Agnes Koetter was born to be mission. She gave her life for it.
After becoming a religious sister and leaving her family forever behind to serve as a missionary, she and other missionaries and priests were taken aboard a Japanese ship off the coast of New Guinea during World War II and brutally executed.
Although her death was her final sacrifice, it was not the end of her work.
“These people stand tall and strong,” said Father Tony Kroll. “Their lives were wiped away but they are more alive today than they ever were. Their inheritance for us goes on and on.
“It is a challenge for us adults to make sacrifices, like the popes say, ‘even to death itself,’” Father Kroll said. “We talk about the martyrs so that young people today will have models of strength and energy to overcome their fear because everybody is afraid. Like those who went before us, we can learn to depend on God and have a great desire to find out what the meaning of life really is.
“I believe that is what the martyrs are doing,” he said. They believed it wasn’t so much about how long you live but about how well you live.”
Faith and farming
Koetter was born in 1907 and grew up on a farm near Freeport, the third of 10 children. Early pictures of her along with letters and stories passed down portray her as a “tomboy,” with a devout faith and a yearning to serve others.
“It is said that she was the only woman in the area who would drive the pickup to town, and some said that she didn’t always keep it between the ditches,” said her nephew Rick Koetter of St. Cloud.
She attended Sacred Heart Parish in Freeport, which has a long history of fostering vocations. Family members believe her life on the farm gave her the courage to tackle the challenge of missionary work at such a young age.
Agnes attended high school at St. Benedict Academy in St. Joseph. Three of her aunts became Benedictine sisters as well as her older sister, Hilda (who took the name of Sister Hilarion). Upon graduation, Agnes petitioned the sisters of the Societas Verbini Divini in Techny, Illinois, for acceptance into their order.
In 1926, at age 19, Agnes said goodbye to her family and entered the Holy Ghost Convent in Techny where she professed vows and took the name of Sister Adelaide.
“I thank God from the bottom of my heart that one of my children is privileged to receive a vocation for the missionary life,” wrote Sister Adelaide’s mother, Elizabeth Meyer Koetter, in a letter to the mother superior. “But the sacrifice is so great that I am often worried she might not persevere. … [I can’t] tell you what it means for us to let this girl go away never to return. But God’s will be done.”
Teacher and healer
After her formation, Sister Adelaide was sent to Meridian, Mississippi, where she worked as a teacher. In 1937, she received notice that she was being sent to the island of New Guinea, off the coast of Australia. She was allowed one last visit home to Freeport that summer.
The voyage was not easy. In July 1937, she took a train from Chicago to Vancouver, British Columbia, then sailed aboard a ship for 24 days before arriving in Sydney, Australia. She remained in Australia for one month, then began a 19-day voyage to New Guinea, arriving sometime in late October.
“Most probably my next letter will be from Honolulu, Hawaii, or somewheres around there,” Sister Adelaide wrote from the liner she was aboard. “Till then goodbye and don’t worry because I’ll be in safekeeping and even if we’d take a dip in the ocean well then we could go to heaven which I wouldn’t mind at all, especially if it is as good a place as Freeport, which I know it will be, it wouldn’t be anything but grand.”
Sister Adelaide was assigned to the Catholic mission in Wewak, New Guinea, and her station was located on the small island of Kariru. She was responsible for the school of 150 students and she was also in charge of the church and the hospital.
She often went out on “sick calls,” traveling over rough terrain.
“The mountain used to be a volcano,” she wrote in another letter, describing the island. “The springs at the top of the mountain send at least twenty rivers down to the sea. From here, going east to west to a village two hours distant requires wading through at least twelve rivers. Some of the rivers are hot and near one of them there is a spring with hot water boiling up. On one occasion we boiled our eggs and vegetables here under God’s blue sky here in the bush. It was quite interesting to have such a convenient double boiler.”
One sister who worked with Sister Adelaide at the mission said that “her intrepid nature coiled before nothing.” That indomitable spirit likely gave her courage for what would come next.
Death and hope
Much of Sister Adelaide’s stories and letters are recorded in a book, “The Story of Sister Adelaide,” by author Gary Wiltscheck.
In the book, Wiltscheck outlines the details, mysteries and complications surrounding her death, which likely occurred around March 15, 1943.
New Guinea was a major campaign of World War II, Wiltscheck wrote. The missionaries stationed there were suspected of being spies and the Japanese decided they must be evacuated. In early 1943, missionaries began to be deported.
According to stories, letters and additional research by Wiltscheck, Sister Adelaide likely was forced aboard a Japanese ship named Akikaze and was later executed. Her family never heard from her again.
In 1945, the family held a requiem Mass in Sister Adelaide’s memory, and in 1947, they built a grotto at Sacred Heart Church in Freeport which still stands today.
Lorraine Thoma, Sister Adelaide’s niece, made it a point to take her 21 grandchildren to visit the grotto in Freeport.
“I brought the book along and shared her story with them. We had a picnic lunch and made it kind of fun for them,” said Thoma, who lives in Swanville. “The older ones were interested and asked questions. We will do that again.”
Chuck Koetter, a nephew of Sister Adelaide, said the way she lived her life had a significant impact on him.
“She inspires me to accept the crosses that we have and to try and inspire others to do the same,” he said.
“We all thought of her as our own family saint,” Rick Koetter added. “She was always with us and we never forgot her.”
Heroes and heroines
Another missionary from the St. Cloud Diocese is Mill Hill Missioner Father John Kaiser, originally from the small town of Underwood, Minnesota, who was killed in 2000 while serving as a missionary in Kenya.
Father Kaiser worked for more than 35 years in Kenya fighting for justice, human rights and freedom from government oppression.
Father Kaiser provided testimony that implicated prominent people in the government. He was dragged from his truck and shot in the back of the head just three weeks before he was set to testify against the government. An FBI investigation ruled it a likely suicide. A public inquest that began in 2003, however, eventually ruled his death to be a murder. No one to date has been convicted in the killing.
Father Kroll has always been inspired by these two missionaries who gave their lives for what they believed.
“People need heroes and heroines like Sister Adelaide and Father Kaiser and we should present their stories to them,” he said. “These are people that didn’t count the cost. These are people who might have been very afraid but overcame it and gave their all. I admire them and they make me stronger. People today want someone to look up to and we have these two people from right here in our diocese.”
“The Story of Sister Adelaide Koetter” is available at the St. Cloud Mission Office or from Gary Wiltscheck, firstname.lastname@example.org.