Ursuline Sister Mary McDermott wasn’t supposed to be here.
When her mother was pregnant, her doctor told her it was a choice between saving her life or the life of her child. “She started a novena to Mary. By the grace of God, I’m here,” Sister Mary said. “That’s why my mom named me Mary.”
That wasn’t Sister Mary’s only close call. “At 18 months old, I was paralyzed from the neck down,” she said. “It was probably polio. I was sent home to die. It was the second time I wasn’t supposed to be here,” Sister Mary said. “I think God has a plan for me.”
At first she thought that plan was to be a teacher, like the Ursuline Sisters who inspired her growing up in St. Louis. But after continuing health issues led her to realize she had to leave the classroom, she discovered a talent that continues to serve her and others well.
“I share joy, the gift of hospitality,” Sister Mary said. “I can do that well here.”
For the past five years, Sister Mary has ministered in hospitality at the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center. She is often the first person people meet when they arrive or talk to on the phone.
“I probably greet 1,000 people a year,” she said. “Meeting the people is my favorite part. We had someone from Delaware for the first time at our Centering Prayer retreat. I like to see the reaction to our home.”
“I see the peacefulness in people the minute they come in,” Sister Mary said. “I like that. I like being a true retreat place for them.”
“Mary has an exceptional gift of hospitality,” said Sister Alicia Coomes, who has known her for more than 30 years since the two were novices together. “It makes her a good Ursuline Sister and excellent at what she does at the Center. She’s as generous as she can be.”
Sister Mary is at the front desk of the Center from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week, and sometimes on weekends when a group is in. She also helps Sheila Blandford with the gift shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She answers the phone, meets guests, shows them to their room and orders for the gift shop.
Sister Ann McGrew, director of the Retreat Center, said Sister Mary is very good at hospitality. “Her personality is just right for the job she does,” Sister Ann said. “She’s very interested in people and wants to get people what they need.”
Both she and Sister Mary believe it’s important that visitors are greeted by a sister.
“People expect the sisters to be here,” Sister Mary said. “There’s something different when the sisters do it.” She likes when visitors find out the sisters are just regular people like them. “It’s nice to find out ‘I’m OK.’ It’s very affirming,” she said.
Prior to coming to the Center, she was an administrative assistant at Brescia University in Owensboro, in which she worked wherever needed – switchboard receptionist, Education department, admissions, etc. “Each day I was somewhere else,” she said. “That was OK for a while, but I really wanted one spot. I really wanted this spot when it came open.”
Hospitality is a staple of the Ursuline charism, and Sister Mary feels like a part of that in her ministry.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to run an orphanage,” she said. “I drew up blueprints, and what I drew matched the Center. It told me this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Sister Mary grew up in St. Louis, where her father, John, was a computer operator for National Lead Co., which made paint, and her mother, Betty, was a volunteer teacher, librarian and eventually director of religious education at her parish. Sister Mary has one older brother.
Her paralysis that began at 18 months lasted until age 5. “When I started school (at Seven Holy Founders in suburban Affton, Mo.), I still had trouble with my legs. I was small and slow and kids would pick on me,” she said. Fortunately for her, her first grade teacher was Ursuline Sister Mary Sheila Higdon. “She helped me, she was my greatest protector,” Sister Mary said. “She was at my right side all the time, even on the playground.”