Sister Michael Claire Wilson, baptized Barbara Lynn Wilson, was born on December 22, 1933, in Detroit. She was the first of five children born to Joseph and Evelyn (Schulte) Wilson. Both parents were born in Detroit. Her father was a lawyer-accountant.
Barbara had been educated in a public grade school and was attending Dominican High School when she received her parents’ permission to transfer to St. Joseph Academy and enroll in the Congregation’s Preparatory Program that began in 1943. After graduating from the Academy in June 1949 she entered the postulate on September 8, 1949, at the age of fifteen. At reception the following year in August she received her religious name Sister Michael Claire.
Following profession on August 9, 1951, Sister Michael Claire was missioned to St. Joseph School in Homewood, Illinois, where she taught for seven years. In February of her last year at St. Joseph (1959), she was reassigned to study at Siena Heights College and to finish her undergraduate studies. She received a bachelor’s degree in the summer of 1959.
During the remembrance service, Sister Mary Jane Lubinski, Chapter Prioress of the Adrian Crossroads Mission Chapter, spoke about Sister Michael’s inquisitive mind.
“Michael Claire was a life-long learner. She had a mind for science and mathematics, was inquisitive, even dogged, with a genuine interest in children and teens. This made her a very good teacher. While sharing remembrances yesterday, one of the Sisters mentioned that she was a walking encyclopedia. She had a vast fund of general information, and an interest, opinion, and know-how about many things.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Sister Michael Claire was assigned to teach for two years at St. Francis Xavier Grade School in Medina, Ohio. In 1961 she began teaching math and science courses in Michigan high schools for the next ten years. She taught at St. Mary High School in New Baltimore for three years, at SS. Peter and Paul High School in Ruth for four years and at St. Paul High School in Grosse Pointe Farms for four years. The first three years at St. Paul she taught science courses. During the fourth year she coordinated the parish religious education program.
When the Congregation began open placement in 1970, Sister Michael Claire revealed her personal interest and commitment to helping those most in need. She moved to Arizona in August 1972 and continued to minister there until she returned to Adrian in 2012.
During her first two years, Sister Michael Claire served as the assistant principal and teacher at St. Joseph School in Winslow, Arizona. In 1974 she taught at Salpointe High School, a co-ed school in Tucson that was sponsored by the Carmelites. After one year, she returned to Winslow, where she would remain for the next thirty-six years.
In a letter dated April 1976 and entitled “A Voice in the Southwest,” Sister Michael Claire wrote to family and friends about her ministry and challenges in the Winslow area. Her letter addressed three questions:
“Where am I? For those of you who have tried calling me, I may be many miles away or just eight blocks away at the Winslow dormitory, or St. Joseph Church, or thirty miles away in Leupp (pronounced “leep”), or fifty miles on the reservation at a dormitory called Seba Dalkai. [Or ]I may be in Flagstaff on business regarding the ESL (English as a Second Language) program that I direct in the Winslow area for students who have come from the Reservation and are in the Winslow public school system for the first time.
“With whom do I work? Most of my students are Navajo Indians who have been here in Winslow for one or more years. I have just a few Hopi students for the ESL work because they rapidly make progress and no longer need the ESL assistance. The religious education program is for the Navajo students whose families are not baptized Catholics but who “follow the Catholic way.” I also have driven children [who live in the dormitories] home for the holidays and have had my teeth well rattled in my gums because roads in some sections leave much to be desired.
“What is my work? For a number of months I was not sure. I continued the religious program I had begun here in Winslow four years ago for students from the dormitory here [in Winslow]. Meanwhile I was trying to get a time and place to meet with the students from Leupp. A new principal at the dorm-school kept stalling and I didn’t meet with that group until February. Perhaps he thought I would go away and not come around if he kept giving me excuses. About that same time the two other boarding school areas became missions of St. Joseph Parish in Winslow and so the doors at Dilson and Saba Dalkai became opened to me there.
“Each Sunday I take Fr. Duffy, SJ, the principal of St. Joseph School here in Winslow, out to Dileen for Sunday Mass at 10 a.m. We have seven students who have been baptized and made First Holy Communion at that dormitory.
“Along with ESL tutoring and religious programs, I happen to be the housekeeping administrator for St. Joseph Convent which I have referred to some of you as “he Residence for Christian Women.” There is Sister Martha on the faculty at St. Joseph School, along with five other women who came as volunteers. Father Lindenmeyer sent them to live here as part of their board payment. We take turns cooking, now that some have learned how, and have divided up the house cleaning jobs and try to keep the roof on, etc. I’m now sure that I will never hire out as a “dorm mother,” even if I am down to my last penny to support myself.”
From 1981 to 2005, Sister Michael Claire was employed by the Winslow Unified School District as Director of Indian Education and as a tutor. Her position was supported under Title IV of Public Law. This Act, known as the Indian Education Act of 1972, was at risk of losing its funding during 1980s and 1990s. This legislation is unique because it is the only federal legislation that provides direct financial support for the education of all American Indian and Native Alaskan students in public, tribal, as well as Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools.
It is unclear whether Sister Michael Claire was aware of the possibility of losing funding, but she did write:
“I’ve seen people come and go in St. Joseph School, and in the parish. I have ached with many senior citizen problems of this region, with the teen drug problem, the heartache of some of my students who find alcoholism a big part of the family life. I have tried to get Sisters’ rights recognized in this diocese as a part of the struggles of human rights for dignity.”
In 2000 the diocese ceased supporting her ministry at St. Joseph Parish and five years later she was relieved of her position at the Winslow Unified School District that was funded under Title IV. Her last ministry in Arizona was at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Chinle, where she ministered in their religious education program for two years.
As her health declined, she reluctantly returned to Adrian and lived at the Dominican Life Center. Sister Michael Claire died December 25, 2016, at the age of eighty-three. During the wake service, Sister Mary Jane Lubinski said:
“Michael came here in 2012 with a hand always reaching for a suitcase and a foot headed for the train! Her heart and her life’s work were with the Native American people, especially the Navajos. She had a passion, commitment and dedication to her people unlike any other.”
Sister Barbara Cervenka sent a remembrance, which was read during the wake service. Here is an excerpt from her message.
“It was in the 1980s when the General Council was in Winslow and Michael Claire wanted to show us the Native American villages where she was ministering. It was already late when we started out, and I remember a long drive up to a high mesa where we drove through a small undistinguished town where only a few lights flickered in random homes. We started back the long drive; I think we were all tired. Suddenly Michael Claire stopped the car and told us to get out and look up at the desert sky.
“There in the dark of the desert where there was no ambient light, the night sky was full of stars, so close we could almost touch them. It was different from any experience of the sky I had ever had. I have never forgotten the wonder of that moment.”