Sisters of Charity Federation Archives

Carey, Sister Mary Agnes Oral History


Carey Sr Mary Agnes423.jpg


OH-84: Sister Mary Agnes Carey

This interview is being conducted as part of the Oral History Program of the Sisters of Charity of
Seton Hill. The interviewee is Sister Mary Agnes Carey. The interview is being conducted by Sister
Mary Noel Kernan at St. Joseph’s School, Kangjin, Korea. The date is April 23, 1987.
SMNK: Sister Mary Agnes, have you always wanted to be a missionary?
SMAC: I think I can say yes to that. When I was little, I always went to a Catholic school, always
was attracted to religious life. I thought I would be a Sister someday, but what community…no
thought of that. This was in grade school, I can remember Sister at one time asking, what do you
want to be when you grow up? I remember I really longed to be a Sister. This might have been a
fake. I even said, I am trying now to be nice to little children, but I guess I had to be nice to little
children because there were others at home. There were three younger than I.
SMNK: How many were in your family?
SMAC: There were seven of us. Just five boys and two girls. But anyway, this missionary question.
My first younger brother, Jimmy, was two years younger. We were in from 5th grade on at
Cathedral School. If I was in 5th grade, he would have been in 3rd because we were only two years
apart. We would walk to school so that we could get there in time to go to the 8 o’clock Mass at
the Cathedral and we were right across the street to get to school. You had to be in school by 8:30,
as I recall. I remember, after Communion, we wouldn’t receive Holy Communion, we would have
had our breakfast first. We didn’t like to be late. We would have been in trouble if we were late.
We got to school on time, but often walking to school or walking home – it was about a half an
hour walk from our school to our home. We would talk about what we were going to be and we
were both going to be missionaries. Go to a foreign country and all that. Jimmy, when he got to
high school – he went to Central – after the second year, he was fussing that he wanted to be a
Brother. So my parents let him go, but he knew that he was welcome back home if he went and
didn’t like it. He actually was a Brother for 35 years. During that time, I remember I was at Seton

Hill, it was in the 1940s, he wrote to me a series of letters. He felt he should be a priest. In order to
be…there are no priests in the Christian Brothers, so if he would be a priest, he would have to
leave that. Yet he loved the Brothers. He put it in the hands of his superiors and eventually they
told him they thought his vocation was to be a Brother. I remember the last letter – I received one
and about two days later, I received another one. That one said, thank God, it’s decided I will stay
with the Brothers. He stayed. He was actually a Brother for 35 years. At the time, when he decided
he wanted to be a priest, he was Provincial. I think one Brother every year was selected to make a
second novitiate in Rome and he had that opportunity and so on. He had been in charge of their
Scholasticate for a number of years. It must have been an awfully hard decision to make and yet,
he was getting older and this was what… and as a child, he had always said that before he ever
heard of Brothers. I think it must have been his teachers up to that point had been Sisters and
most of the people in Pittsburgh didn’t know anything about Brothers until they came. I remember
my mother sort of fighting that battle for years. Why doesn’t he go the whole way and become a
priest? That’s actually the way it turned out. By the time he became a priest, both my parents were
dead. In fact, my father, he died just a month after Jimmy went to the seminary. That seminary,
when he decided to be a priest, he went to Baltimore. That’s where he had been all of his religious
life, in Baltimore. He had never come back to Pittsburgh to teach there. The Cardinal of
Baltimore asked him what seminary he would like to go to. He gave him two choices. In
Baltimore, St. Mary’s Seminary or Emmitsburg. He said he chose Emmitsburg. I wonder
sometimes, it was probably his association with Sisters of Charity. The Cardinal told the Rector,
who was Father Flynn at that time, that when he felt that Jimmy was ready for ordination to let him
know and he’d ordain him. He went to the seminary in January of 1970. At Easter time, he was
made a deacon and in May, he was ordained with that class. The boys at the seminary had a great
time with him. They said, well, we have heard of instant soup and instant coffee, but this is the first
time we have heard of instant priests! So that’s Jimmy. He didn’t become a missionary.
Anyway, back when you were talking about missionary. My mother, when we had anybody broach
this idea of being a missionary, she always said - a missionary term meant foreign missionary, you
know. It did to us, too. She always said, there’s enough work to be done at home. Home missions.
Lord rest her. She died in 1955. It was 1960 when I came here. I think maybe she was rooting for
me up there. She saw a global picture by that time, perhaps.
As far as our family was concern, my mother had great faith, I think and my father was a great guy,
too. Not as religious in the sense of devotional as my mother, but I remember hearing him say one
time, the two great devotions are the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother. If you have those, you
can’t get in trouble. He was faithful. One thing I remember, right before I entered, my mother told
me – and I think she never told me before that because she thought it might influence – She said,
before each child was born, she offered the child to go, but asked God to give the child good
health and good morals and if the child could learn to get along. I think God answered her prayers
because I became a Sister and Jimmy was a Brother and then a priest. My brother, Tom, is now
pastor in Pittsburgh at St. Simon and Jude Church and on June 14th, we will celebrate his Golden
Jubilee ordination. She had her answer, I think.
SMNK: There were other children?

