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Lifelong learner

At age 100, Sister Lillian loves learning, being creative and staying active


Sister Lillian Mary Kroll walks a mile every day. She walks outside when the weather welcomes her, and inside the Franciscan Sisters Convent in Little Falls when it’s not. “In winter, I rise at 4:30 every morning when nobody else is awake and walk in the halls – 25 loops is a mile.”

So what? People might ask. Lots of people walk a mile a day.

But lots of people are not 100 years old, like Sister Lillian, who hit the century mark in March.

People who know Sister Lillian probably don’t view her daily mile as anything unusual, considering what she’s done with the rest of her life.

When she was 65, Sister Lillian Mary Kroll decided to master the flute. Every five years since that time, she has committed to learning a new skill. Sister Lillian recently turned 100. Photo by Bill Vossler

She has spent a lifetime of learning and growing, and even implemented some “five year plans” to help keep her interest levels high during her 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.

Growing Up

Perhaps the story of her baptism could be viewed as a harbinger of her life. On that snowy and freezing day, a century ago, she and her parents traveled to church in a sled, where the baptismal water was frozen – and had to be melted so she could be baptized.

“I guess I was meant to be tough from the start,” she said.

Even at a young age, she had already decided to serve the Catholic church. “When I was six I told my mother I wanted to be a priest. When I found out that I couldn’t be a priest, I decided to become a Sister.”

Sister Lillian said the world in those days was very different. “Most people were poor, so we used everything we could creatively use. So when I was 8, I sewed my first dress from a flour sack, because the sacks had prints of various kinds, and we used everything. One of the blessings of poverty is that one learns to be creative with what you have. If you did not have an instrument, you looked for something that would make music. I did it with wax paper folded over a comb, or a leaf held between the palms of my hands, and in each case, hummed into the creation.”

With no “modern conveniences” – no car, electricity, radio, television or telephone – her parents spent a lot of time with the children, reading, making candy, and so on. “That was a lot of fun,” she said.

She grew up an avid reader. “I always had a book in my hands,” she said. And if there wasn’t enough reading material around, she turned to the Bible.

At age 15, she told a priest she wanted to join the Poor Clare Convent, but he convinced her the Franciscan Sisters, with their outreach, would be a better fit. “He said ‘they are the best there is,’ and I never forgot those words.”

Part of Sister Lillian’s wanting to become a Sister was enhanced by seeing other nuns teaching. “While visiting with my Aunt Sister Clarentia Kroll, I saw how those nuns taught, while I helped cooking and running errands. That’s when I realized I’d like to teach children.”

Making the Move

So at age 15 she became a postulant to the Franciscan Sisters, while attending high school, and learning how to play the piano, which she enjoyed immensely. As a youngster, she said she was already singing and singing, making up her own melodies and words – so much that her father suggested a good Lenten penance would be to stop singing.

At 21, she took her final vows, and has been with the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls now for 83 years.

During her long career with the Franciscan Sisters, she taught kindergarten through university-age students. One year, after Christmas she was asked to teach a fifth and sixth-grade class of 52 students.

She greeted the group and said she was happy to meet them. But they did not respond positively. “Practically in unison some of the kids said, ‘We got two teachers sick and you are next.’ One had resigned, and the other got sick.”

So she had her work cut out for her. But using art and music and creativity, she won the class over. “Creativity adds joy and energy and the desire to be more creative. Some of those students still write me letters today,” she said. “I still can’t figure out why they thought I would be able to teach that class. I still think about it,” she said.

Five Year Plans

“I decided when I reached 65 that it was necessary to be creative all through life. So I decided that if I want to be healthy as possible physically, mentally, and growing spiritually, I needed to set up goals every five years, choosing a new creative growth. I always wanted to be learning and I always found doing new things energizing and exciting. I loved the way learning something new and seeing what I could do energized me. I didn’t want to feel de-energized. I wanted to do something interesting and growth-ful,” she said. “I want to enjoy life to the end.”

