The biggest difference between Catholic and public schools is “discipline, handwriting, neatness and the dress,” Sister Mary Lois said. She said the worst part is the lack of respect for authority, but she realizes the students with whom she works skew her perspective.
“I only see 3 to 5 percent of the student population,” she said. “They’ve already been abused by adults, so they don’t trust and they don’t relate.”
In a discernment sheet, she once wrote, “When their anger and disrespect doesn’t affect me personally, I’ll know it’s time to leave.”
Sister Mary Lois was the sixth of eight children born to Raymond and Catherine Speaks, the youngest girl. Her mother was a housewife, her father a farmer in Henderson County, until the family moved to the city when she was 12, and her dad became the janitor at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Henderson.
“I hated to leave the country,” she said. “God is so near in nature.”
Sister Mary Boniface asked all her siblings to send their daughters to Mount Saint Joseph Academy. “One day my mom asked what I would think of going to the Mount, and I said, ‘I’d love to,’” Sister Mary Lois said. “I’d never been so homesick in my life.”
She was the first member of her family to be born in Henderson County. The family lived in Union County, but moved when the federal government took their land in 1942 as part of the 36,000 acres to build a World War II training camp called Camp Breckenridge. “We were supposed to get it back, but it’s still in litigation,” she said.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth taught Sister Mary Lois in grade school, but it was during her freshman year at the academy that she decided the Ursulines were the right community for her.
“After Christmas break, we got a weekend retreat. That’s when I thought I should enter Mount Saint Joseph,” Sister Mary Lois said. “Their friendliness was so good.”
Sister Mary Lois said Sister Mary Boniface was a major influence on her becoming an Ursuline. She graduated from the academy in June 1962, and entered the postulancy that September.
“She loved me more than I deserved,” Sister Mary Lois said. “She started carrying two handkerchiefs to meet my needs. I’d just cry on her shoulder.”
She credits Sister Mary Boniface with introducing her to the Holy Spirit. “She made my side rosary when I graduated. When we no longer had to wear them, I asked permission to keep mine.” Sister Mary Boniface died Oct. 15, 1992.
In September 1966, prior to graduating from Brescia College, Sister Mary Lois was sent to teach at Saint Ignatius School in Louisville, Ky., until Thanksgiving, to replace a teacher who was ill. Many teachers were needed to fill vacant slots in those days. From there she went to Saint Alphonsus School, right across the highway from Mount Saint Joseph, for the rest of the school year. In August 1967, she began teaching at Blessed Mother School in Owensboro, Ky., for the semester.
In January 1968, she took 1½ years of college in one semester at Brescia to finish her degree.
“It’s amazing to look back to say, ‘How did I do that?’ and ‘Why did I do that?’” Sister Mary Lois said. “It was for the grace and the call.”
She spent a couple of years teaching at Saint John School in Plattsmouth, Neb., before being named principal at Sacred Heart School in Russellville, Ky., in 1970.
“I got asked to be a principal before I made my final profession,” Sister Mary Lois said. “I was 26.”
She split her time in the 1970s between school and parish ministry. From 1972-76, she was parish coordinator at Saint Pius X in Owensboro, then was principal at Saint Leonard School in Louisville from 1979-82. She was parish coordinator at Saint Columba in Louisville from 1979-82.
“I did work for the diocese while I was at Saint Pius, and at the same time, my brother-in-law was dying, so I was trying to be a support,” she said. Fortunately, the priest she worked with in Russellville also came to Saint Pius, Father Paul Pike Powell, and the two have remained friends.
“I appreciate her insights,” Father Powell said. “She had a deeper vision of the future of religious life and the church than a lot of people did.”
When she ran CCD classes, “she had a way of bringing the children out, letting them have their say, and leaving them with the truth,” Father Powell said.
During the summers, she attended Western Kentucky University to earn her master’s in education, while also working toward her master’s in theological studies at Saint Meinrad, Ind.