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Starcross co-founder Sister Marti dies at 76

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Mary Martha Aggeler had flown as a United Airlines flight attendant and worked in a business suit in New York City when the graduate of Catholic schools co-founded a tiny monastic spiritual order, settled in a remote corner of Sonoma County and performed audacious acts of humanity there and around the world.

For more than 40 years, Aggeler was known and honored as Sister Marti of Starcross, the lay community that resides on a 109-acre farm in hilly and timbered Annapolis, inland from The Sea Ranch on the northernmost Sonoma Coast.

Aggeler died there Monday after a yearlong siege of cancer. She was 76.

Despite the remoteness and quiet splendor of the contemplative retreat she created with Tolbert “Brother Toby” McCarroll and Julian DeRossi, better known as Sister Julie, the Starcross trio never withdrew from the hardships and suffering of life.

Instead they mounted missions of caring so ambitious and life-altering that they caught the attention of people across America and far beyond. With Aggeler responsible for much of the business and technological challenges, Starcross provided loving homes to foster children in Annapolis, to AIDS- infected babies in Santa Rosa and in Romania and to AIDS orphans in Uganda.

Aggeler told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “If you protect yourself from the pain, then you insulate yourself from the joy.”

In addition to acting as parents to scores of ailing and discarded children, she and McCarroll adopted two newborns born to young American mothers who could not provide for them. Their son, David McCarroll, is a classically trained violinist who now lives in Austria and performs with the Vienna Piano Trio. Daughter Holly McCarroll-Baker lives on the Starcross farm with her husband and son and works as a chef and caterer focused on sustainably grown food.

The future Sister Marti was born in Boise, Idaho, on Sept. 24, 1939. Her parents, Harold Griffith Aggeler and Margaret Stankard, had her educated by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

Needing to find work right out of high school, she flew with United, then found office work in New York City. Also as a young woman in the early 1960s, she took jobs at the New York World’s Fair and in a secret government missile project in Oklahoma.

Amid the tumult and boundary-bursting of the late ’60s, Aggeler found her way to San Francisco. She dabbled in motorcycle clubs and encounter groups, and at the Humanist Institute met McCarroll, a widower and former lawyer.

Soon to be joined by DeRossi, the pair founded Starcross in 1967, bought an old house on Masonic Avenue and began working with at-risk kids, some with severe medical needs. Toby McCarroll recalled that after a few years they came to agree that “for the good of the children and the formation of Starcross’ contemplative life, it was time to move from San Francisco to the country.”

Noted DeRossi. “We really didn’t have money, but we started looking anyway.” She remembers the long drive in 1976 that took them to Annapolis, far west of Geyserville.

“Marti saw this place and said, ‘I think this is it.’”

It was a large ranch on Annapolis Road. The three Catholic laymen approached the caretakers, who told them the owner was in Hawaii.

Aggeler “flew over there and talked him into selling it for less than what he wanted,” DeRossi said.

Starcross had a glorious new home far off the beaten path. Though they knew nothing about farming, the brother and two sisters resolved to sustain themselves and the foster children in their care through agriculture. They converted an abandoned apple orchard into a Christmas tree forest, and they made wreaths for sale. Later they commenced production of olive oil.

In 1986, Aggeler was moved to tears by a TV news report that showed an AIDS-infected toddler tethered to a doorknob in an empty hospital hallway. She subsequently spoke about the care of isolated AIDS babies with Dr. Marshal Kubota, who diagnosed the first case of AIDS in Sonoma County and directed the county’s first AIDS clinic.

He told her, “At this time we have no medical answers. What these children need is love.”

Starcross began taking in children infected with HIV or AIDS. Said DeRossi, “It definitely was a heart thing. We all, maybe especially her, were so touched by the plight of babies living in hospitals with no one to touch them or to be with them.”

Soon, the Starcross trio expanded the mission on behalf of AIDS babies, opening Morning Glory House on Santa Rosa’s Cherry Street.

In December 1989, media accounts deeply touched Aggeler once again. The overthrow of Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania exposed the plight of at least 120,000 abandoned and horribly neglected children, many of them infected with AIDS.

Aggeler took on much of the responsibility of addressing the enormous bureaucratic and political obstacles in Romania, obtaining permission for Starcross to care for as many of the children as possible. In 1991, she, DeRossi and McCarroll opened “House of Hope” in Constanta, on the Black Sea.

“It was to become a model used by UNICEF,” McCarroll said. A doctor from a hospital near the house visited and then wrote, “Living near these children made me realize that AIDS is not synonymous with death. These children did not have to live without hope.”

Several years later, in 1997, a seminary student struggling to help children in Uganda who’d lost their parents to AIDS learned of Starcross and House of Hope. He wrote a letter that captured the heart of DeRossi.

She, Aggeler and McCarroll undertook the creation of the Ugandan House of Hope, a godsend to the many AIDS orphans offered a home, education and a strong chance at a full life.

In what quiet time she could find, Starcross’ Sister Marti enjoyed writing haiku poetry and cross-stitching Christmas scenes.

“Each one took her over a year to do,” DeRossi said.

Aggeler also loved music — especially DeRossi said, “any that David would play.”

David McCarroll was able to come home to Annapolis from Vienna days ago and spend time with his mother as she approached the end of her life. She had lived with pancreatic cancer for a year.

“Brother Toby” McCarroll recalled that Aggeler each fall hosted a Festival of Stars at Starcross. At the end, she asked everyone to stand, and recited a prayer she’d written when her son and daughter were young:

“The night has come now. The sun has gone down. The stars are out, the moon is out. The birds are in the trees. The little creatures are in their nests and holes. The cows are in the barns. The children are going to bed and everything is quiet. Let us be still now and listen to the stars.”

A funeral service and potluck lunch will be held at Starcross in Annapolis on March 19. For more details, contact Starcross at community@starcross.org. Donations to finance acts of practical compassion may be sent to Sister Marti’s Memorial Fund, 34500 Annapolis Road, Annapolis CA 95412.

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