SMAC: Yes, there were five boys. Frank, the oldest, died in 1985. Father Tom was next. And Joe.
Joe is in East Liberty now. A faithful parishioner there. I came next. There were three boys ahead
of me. Then Jimmy that we just talked about. Bill who lives in Lancaster now. Grace is in Florida.
The other day when I was cleaning out the drawer, trying to get ready to go to the States. I came
across a retreat notice that I had and as I looked, I could see Jimmy. Jimmy had said to me at one
time, right before I was making retreat, we didn’t know what good hands we were in when growing
up. I remember him talking to mother about retreat and meditation. He was telling her about it
and she was telling him how when she washed us, fed us, and took care of us that she was praying
for us all the time. He said, wow, we didn’t know all that was being done for us even before we
were able to remember. About that missionary business. Since my mother, she wanted us – as I
said before, she certainly prayed that if God wanted us in His service, she would gladly give. She
was a little hesitant on foreign mission things, you know. She used to say, there is enough work to
be done at home. I guess there still is, always is. I remember thinking when I was in high school, I
should think about home missions. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament hadn’t been founded too
long before. I remember at school the Mercy Sisters telling us that Mother Drexel had made her
novitiate there and not Mercy in Pittsburgh. But I never got around to writing and I suppose, I
hope, the Lord had in mind that I could fulfill that wish somewhere, somehow, some other way.
SMNK: And you’ve done that.
SMAC: I hope. I’m here, anyway. I am trying to think, that first year when we were in Mokpo,
none of us knew the language, but Sr. Alice had really looked a little harder at it before we came.
She has a good ear. A music teacher. Very good ear. She picked up a good bit. One day when we
were working, somebody came to the door and I went. The man started talking to me and I started
answering him, but he left. Sr. Alice laughed and she said to me, Sister, if you would have spoken
to him in English, he might have understood you. I said, wasn’t I speaking Korean? She said, no,
you were speaking Spanish! I guess it had to be a foreign language and the only foreign language I
knew a little bit about was Spanish, so that was it. Father Tom Lacey was here the other day and he
had somewhat the same experience. He was talking about that. When he thinks of a foreign
language, he thinks of Spanish and sometimes he is saying something in Spanish. That year, we
could talk with each other and we knew what was going on there. Somebody was always coming in
and having something funny to tell, especially with words, with language. One of the Caritas Sisters
used to come over in the evenings. They shared with us. They gave us half their house, the better
half, I think. One Sister, she wanted to learn some English. She would have questions and one
night she kept saying “Hogan.” She would say something and say “Hogan.” She would say
something else. This “Hogan,” because it was an Irish name, was sort of getting to us. We
wondered what in the world “Hogan” was. Whatever she was saying, none of us could make out
what “Hogan” was. The next day, a teacher we had was talking and she said, “Hogan.” We jumped
at her. Everybody said, what’s “Hogan.” It just meant or. O-R. This Sister was saying, you could say
it this way or this way. We knew neither one, so it didn’t make any sense at all. I remember one
day, we had gotten our stove. Just gotten it. Things had come from the States. We had a kerosene
stove. We were going to celebrate that night. We were going to have a party, I guess. Sr. Mary
Noreen was making cocoa and she asked me for the sugar. What I thought, maybe it was marked
sugar. I took it and gave it to her. After she makes it - [tape cuts out] We knew we couldn’t drink

