Sister Anne (Engelberta) Lehner, SSS 1924-2020
Sister Anne Lehner, who fled communist attacks in her native Hungary and later rose to general moderator of her order, died Nov. 19, 2020.
Sister Anne was born to Elizabeth Schandl and Alajos Lehner in Romand, a village in Hungary on Jan. 14, 1924. Her mother died in 1927, leaving Anne and her sisters half-orphaned. Her father remarried and with his new wife who had two sons. They were a practicing Catholic family with a prayerful atmosphere in the house. Anne’s grandfather taught her how to pray the rosary. Her great uncle, one of her aunts, and some cousins were religious and/or priests.
Anne was in high school when she first felt a call from God. After graduation in 1939, she started college to become a teacher. Her last college year was marked by the air raids of World War II. While in college, she participated in a three day social work course held by Sister Natalie Palagyi, SSS. Anne came to love that ministry and had very positive experiences at her first visit with the Sisters of Social Service. These experiences, as well as the community’s ministry were the reasons why she entered the order right after college graduation in 1944. She was given her religious name Engelberta in honor of her uncle Engelbert, a Benedictine abbot.
She started novitiate in Szegvar, Hungary in July, but by the end of September 1944 the entire novitiate had to flee from the approaching Russian frontlines and a long, tortuous travel started with several stops until they could settle in her own village. Eventually, the Russian front line had reached them. By God’s grace the novices were unharmed, although some of them had to escape from critical situations. These experiences brought a significant grace for Anne by strengthening her profound conviction.
When the war ended, she continued her novitiate in Budapest and was sent to study social work. After her first vows in 1947, she was given various assignments. In 1949, the Communists took power in the country, forcing religious life to go underground. In 1952, Sister Anne was asked to join Sister Margaret Slachta, the foundress of the SSS, who fled Hungary earlier. On Dec. 8, 1952, while three of them were trying to cross over to Austria, the border guards had spotted them and shot one sister and arrested another. Anne alone managed to cross the border and get to Vienna. After several months living in anxiety in the Russian-controlled part of Vienna, Sisters Margaret and Anne could finally leave for the U.S. They arrived on May 5, 1953.
After having mastered English, she was assigned to work at Catholic Charities in Lackawanna. In 1958, she was sent to Syracuse, where the sisters were asked to staff the House of Providence, a residential place for children from difficult family backgrounds. At the general chapter of 1963, Sister Anne was elected to be on the general council.
Sister Anne would go on to serve as vicar for religious in the diocese. During this time she had the opportunity to study first at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, and later at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. She took systematic theology and earned a masters’ degree. At the chapter of 1975, Sister Anne was elected general moderator of the order. She left Syracuse and moved to Buffalo to implement the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council and to write the renewed constitutions for the SSS. Sister Anne served another term as general moderator up to the chapter 1985.
The chapter of 1991 reelected her again as general moderator. It was a time filled with new challenges after the political changes in the Eastern-European countries. Without having any models how to rebuild religious life after 40-plus years of suppression, she tried to support the European Districts in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia in many ways as they began to develop their structures, organize community life and ministries in harmony with the SSS charism and with the renewal the post-Vatican Church. In 1997, Sister Anne was re-elected for a second term, during which the generalate was transferred back to Budapest.
In 2003, her service in leadership ministry ended. Nevertheless she continued to serve the community in any way she was able to do so. She gave her fellow sisters workshops and retreats. She travelled to Cuba, Hungary and Slovakia. After her term was over Sister Anne moved back to Buffalo and started to translate Sister Margaret’s writings. She also wrote the history of our U.S. district, sharing what fidelity to our charism has required of us. In 2015, Sister Anne was invited by Sister Rochelle Mitchell, then general director of the Californian SSS, to retire among them. There she continued working on translation until almost the very end.