So at age 65, she decided to master the flute. “As a music teacher I knew how to play many instruments, but not the flute, so I wanted to get really good at it. Besides,” she laughed, “it‘s easy to carry around.”

At age 70, she tackled the computer, and became adept at that.

At 74, she became the ticket agent for the Franciscan Sisters, which led to her leading pilgrimage retreats to Assisi, Italy. “I took six people that first year. Then my Franciscan Sisters asked if I’d arrange retreats for them. That became two or three groups each year. We’d go to the burial place of St. Francis, and a park in El Verna, over eight to 10 days, until I was 85. Then the leadership of our order said, ‘We think it’s about time to stop taking people on these retreats.’ I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

No problem. At 85, she decided to take up watercolor painting. “As a little child I painted and did art every time I could, and I taught art as teacher.”

Though she has lost much of her vision due to macular degeneration, she still paints. “I let my fingers guide me, and still do cards. Though I can’t see them, I do sort of get the feel of them. I paint using my fingers as crayons and feel to put color in different places.”

Sister Lillian with one of her watercolor paintings, something she decided to start doing at age 85. Photo by Bill Vossler

“I’ve always loved creation and sing as soon as I get outdoors. It makes my whole body tingle to see the colors, the leaves, the birds and the flowers and feel the breezes. Watercolor painting would be a different way to show it. The colors of creation inspired me to create with a passion.”

Self-taught, she has created some 100 paintings, and presented three solo shows. Many of her works have been reproduced as elegant cards.

At 90, Sister Lillian took up the harmonica. “From little on, I was always singing or I would take a comb and waxed paper to make music. The harmonica is another way to make music with my mouth. And I could carry a harmonica in my pocket when I went outside.”

At age 95, she and her cousin, Carol Weeks, decided to present a concert, Carol on the piano, and Sister Lillian on the harmonica. “So the two of us practiced, and then called our families together, and gave a concert together. We played America the Beautiful, God Bless America, and other simple ones.”

Learning the harmonica was probably the most challenging new item she tried, she said. “I didn’t have enough air to play it well. l knew other instruments but not the harmonica.”

Despite challenges of handwriting, at age 100, she still finds a way to connect with people, but instead of handwriting notes, she types them.

“When I type I might make mistakes from time to time, but I don’t get bothered about that,” she said.

In Addition to the Five-Year Plans

More than learning new skills every five years since she was 65, Sister Lillian has continued other ministerial work, in faith formation and family ministry in several parishes, leading family retreats – which led to retreats for her own family of 12 sisters, brothers, and spouses.

“After I chose the topic for our first family retreat, my brother, Father Anthony Kroll said the Mass. They liked it so much that we did it every year. Then two days a year, and then an entire weekend, always reflecting on Scripture and the teaching of Jesus, including laughing and play, like Jesus did.”

Since she turned 95, she has explored ways of growing despite having macular degeneration, which includes daily exercise.

She also spends time out in nature as much as she can. “Being outside energizes me. When I was young and caring for my siblings, I would get tired with all the cooking and cleaning, and when they got crabby, I would go for long walks, or at night, I’d lay on the ground and look at the stars.“

Just a couple of days ago she spent time out in nature. “Enjoying the breeze, the warmth of the sun, the sounds of the birds, and walking was so energizing and exciting. “It’s just so healing,” she said.

Despite her limitations, Sister Lillian still counts her blessings. “I’m healthy, have friends and visitors, get mail, and have people who will read to me.” Some of her favorite topics include books on climate change and changes in America, as well as one on how different presidents changed America. “Those really grabbed me.” She also enjoys audio books.

Her favorite books of the Bible are the gospels of John, and Matthew. “I am amazed at how Jesus teaches the apostles for three years, and when he leaves, they had all the knowledge and experiences from him. And seeing how Jesus was so very human.”

She added, “I hope other people will live their lives to the fullest – being interested in life, relating to people, praying and enjoying creation. Don’t give up because there’s so much in life. I bend before God in humble gratitude for the many gifts he’s given me. I hope to give them all back to him in some way.”

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