by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LEAVENWORTH — Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Madonna Stehno wore out the tennis balls on her first walker.
She wore out the wheels on her second.
Finally, this summer, she finished walking around the world with her third.
Her route may be figurative, but she’s cut no corner. The distance is very real.
“I walked around the middle — 25,000 miles,” she declared firmly. “I didn’t walk around the top or the bottom.”
She’s equally clear about the accuracy of her mileage. Although she has two pedometers, she hasn’t found them reliable. So she’s developed her own method.
“I count the miles. I count twelve blocks to a mile, and they’re long blocks,” she said. “Somebody I was talking to once said, ‘Sister, I’ve driven what you just walked, and it’s a mile in the car’ — so I’m not fudging!”
No one who knows Sister Madonna would suspect her of fudging. As a matter of fact, this probably isn’t the first time she’s walked around the world. But she didn’t start keeping track of her mileage until she turned 55, so she’s not counting anything before then.
“I don’t know why I decided to do it,” she said. “I just thought, ‘This is silly, I’m walking all around and I’m not counting it.’
“So I started counting.”
A bump in the road
Officially, it took Sister Madonna 24 years to walk around the world. But technically, four of those years were spent recovering from major surgery, which makes her accomplishment even more amazing.
“I was at 19,170 miles in 2002 when I had an injury,” she recalled. “It’s called an ulcerated ankle. I hit my ankle bone so many times, but I didn’t do anything about it, and that’s why it was ulcerated.
“Then one day when they checked us over. The nurse said, ‘Get her to the hospital.’ So I was out of commission.”
Veins had to be removed from one leg to repair the other, and Sister Madonna spent many long months in a wheelchair, going back and forth to St. John’s Hospital. Eventually, she moved into Ross Hall, the infirmary on Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth campus, where she received physical therapy.
“We have wonderful therapy right in our building, and they worked with me,” she said. “Pretty soon, I could get across the room and eventually I got to where I could walk with a walker.”
In 2006, Sister Madonna was walking so well that she started tracking her mileage again. On Aug. 13, at the age of 79, she reached 25,000 miles.
Fox News got wind of her accomplishment and aired a story on its local affiliate. It was inspirational, to say the least. Sister Madonna received congratulations and compliments from many people. But the biggest surprise was hearing from a favorite former teacher.
“I heard from Miss Fay, who was my gym teacher at Bishop Ward,” she said. “She called me and she said, ‘I saw you on TV!’”
Born to walk, called to serve
Growing up in a large family in Kansas City Kan., Sister Madonna always loved being active and outdoors. She walked to and from Bishop Ward High School — two miles each way — where she participated in every sport she could.
“I was very athletic,” she said. “I was in the girls’ athletic association, and I bowled and played tennis and played ball.”
At Ward, she was taught by the Sisters of Charity; in her senior year, she felt called to join them.
“I was 17 and I was popular; I had my dates and everything,” she said. “But I’d come home, and it just didn’t satisfy me.
“Then [God] called me, and I was so happy. In August [after graduating], I entered the Sisters of Charity. I didn’t even think of anybody else. I am 62 years a Sister.”
Sister Madonna’s first mission trip as a teacher was to Helena, Mont., where she fell in love with the trek up Mount Helena. Next, she was sent to Butte, Mont., where she often climbed to a television tower atop a mountain there and had coffee with the staff that managed the tower.
She was later sent to Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. She walked hundreds of miles in each location and couldn’t begin to choose a favorite.
“I’ve loved every place I’ve been,” she said.
At one point, she did ask her superior why she seemed to move so often.
“I said, ‘Mother, what’s wrong with me? They move me every year.’
“And she said, ‘You’re flexible.’”
And so she was. In each location, Sister Madonna was at home the minute her feet hit the pavement. And her long walks brought her instant camaraderie — because when Sister Madonna walks, she is a friend to every person she meets along the way. And she never misses an opportunity to stop and have a chat.
A friend for life
Sister Madonna loved teaching and favored the younger grades. When she finally landed in Olathe and was offered the position of principal at St. Paul Elementary School, she made a stipulation before she would accept the job.
“I said, ‘I’ll only be a principal if I can keep my babes,’” she recalled. “I wanted to be a teaching principal, and I was.”
While at St. Paul, Sister Madonna met Joann Smith, a military wife with eight children and a husband deployed to Vietnam. Smith volunteered to help with the music program at St. Paul.
In exchange, Sister Madonna helped Smith keep her sanity. The two became lifelong friends.
“She was like my guardian angel,” recalled Smith. “I had four teenagers and then the other four. They were all in school and about to drive me crazy.”
When Smith came up to school during the day, Sister Madonna could sense her stress.
“She would say, ‘Do you mind if I come out tonight for a little bit?’ And she would meander out and sit for about an hour and have coffee or iced tea and kind of calm me down a bit,” said Smith. “The kids loved her; she was like an aunt to them.”
The two kept in touch when the Smiths relocated to Colorado. Smith recalled one time when Sister Madonna came to visit and gave the teenage boys in the area an early lesson in feminism.
“Sister got out of the car in full habit. The boys were playing basketball and the ball hit the rim and bounced over to her,” she said. “One boy said, ‘I’m sorry ma’am,’ and started over to retrieve the ball.
“She was 20 feet away from the goal and she picked up that basketball and threw it.
“It never touched the rim — it just went right on through,” she said. “I thought those boys were going to have a stroke.”
Smith, who retired with her husband to St. Paul Parish in Olathe, has known Sister Madonna for almost 40 years now and is not surprised she’s managed to walk around the world.
“She has always said she just enjoys getting out in God’s world,” she said.
“And she has always just taken off,” Smith added. “I don’t mean a block or two. I mean four or five miles.
“Cars would stop her, asking if she had car problems. That was just Sister Madonna.”
Treasures along the way
The only time Sister Madonna doesn’t walk is at night or in the snow. But the coldest weather doesn’t faze her.
And when temperatures head toward the triple digits?
“I mop my brow,” she said.
When she walks, Sister Madonna said she prays.
She also observes nature, visits with people, and, sometimes, she finds a little cash.
“When she was teaching, she would pick up coins and put them in her deep pockets,” said Smith. “And she would take them back to her classroom and put them in a jar to save for classroom things.”
In her lifetime, Sister Madonna says she’s found well over $100. The best town for finding money, she claims, is Laramie, Wyo.
“See, up in Laramie, it’s so cold in the winter,” she explained. “So, a lot of people will put their hands in their pockets and then pull them out and not realize they’ve dropped some money.”
When she finds money, Sister Madonna always knows who to thank.
“I always say, ‘Make my day, Lord!’” she said.
Sister Madonna can be seen every morning — and most afternoons — walking around the SCL campus, stopping at various statues to say a few prayers, admiring the beautiful landscaping, and talking with anyone she passes.
“I walk alone,” she said, “but I meet people so much that I never feel alone.
“I made seven miles today — three this morning and four this afternoon.
So where does that leave her?”
“I have walked 170 since Aug. 13.”
And she’s still counting.