TRAVERSE CITY — Zoe Julia Armstrong realized her religious calling as a sophomore in high school. She was coming home from a movie with her grandmother and looked up at the dark sky and twinkling stars.
“All I could think was, ‘Heaven! Everything meaningful is up there. Nothing on earth can compare with it,’” said the Carmelite nun in an interview “A Century of Zoe.”
On Sunday, Armstrong — who was later named Teresa Margaret — died at the local Carmelite Monastery at age 101 with a sister by her side.
The witty and feisty nun founded the Carmelite Monastery, tucked away at the end of a long, blacktopped driveway off Silver Lake Road.
Mother Teresa Mararet grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the oldest girl of six children. After her nighttime epiphany, she was drawn to the cloistered order of Carmelite nuns, who devote their lives to prayer.
Armstrong first lived in the Grand Rapids Carmel. She arrived there in 1929 and excitedly swooped up tiny Mother Beneradita and swung her around to the chagrin of the other nuns.She made her vows of obedience, poverty and chastity in October of 1931.
In 1949, she and another nun moved to Traverse City at the bishop’s request to help return fallen-away Catholics to the flock. Armed with only $50, they began to transform a small house into a monastery. In February, the rest of the foundresses arrived and celebrated their first mass.
The growing community lived in the small house until 1960 when a permanent monastery was built. When visiting the construction site a worker was surprised when Mother Teresa Margaret was pointing things out on the blueprints. “You can read those plans?” he asked. “I think so,” she replied. “I drew them.”
Mother Teresa Margaret served as prioress until 1963, and again from 1973 until 1997.
“The transition from superior to subject after so many years was a little difficult in the beginning, but we were soon amazed at the gracefulness with which Mother aged,” wrote the Carmelite nuns in a press release issued on Wednesday.
The monastery celebrated the 100th birthday of Mother Teresa Margaret in 2011, when well-wishers packed the chapel and lingered for more than an hour in the speakroom.
Mother Teresa Margaret remained active and independent until 2004 when she fractured a hip. She recovered and continued to do the community ironing and to set the refectory tables until her late 90s. Repeated falls and bone fractures eventually confined to her a wheelchair.
In May 2011, a fractured rib led to respiratory troubles and a stay in Munson Medical Center’s intensive care unit.
She was taken to the monastery late Sunday morning and remained unconscious, but stable. The nuns took turns praying by her bedside until she died Sunday night.
Years of experience taught Mother Teresa Margaret how to be a major superior, the CEO of a nonprofit corporation, a strong leader, a skilled psychologist, and an intuitive spiritual director, the nuns wrote.
When people showed surprise at how she knew about the ways of the world, she would roll her eyes and quip, “Well, I wasn’t born in the convent.”