it. We threw it away. Where are we going to throw it? We opened the sliding doors and we threw
it out in a big pile of snow. That sliding door we opened was on a passageway from a little room
we used as a dining room into our kitchen. Would you know, that snow melted, but that
cocoa..that salty cocoa was there and everytime we passed we’d say, my sin is always before me.
SMNK: So the language gave you many interesting things and then you also learned to share
community those years? You got very close like that, very much.
SMAC: Speaking of language, it wasn’t always the Korean language, it was also the English
language. You see, the people, the missionaries we knew were the Columban Sisters and there
were 2 American Sisters among the ones there. Most of the Irish priests. There were some
American Columbans, too. I remember one day the pastor came down and he said to me, we had
been there just about a month and everyone was helping us, too. Where you could get this and try
to find a cook for us and so on. He came down and he said, Sister, you never paid me for that
paraffin. We didn’t buy any paraffin. And he said oh, you Americans, call it kerosene. We had.
We paid him really quick for the paraffin or kerosene, whatever you have. We went to a picnic
with the Columban Sisters one day and one of them said…Mother Mary Lucy said, and now we’ll
take flasks with us. Flasks? Flasks meant to us something in your back pocket, you know. They
called a thermos, a flask. A Sister sent over one time and she wanted gum. We didn’t know…gum,
chewing gum. The Irish would say, we hadn’t a clue what she wanted. It turned out to be paste.
We never called it gum.
SMNK: A moment ago, I was thinking how close you seemed in community. The American
Sisters seem to know each other, to know one another and one another’s family’s and one
another’s interests very much. Much more so than I see in the United States. How would you
account for that?
SMAC: I think we were isolated and we could speak English. Incoming mail was a big event. I’ve
read stories of little town’s where the children went out to watch the train pass by. This was a daily
something. We had to talk about something. The thing we knew most intimately are our people. A
letter would come and you wanted to share it with the others. Everybody seemed interested and
you began to know the names of each of the family and different things about them. Funny things.
Sr. Alice would say, her mother used to say, if you haven’t head your ‘nough, you’ve had your
share. Things like this. We’d begin to quote some of these things that each one had found at
home. Then when we went home, you’d call… Sr. Alice’s mother. We met her. We had dinner at
her home before we came. There was some kind of meeting there. You would just naturally go
home and you’d be sure to call everybody’s mother and father or somebody in the family or this
kind of thing. Really, it was like our extended family. As it goes now, this is coming with the
Korean Sisters. As you get to know them, the ones you are more familiar with, the ones you’ve
lived with, you feel close to their families, too. As you’ve noticed, I think, this year we’ve had a
number of deaths in the family’s of the Sisters. Well, you know what death means. As families too,
as we begin getting older and you’re experiencing this. I think that life and death brings us together
in this way. I had much the same experience out West. When it was isolated, when it was far away.
When you went out there, you didn’t know when you were going to get back. It was the same thing
here. When we came, the thought was we would go home every seven years. Well then, I think
when Sister Mary Noreen, she was, perhaps, she was here seven years before she got back. I had to

