By Emily Bialkowski
Ninety-nine years is the equivalent of 52,068,927 minutes. To be granted so many minutes in a lifetime is certainly something to celebrate, but even more noteworthy is the person who has used every one of those minutes in a meaningful way.
Caledonia’s Ragnhild St. Mary will celebrate her 99th birthday on Oct. 14. She’s undoubtedly touched many lives with her homespun threads, food and kindness. St. Mary lives at Caledonia Care & Rehab in a bright private room surrounded by dozens of images of her very large family. She has seven children, some of whom have passed, 26 grandchildren and 10 to 12 great-grandchildren, a number that’s difficult to keep track of for even the sharpest of minds.
At 99 years young, St. Mary suffers from some memory loss, but her light blue eyes and peaceful disposition show a feeling of contentment.
“If a person can stay well, age don’t make much difference,” she said in a recent interview.
St. Mary was born in Iowa, just north of Decorah, in 1914 to Amanda and George Peterson. She had three brothers and one sister and completed high school before going to work “so my brothers could go to college.” That work led her to Spring Grove where she took care of an elderly lady named “Mrs. Myrah.”
It is during that time St. Mary met her husband, Harold, whom she was married at the age of 21. To that partnership were born seven children, including Glen, Yvonne, Audrey, Lyle, Duane, Allen and Bryan.
St. Mary’s daughter Audrey Almo said she can’t fathom how her mother ever kept up with all the tasks she did.
“She raised seven children and sewed most of their clothing – I had my first store-bought skirt and blouse in eighth grade and my first store-bought coat in ninth grade. She canned hundreds of quarts of fruits and veggies every year, baked bread, cakes and cookies from scratch, butchered chickens, and other wildlife, helped my dad when he started his business, did his book work, always had an immaculate house and time for the children,” Almo said.
St. Mary is also known for her years volunteering the St. Mary’s School Library and for her carding and spinning demonstrations at the Houston County Historical Society.
“I used to get a kick out of the questions the kids would ask,” St. Mary said about her work with the society.
There were always a lot of kids at the family’s house, many of which relished the home-baked cakes and cookies.
“I was very lucky when we settled in Caledonia,” St. Mary said. “Everybody was so nice.”
St. Mary can remember in detail how the neighborhood functioned like a true community. “Across the street up from us were the Bissens, who had boys, and the Genglers had girls. I was always running after somebody.”
Almo said her mother would get up at 4 a.m. to finish mending from the night before, cook, clean, help neighbors in need – especially those with ill family – and keep the books for her husband’s auto body shop.
“At the time I appreciated it, but I didn’t appreciate it the way I do now. I don’t know where she got the time. It amazes me still,” Almo said, adding that she thinks her mom would have been doctor if she could have.
St. Mary never thought twice of helping neighbors with medical shots or driving the ill to an appointment. Once, the family had a cow that struggled to eat but seemed hungry.
“She hadn’t been sick or anything. You’d tried to feed her but she wouldn’t eat,” St. Mary recalled. When the cow perished, St. Mary was caught marching out to it with the largest knife she owned. “I wanted to cut her open. I figured there was something in her neck, but dad wouldn’t let me.”
Maybe it’s her bold willingness to help, maybe it’s the clean house and fresh baked goods; it could be the fresh bouquets grown out of her rose garden or the hundreds of crocheted mittens she sent to missionaries around the world, but St. Mary seems to be known by many and adored by many.
Today she sits in her room getting treated the way she treated people. “I’m getting pampered here,” she said.
St. Mary said she hopes to stay well in the coming years and even enjoyed her first limousine ride this spring. “It even had a bar,” she was reported as saying at the time.
If you’d like to wish Ragnhild St. Mary a happy 99th birthday, send cards to 425 N. Badger St., Caledonia, MN 55921.