Words were everything to Sister Mary Virginia Micka.

For 42 years, the soft-spoken English professor encouraged students at St. Catherine University in St. Paul to bask in the prose of classic literature — works she praised as a portal into the human condition.

Even after retirement, she couldn’t bear to leave the classroom.

So Micka traveled the country conducting spiritual retreats for Catholics, offering wisdom on how to move past life’s greatest tragedies.

“I want you to look at the wrinkles on my face,” said Micka, breaking her silence during a five-day retreat in 2007. “I’m a very old woman. I have gone through many things. When you see my face, I want you to remember — I got through, and you will, too.”

The simple moment left a lasting impression on graduate student Cindy Nordheim, for whom Micka became a mentor. “She was a deeply compassionate and wise woman who didn’t need to say much to have an impact,” Nordheim said.

Micka, an accomplished poet whose elegant turn of phrase inspired two generations of English majors to find their voice, died Aug. 14 after a battle with dementia. She was 96.

A child of the Great Depression, Carol Ann Micka left her hometown of Hibbing, Minn., to take a vow of religious chastity during the midst of World War II. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates in St. Paul at age 21 and took the name Sister Mary Virginia.

Micka would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English at St. Kate’s, then a master’s from the University of Notre Dame. She worked at St. Margaret’s Academy in Minneapolis before ultimately returning to her alma mater.

Friends and former students described a warm and regal woman who came alive when she was teaching “The Divine Comedy” and had a knack for honing a student’s greatest potential.

“Her spirit was always attentive and listening, in a deep way,” recalled author Marybeth Lorbiecki, a 1981 graduate. “At a key point, she encouraged a very discouraged, insecure, inexperienced writer to keep trying.”

When she wasn’t teaching, Micka penned poetry about nature and spirituality, comparing the exercise to the expression of prayer.

“Poetry for me is like trying to hear what’s coming up from within,” she once wrote.

Over a period of more than 50 years, she produced several published works, including “Three Bridges,” “In My Own Voice” and “Half a Hundred.”

In 2001, nearly a decade after her retirement, alumnae awarded Micka a Myser Family Foundation Teaching Excellence Award. She used the prize money to frame her growing body of artwork.

Patricia Myser, a St. Kate’s alumna who counted Micka as a mentor, said it took her many years to fully appreciate the gift her teachers bestowed on her during college.

“Those nuns became the love of my life,” she said. “They gave me the push that I needed. Sister Mary Virginia told me I was special.”

At 82 years old, Micka hosted a six-week art show featuring her life’s work — a vast collection of poetry, watercolor paintings and charcoal drawings. Several of her framed charcoal pieces remain displayed in the hallways of St. Kate’s student center, and her poetry is housed in the library.

“She gave her gifts back to God,” Myser said.

Micka is survived by two sisters, Elizabeth Micka Thouin and Marian Micka Pearson; many nieces and nephews, and her fellow Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates.

Services have been held.