go to a Chapter, even though I wasn’t elected to it, Bishop Connare said we were supposed to have
a representative from here. I just went and sat there and finally, Sr. said I could say something, so
they asked me to talk about Korea. I really think that maybe the people who went first to Bethesda
or Glyndon, they probably had something of that feeling. You were more united because it was
like family. Really and truly like a family because you had to talk. The most likely thing would be
what you knew best.
SMNK: One of our concerns when the Sisters first went to Korea was that you would have a great
many physical hardships to endure. Do you have any comment on that?
SMAC: One of the worries, I know, before we came, people were thinking about the food. That
we wouldn’t be able to eat the type of food they have here, but from the very beginning,
Archbishop ____ and the Columban Sisters could get things at the commissary, the foreigner’s
commissary, so anybody that was going to Seoul, any of the communities would ask what you
wanted. For example, for breakfast, we were always able to get bread, so we could have toast. You
always could get eggs. No problem with that. You could buy jellies. Jams. Things we would have at
home like for lunch where you would have lunchmeat or something like that, that wasn’t…you
could get sometimes get cans of Spam. You can eat too much Spam, you know, sometimes. We
were careful. People had warned us about kimchi that this was very hot, spicy. For your own
healthsake, it would be wise not to indulge too much. Some of the priests thought they wanted to
go Korean all the way, but they did too much too soon in the line too soon and they really ruined
themselves. We, certainly, were never tempted to do that. We were interested in eating as much as
we could of what people were eating and the Koreans were always saying to us, what do you eat?
They could see we were healthy. I don’t know whether I mentioned this before, but one time
when Sr. Alice was teaching…we used to divide the English conversation classes. We would take 45
children and three Sisters would take 15 a piece. We should have been able to do something with
them and we did, I suppose, because at least their pronunciation was alright. Sister Alice, one day,
she went in after 7th period, which was sometime late in the afternoon, and she had 15 of these little
girls who couldn’t learn Korean very well even. They said to her, Sister, of course they were talking
in Korean, tell us about America. She said, in English? They said, oh no, no. She said, what do
you want to know about America? You ask me questions and I will answer them. They said, what
do you eat? She said, for breakfast we have toast. Well, what’s toast? She explained what that was.
Toast, coffee, and fruit, and eggs. One little girl said, no rice and kimchi? And she said, no. Well,
for lunch? What do you have for lunch? She said, well you usually have a sandwich. Do you know
what a sandwich is? No. So she explained what a sandwich is and they were interested. Then
maybe soup. In those days, we couldn’t get milk either. We could get powdered milk, but it didn’t
taste very good when you mixed it up. This same little girl says, No rice and kimchi? And Sister
said no. So they got to evening meal and I guess the children were really hoping she could get
some rice and kimchi. So she explained what an evening meal would be. Mashed potatoes, some
meat, and vegetables, and tea and coffee and, perhaps, some cake or fruit for dessert. And, you
have the question, no rice and kimchi? And she said, no. And the little girl said, Oh, I never want
to go to America! We told this to our cook and she laughed because she knew we were eating very
well, but most of those little girls were eating that.

