Sister Margaret James Laughlin, 96, died Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017 at St. Scholastica Monastery. She was born Kathleen Laughlin on May 25, 1920 to James and Margaret (Dillon) Laughlin in Iron Mountain, Michigan. She was the third of their four children, joining siblings William, Thomas and Mary Monica (Sister Monica). Sometime after the death of Margaret’s sister, Mary Dillon, the Laughlin family became home for their cousins. In reflecting on her personal life Sister Margaret James wrote, “When I was seven years old my parents became the legal guardians of seven first cousins and our home became theirs; we were a melded family before the term ever existed. This fact is probably the defining characteristic of my childhood and adolescence.”
Kathleen graduated from Iron Mountain High School in 1937. During her high school years, she took piano and clarinet lessons, performed in the band and orchestra, and played basketball. Following graduation, she worked for a year as a clerical employee of the State of Michigan Old Age Assistance Bureau. In 1938 she enrolled in The College of St. Scholastica (CSS) because her mother, like her mother before her, wanted each of the children to have at least one year of education in a Catholic school. She found her college experience very satisfying and inspired by the Sisters, decided to enter the Benedictine Community along with three of her closest friends. On January 6, 1941 she became a Postulant and entered the Novitiate on July 9 of that same year. At that time, she received the name Margaret James in honor of her parents. She made her First Monastic Profession July 11, 1942 and her Perpetual Monastic Profession on July 11, 1945. She celebrated her Silver Jubilee in August 1967, her Golden Jubilee in July 1992 and her Diamond Jubilees in 2002 (60 years) and 2012 (70 years).
In 1944 she completed her B.A. in history at CSS and her M.A. in education from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis in 1952. She did further graduate studies at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul and Western Reserve University in Cleveland. From 1944 to 1949 she taught business courses at Cathedral Senior High in Duluth. She served as assistant principal to Father Hogan at Cathedral from 1951 to 1961; principal of Stanbrook Hall from 1961 to the school’s closing in 1967; registrar at CSS from 1968 to 1976; and assistant to the president at CSS from 1976 to 1991.
Dr. Dan Pilon, former St. Scholastica president, said in a letter to Sr. Margaret James upon her retirement, “You epitomize good humor, loyalty, candor and accuracy. Your contribution has been great, and you will be missed.” One of Sister’s greatest honors was receiving a “great degree of gratitude” from the St. Scholastica Board of Trustees in 1991. It has been said, “in this world of change, some people remain true with qualities of stability, loyalty, and rock-bottom commitment.” Such is true of Sister Margaret James.
“Retirement” was not a word in Sister’s vocabulary. She continued to serve, and from 1991 to 2015 she was the secretary/records coordinator for the Monastery Development Office. Her skills as researcher, writer, and proofreader were invaluable. She wrote articles for Pathways and served on its Editorial Board. Sister Margaret James was instrumental, along with other Sisters, in the research, development, and production of the Monastery History Boards which grace the first floor of the Monastery. She truly worked with heart and passion on this project.
Sister served twelve years on the St. Joseph Medical Center Board in Brainerd, Minnesota and six years, including a period as secretary, on the St. Mary’s Medical Center Board in Duluth. She was a faithful member of Monastery Standing Committees, including Long Range Planning, the Committee on Committees, and the Finance Committee. She served as chair of the Sesquimillenium (celebrating 1,500 years of the Benedictine Order), Self-Study/Visitation, Council Election, and Centennial Steering Committees. She enjoyed assisting in the Monastery’s archives.
After Vatican II ended in 1966, the Catholic Church declared a 15-year period of experimentation, addressing old problems, including large group living, in new ways. One experiment was “small group living.” In the fall of 1970, Sister joined a small group of Sisters, including her blood sister, Sister Monica. The group was so successful that they shared over 40 years of living together at Sellwood Hall and at Waverly. Along with the Sisters came a series of dogs over the years to make their homes complete.
Sister Margaret James was a disciplined woman with a strong and quick intellect. As a principal she could be firm, but with wisdom and a loving heart she guided her students through life with integrity, compassion, and kindness. As Stanbrook Hall principal one of her responsibilities was to give the opening address at the beginning of the school year. The advice she gave to her students was to always be “at the right place at the right time, doing things in the right way for the right reason.”
Sister Margaret James was a true Yooper from Upper Michigan who enjoyed life, the beauty of nature, skiing, snow-blowing, Viking football, vacations at Lake Placid, reading mysteries, and playing ping-pong, cribbage, and Boggle with Sister Monica. She could be mischievous and fun. As a young child of six years she cut off one of Monica’s curls before a much-anticipated family picture was to be taken. Sister Margaret James and Sister Monica had a special relationship of faithfulness and care for each other. She rejoiced in Monica’s talents and musical accomplishments. Monica’s joy was always her joy. Sister Margaret James accepted life as it was. With courage she endured ten months of recuperation from tuberculosis in the 1950’s and in later years she experienced limited hearing.
Sister Margaret James (also lovingly called MJ) had an endearing smile, an Irish wit, and a twinkle in her blue eyes. She was a true steward of God, a good and faithful servant to her family, her Community, her ministries, and her God. At her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 she said, “As I look back at these 70 years, it is my hope, “ut in ommibus glorificetur Deus!” (“that in all things God may be glorified”). Indeed, she lived this hope throughout her graced and noble life.
Sister Margaret James was preceded in death by her parents James and Margaret, her brothers William and Thomas, her beloved sister Sister Monica, her seven cousins, and her niece Jean Hooper. Besides the Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery, she is survived by many nieces, nephews, cousins, and dear friends.
Sister Margaret James’s wake service and Mass of Christian Burial were celebrated on April 22, 2017 in Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel at St. Scholastica Monastery. Father Tom Foster presided. Sister Margaret James is buried in Gethsemane Cemetery at St. Scholastica Monastery.