This story begins in a rather unusual setting. It is a small chapel at the abbey community of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Caen, France, at a funeral. There was something very different about this little nun’s funeral, something not usually seen in such a setting. Her coffin was draped with an American flag, and there were three U.S. Army women in dress uniform present.
Well, there was also something unusual about this little nun who had lived 102 long and very productive years. This is a small window into that life that was so well lived.
Mary Ulm was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1920. Her story, like all human stories, is as unique as a fingerprint, belonging as it does to a single soul, a solitary human being. Her story has as much depth and importance as many far more well-known ones. When WWII broke out, Ulm joined the U.S. Army at the age of 22 and was trained in the complexities of military communications. As such, and very unusually, she would find herself being an active participant in the battle that would become the turning point in that war. She actually went ashore with the troops during the later days of the Normandy landings in June of 1944.
As a U.S. Army communications specialist, she would advance with the American Army all the way into Paris, where she marched with her fellow U.S. troops down the famous Champs-Elysées and by the Arc de Triomphe. As a young, 22-year-old woman, Mary Ulm had taken part in the liberation of France. That would be a remarkable story all by itself, but there is more.
While in France, she discovered the Little Sisters of the Poor, founded in the 19th century by Jeanne Jugan to serve the poorest of the poor. The foundress said of the order that they were to be “poor among the poor.” Ulm was deeply moved by the Little Sisters’ kindness and devotion to the refugees and the wounded. After the war, Ulm returned home to the United States, but she could not forget the images of what those nuns did for those who were poor and suffering during the war.
Ulm applied for entry into the order and was accepted, entering the novitiate. She took her temporary vows in 1952. She was able to obtain permission to move to France to serve with the Little Sisters of the Poor there and in Belgium. She would take her final Solemn Vows in Paris in 1957. Forever after, she has been known as Sister Marie-Joseph of the Assumption.
For the last 75 years, Sister Marie-Joseph has been serving the poor and the elderly in communities in both France and Belgium. At age 98, elderly herself and losing her memory, she was moved to the Little Sisters of the Poor care facility in Caen, France. In 2020, she blew out the candles on her 100th birthday cake. The irony may have slipped by Sister Marie-Joseph in the later stages of her memory loss, but her community at Caen, France, is only 26 miles from those Normandy beaches where she had landed 78 years before.
Sister Marie-Joseph died on March 27, 2022. Her funeral Mass was held in the little chapel at her community in Caen. It was attended by her fellow nuns, a nephew, and three U.S. Army women in dress uniform. In her own small and anonymous way, as Mary Ulm, she had lived, done her job, and survived some of the most profound moments of WWII. But for the majority of her life as Sister Marie-Joseph, she chose to serve the poor, doing so quietly, making no noise and attracting no attention to herself. She lived her life out in the smallness of this place, with the poorest of the poor, who were nearest to her. She was unknown to all but those poor and elderly souls she served. The chaplain for the Little Sisters of the Poor in Caen, France, said of her, “She was a nun, sober, humble, and faithful.”
After the liturgy at her funeral was completed, she received military honors from the U.S. Army representatives in attendance for the small part she played in the military efforts during WWII in the liberation of France, before she became Sister Marie-Joseph of the Assumption.
As Mary Ulm, she was honored for her service in the U.S. Army, a service done out of love for her country during WWII. As Sister Marie-Joseph, she fell in love with Christ while watching over the poor.
Honor and respect to you, Mary Ulm, Sister Marie-Joseph of the Assumption. You lived a life of great love and generosity. We thank you, and we will not forget. Rest In Peace, good soul.Whizzco