Gradually then, as we began to have Korean Sisters in the community, we wanted to be sure they
were eating Korean meals, but they even agreed that it would be good to keep the breakfast a
Western breakfast and most of them have no trouble with that at all. Occasionally, if a Sister isn’t
well, she might want a porridge for breakfast that’s made of rice. Any of them that would feel the
need, there is no problem with them having that. The trouble is, it’s easier to get our breakfast
ready to get theirs.
The cold. We heard early that it was cold. We did what the Koreans do. We put on more clothes.
You put on, instead of one undershirt, you have a couple. One is thermal or something. It’s very
warm. You put on two or three pairs of stockings. This makes trouble for the kind of shoes you
wear, so you have some boots and some other things, but eventually, you get used to how to
manage it. The house, we would have the kerosene stove. We would be warm enough when you
were in a certain room. When you experienced this summer, we even have coal stoves in the
rooms where we gather as a community. It’s not as convenient as central heating, but we manage. I
think that we didn’t have as many colds as the Sisters back home would have. I don’t understand it
exactly except that you get so used to it, you cope with it. If you were looking to see how do you
keep warm enough and if somebody got a good idea. For instance, in ______, the Columban
Sisters used to…they would heat bricks and put them in the bed. That’s what we did. We would
have a regular brick and put a towel around it. It would be very hot. That would be still partially
warm in the morning, but once you got to sleep, there was no problem. That, too. Anyone who
found any way…when some of the Sisters were up in language school, somebody discovered if you
had an electric blanket, it would solve a lot of your night problems. You wouldn’t need to bother
with that brick, you know. So we began that. A number of the Sisters had that. If you left it on too
long, your skin dried out, sort of. Some didn’t want that. It was easier to put on an extra blanket, an
ordinary blanket or something, to keep warm. What else do you have besides food and cold?
SMNK: Well you surprised me when you said electric blanket. I was under the impression that
there was no electricity in Korea.
SMAC: Oh, that’s always interesting. We had electricity, but you were never sure when you were
going to get it. In Mokpo, we used to laugh. If we have visitors, the electricity goes off. It wasn’t
consistent. I think some of the machines were sort of broken because the current coming in was
not consistent, but we had electricity. One of the problems was, with the machines you had, like a
tape recorder, record player, iron, and these things, it was when they broke, you couldn’t get them
fixed. We had brought them from America and the local companies weren’t too busy making all of
these things. Once they did, the Koreans can copy like anything. If they get hold of something,
they can figure how it works and they can fix things. Now, it may not last too long, but they’ll get it
working for you. In the house, we didn’t have too many plugs. Electric switches. We found out
early on, whether you used them…you’d think it would be nice in a room to have two or three.
SMNK: Oh, outlets.
SMAC: Outlets. That’s it. You have to pay for everyone. A certain amount every month for every
outlet you had. And the builders will tell you that, so when you are building, you know, you think,
put one here. It would be nice because you have your desk here or you have one there or you want

to change your desk over to here. We ended up getting all kinds of extensions, so you didn’t have
to pay for all of these.
SMNK: And you still do that?
SMAC: We still do, yeah. The water situation. When we came to Kangjin, there was a well on the
property and then when the built the first part of the school, they dug a deeper well. We found out
later that the people used to say, if the Sisters’ well runs dry, we are in trouble. It was apparently a
very good well and we never had any problem with the water that time. The well was good. It
produced a lot of water. When we built it, there was a tank above the staircase and the water
supply was good. When we built the convent, that water was piped over to here still.
SMNK: Could you drink the water?
SMAC: We could but a Maryknoll Sister, Sister Augusta had said to us, she said the water is good.
But well water is very good, but you don’t know about the pipes. They aren’t used to piping water
so much and she said it may be there would be rust and other things in those pipes. She said, at
least for your drinking, you should boil the water. Until we got our ultra pure now with that…

Dublin Core


Carey, Sister Mary Agnes Oral History


Sister Mary Agnes Carey


An oral history of Sister Mary Agnes Carey, a Sister of Charity of Seton Hill from 1934 until 1993. The interview was conducted by Sister Mary Noel Kernan on April 23, April 24, and May 5, 1987.
Sister Mary Agnes Carey - religious name of Sister Thomas Aquinas - was born on January 18, 1916 and entered the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in September of 1934. She received a bachelor's degree in Latin from Seton Hill College in 1940, a master's degree in Spanish from Middlebury College in 1956, and a doctorate from the University of Madrid in 1958. She was part of the first group of Sisters sent to Korea in 1960. Prior to that she taught at SS. Peter & Paul in Arizona and at St. Luke's in Carnegie. She was also part of the Spanish department at Seton Hill College. She was Principal of St. Joseph in Kang Tjin, Korea, from 1960-1971. Sister Mary Agnes died on October 12, 1993.


Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill


Archives of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill




All rights belong to the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, Greensburg, Pennsylvania.


Audio cassette tape




Oral history




Kwangju-si (Chŏlla-namdo, Korea)

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Sister Mary Noel Kernan


Sister Mary Agnes Carey

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Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, “Carey, Sister Mary Agnes Oral History,” Sisters of Charity Federation Archives, accessed May 24, 2024,


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