Sister Rose Theresa Johnson passed away this past August 10, 2012. When a sister dies, her files eventually come to the archives for permanent keeping. Sister Annalita Lancaster goes through these files, puts them in order, and adds them to the collection. As she was going through the file of Sister Rose Theresa, she came to me to show an April 1996 article written by The Catholic Extension Society in their magazine Extension. Sister Annalita was sad that here is an excellent article written about one of our sisters that only a few people may know about. To help solve this problem, here are excerpts on the mission of Sister Rose Theresa to the poor of Kentucky.
Come Into the Fields
In a small apartment above the bank in Caneyville, lives someone whose main occupation is caring about others. On this eve of Valentine’s Day, Ursuline Sister Rose Theresa Johnson fills some moment of quiet by embroidering small containers with the whimsical message: “Pinch me and I’ll give you a kiss.” Sister Rose is one of eleven nuns and three lay missionaries who provide needy residents in this part of Appalachia with companionship, prayers and social services such as emergency food and clothing.
They are desperately needed in an area that is poor and largely non-Catholic, wrote Most Reverend John McRaith, Bishop of Owensboro. This part of Kentucky is indeed mission territory. The practicing Catholic population in much of the area is a fraction of 1 percent, and many more families are believed to have left the Church generations ago. Upwards of 50 percent of residents belong to no church at all, and anti-Catholic sentiments persist. The missionaries are doing ground breaking work. “A Catholic presence nudges people who have been lax in practicing any religious,” remarks Bishop McRaith.
With few Catholics in the area to support their efforts, these missionaries depend upon stipends from their religious congregations, the diocese, and Catholic Extension donors to meet their basic living costs. It is common for residents to juggle several jobs to make ends meet, and the fatigue shows. Among the poorest towns in the state is Smithland, where 30 percent of the adult population has not even completed the eighth grade. Two sisters here help people achieve high school equivalence degrees and organize food pantries and clothing outlets for the needy.
Catholic Extension has funded Holy Spirit Convent since it opened in Caneyville three years ago. “It is, indeed, a major breakthrough to have a convent there,” says Bishop McRaith. Sister Rose’s ecumenical work is dissolving religious prejudices in the area. Born into a farming family of thirteen children – six of whom pursued religious life – Sister Rose lives fifty miles from her predominately Catholic hometown of Lawrence, Ky. Her brown hair tucked under a veil, this 69-year-old former teacher stands out in Caneyville, where only three practicing Catholics live.
“My work is unfolding more all the time,” says Sister Rose. She comforts the bereaved at the local funeral home, plans interfaith prayer services and visits people who otherwise would have no visitors for days or weeks at a time. “I have never seen so many elderly people, especially widows, living alone!” says the sister who has spent nearly fifty years as a religious. “I spend most all of my time visiting people who need me and trying to teach them a little about our Catholic Faith.”
On this February day she stops to see Gene Smith, who has lost several fingers and toes due to poor circulation. He sits in his two-room house with bottles of whiskey at his feet, a bucket of water for cigarette butts, and a shotgun for discouraging unwanted visitors. Smith is not Catholic but welcomes Sister. As she approaches, he bellows out the window, “Come on in, or you’ll freeze out there!”
Just as she does with other homebound friends, Sister Rose brings a baked chicken that she bought with her own meager subsidy to supplement Smith’s diet of watery soup. Sister’s visit is a treat that Smith eagerly looks forward to each time. And the people are grateful. At the plywood cabin of Clifton Lacefield, Sister brings a small gift for the man who lives alone with twenty cats. From his chair under bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, Smith thanks Sister Rose and pulls $5 of his Social Security income from a worn wallet. “I want to give something back,” he tells her, reflecting the spirit of proud people who understand that giving is just as important as receiving.
Sister Rose’s goal is to “bring Christ to the people,” she says, and this means explaining Catholic beliefs to wary residents. One townsman quotes the Bible to defend his views on issues such as suicide. “I’m saved,” he says. “Nothing I can do can break my covenant with God, not even suicide.” “Yes, but we have the commandments,” Sister reminds him. “We were told: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
Sister Rose also provides a lifeline to Catholics such as Richard Hoffman, a transplant from Chicago in his late 40s who is confined by illness to his couch. When Hoffman’s father died recently and left him alone, Sister cleaned the house and arranged a memorial Mass there. “I don’t know any Catholics to invite,” Hoffman told Sister, so they invited his Baptist neighbors.
Sister Rose gives Catholics a good name, says Bobbie Oller, who is Baptist. “She offers encouragement and shows an interest in us. We can talk to her about our troubles and share our blessings.” Oller tells how her husband became friends with Sister Rose by chatting about fishing and gardening. Then he attended a Mass, which he enjoyed. “The ceremonies, the priest with his robe…people here aren’t educated about these things,” Oller says. “Sister has done a lot for me. I understand more now.” She also attends Mass, and now her Baptist friends are curious and want to attend too, she says.