January 26, 2018

Margaret Nelson remembered for her writing and service to others in life and the Church

Criterion staff report

Margaret Miriam (Vernia) NelsonMargaret Miriam (Vernia) Nelson, whose byline was a staple of The Criterion for many years, died on Jan. 16 in Indianapolis. She was 87.

The Mass of Christian burial was celebrated on Jan. 23 at St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Indianapolis, where Nelson was a longtime member. A private burial followed.

Margaret Miriam Vernia was born on Feb. 21, 1930, in Chillicothe, Ohio, to Thomas and Goldia (Bechtel) Vernia. She graduated from The Ohio State University with a bachelor of fine arts degree before marrying Paul Nelson on April 27, 1957, and moving to Cleveland, and ultimately to Indianapolis. She continued her education at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and at the Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, completing courses for an ecclesial lay ministry certificate. Nelson was not raised as a Catholic, but was later received into the full communion of the Church.

Nelson had a lifelong talent and passion for journalism, and her excellence was recognized through the years with more than 100 awards for writing, photography, layout and headlines by the Catholic Press Association, Women’s Press Club of Indiana (WPCI), National Federal of Press Women (NFPW) and other state and national organizations. Among the honors she received was the 2005 WPCI Communication of Achievement Award—the state organization’s highest honor.

She became part of The Criterion’s editorial staff in 1986. Her focus was multicultural and educational concerns, with a knack for personality profiles. She retired in 2000 as senior editor.

“Margaret was a great reporter and interviewer,” said Criterion Editor Emeritus John Fink, who hired and supervised Nelson. “I could always give her assignments while nearing deadline, if necessary, knowing that she would complete them because she wrote fast but thoroughly.

“Margaret was devout, and a Benedictine oblate, and she was happy that her career was also something that served the Church.”

Charles Schisla, who was then‑archdiocesan director of communications, recommended Nelson for the job at The Criterion. They became friends as members of St. Andew the Apostle Parish. He remembers how Nelson contributed to the parish through her design and sewing skills, making vestments, a beautiful funeral pall, and other liturgical items.

“As a convert, Margaret had a special knowledge and love for the Church that she carried for her lifetime as a Catholic,” Schisla said. “[She had a] unique perspective as a widowed mother of five [her husband died in 1971] raising a family by herself, a convert to the faith, and a dedicated volunteer who always had time for others. Margaret’s life experience and her educational and professional background made her a remarkable journalist for our archdiocesan newspaper.

“As her journalist friend, Julie Slaymaker, said on Margaret’s passing, ‘I have a hole in my heart and in my life.’

Julie’s quote says it best for many of us who were indeed blessed to call Margaret friend.”

Her work at The Criterion also led Nelson to interview many interesting and high-profile individuals.

“Margaret was a very kind person with a charming personality. I first met her when she interviewed me after I was elected as abbot [of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad] in 1995,” noted Benedictine Father Lambert Reilly. “We had become friends and would meet rather regularly.

“She also was known for her homemade cookies, which she sent to me and to Archbishop [Emeritus] Daniel [M.] Buechlein. She had won prizes for them at the [Indiana] state fair.”

Beyond journalism, Nelson’s other creative talents were honored with more than 500 awards—including 22 sweepstakes honors from the Indiana State Fair for baking, sewing, decorating and photography.

In 1995, she was commended with the Church’s Pro Ecclesia et Pontiface award for a layperson.

Nelson enjoyed traveling, making pilgrimages to shrines in Europe, the Holy Land, Rome and Mexico.

Survivors include daughter Maureen (Vince) Norris of Louisville, Ky., son Paul Nelson (Darice) of San Diego, Calif., daughter Kathleen Nelson of Indianapolis, and son Patrick Nelson (Shelly) of Covington, Ky., and her brother Peter Vernia (Sue) of Rochester, Mich. Margaret was also preceded in death by her daughter Rosemary McElhenny (John).

In lieu of flowers, her family asks that donations be made in her name to St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, 4052 E. 38th St., Indianapolis, IN, 46218‑1444; St. Vincent de Paul Society, 3001 E. 30th Street, Indianapolis, IN, 46218; or Saint Meinrad Archabbey, 100 Hill Drive, St. Meinrad, IN, 47577-1003. †

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