elementary school at Sacred Heart School, St. Francis, and St. Agnes School, Milwaukee. She also taught in Lyons, Fredonia and in Jefferson at St. Coletta School before spending three years in Hanover, Massachusetts.
While in Hanover, she received a letter from the superior general inviting her to go to Taiwan to work in special education.
“I was young; I thought it over and thought it would be good. We had Chinese sisters there and I knew some of them had been there from 1948 to 1968 … so I said yes, I would go,” she said of her plan to stay possibly two years in Taiwan. Those two years grew to more than four decades before health concerns forced her return last fall.
“At the end of the two years, I could see a great need and I thought it would be very challenging to be in Taiwan when the program was first developing so I stayed on all together 41 and a half years,” she said.
During that time, she recalled the approach to special education changed dramatically. For example, when she arrived, individuals with special needs were nearly invisible.
“When I first got there, people were afraid to admit they had a son or daughter who had special needs,” she said, describing how a fellow Sister of St. Francis, Sr. Eugenio Chu, could hardly find 10 students for their classes. “Parents were not going to bring their son or daughter out, but we finally got 10.”
Yet, as the years went on, not only did the number of students grow, but the opportunities for them also increased dramatically.
Children once referred to as mentally disabled or retarded were being taught to be as independent as possible, sheexplained, adding it was important they learn a skill.
“They know every student can learn something, no matter how limited they are,” she explained, noting that when they graduated, the lucky ones got jobs, including one young boy who packaged tea from his home.
“It was my work to get people to see that this is a person and this person is able to do many things if given a chance to train them in a very consistent way,” she said, adding that because her life as a sister is dedicated to God, “I felt whatever I was doing would have a good influence on others. I think my life and my way (of doing things) would help people to become better Christians and help all of us.”
Sr. Irene employed many of the teaching methods she learned at Cardinal Stritch, including teaching English through song.
“I’d use anything, like ‘Old MacDonald,’ ‘There Was a Bee Sat on a Wall.’ I would teach songs that went with different letters of the alphabet and they’d love it,” she said, adding that even at the large school, with 1,700 students, she would be with the special education students and the singing would give her away.
“I would be singing with my students and they’d say, ‘Oh my, Irene is there. We can hear her all over campus,’” she recalled.
She also introduced her students to American holidays.
“For Halloween, I would manage to get a pumpkin, a real one, and we’d carve the eyes out, roast seeds; they liked that,” she recalled, adding that even though her students were not Christian or Catholic, she helped them celebrate Christmas by distributing gifts.
During her time in Taiwan, she served as an advisor to St. Joseph Center for Special Education, served at Catholic Kuang Jen Elementary and Junior High Schools, taught in five centers alternately five days a week and in the evenings, she taught English to adults. For 10 years, she edited a publication for men and women religious, One Spirit Magazine.
Declining health – and the need for surgeries on both shoulders — forced Sr. Irene to move back to the United States last fall. She admitted leaving was difficult, both for her and for the students she left behind.
“People were so good to me. They took me out to dinner, bought me a new suitcase; the school paid my airline ticket,” she said, recalling the morning when she left Taiwan, there were more than 100 people on hand to send her off.
Calling it exciting, she said someone asked who the celebrity was since she was attracting so much attention.
“It was emotional, but I was prepared and I knew I really had to go,” she said, adding the sendoff was very special and it included an upgrade to first class, paid for by the father of one of her students.
Now that she’s back in the United States, Sr. Irene has had joint replacement surgery on both shoulders and has regular therapy and rehab sessions.
She’s enjoyed cultivating longtime friendships with fellow Franciscans, including classmate Sr. Generose Willkomm.
“We wrote letters back and forth all those years, and later on would communicate through emails…. That’s the way we communicated, and she came back for different community functions over the years, but now we enjoy one another when we can, catching up after 41 years,” Sr. Generose told the Catholic Herald.
Sr. Irene hopes to visit her family in the Superior Diocese, including her youngest brother, whom she met for the first time when he was 3. When she left home for the convent, she was only allowed one five-day visit home a year and didn’t get to know her younger siblings well until later in life.
Yet, as she reflected on her life as a Franciscan, Sr. Irene stressed that she’d sign all three lines on the covenant again.
“I was always happy, never sad. Sure the life is not easy, but everybody’s life is not easy,” she said, noting that religious life took her around to various parts of the United States, to Taiwan, Korea and even Rome.
“I was happy all the time in the convent and it’s a real joy to live here now,” she said.