Sister Catherine Kaufman knew she had a calling to religious life. She just wasn’t sure which community was best for her.
She was born Helen Marie Kaufman on the hottest day of 1931 in the tiny town of Dahlgren, Ill., southeast of Mt. Vernon. She was the second child of Charles and Gertrude Kaufman, following her older brother Henry, and then 18 months later came her brother Charles.
But in June 1933, shortly before her second birthday, her father died. She has no memory of him.
Her mother remarried when Sister Catherine was 4, to Joseph Kreher, who had five daughters and three sons from a previous marriage. Together the new couple had four more daughters and two more sons. She still has two half-brothers and four half-sisters living.
Sister Catherine attended St. John the Baptist School, which was a public school where the teachers were Precious Blood Sisters from Ruma, Ill. “One of my friends said she was going to Ruma, so I thought I would go too,” Sister Catherine said. “But that isn’t what God wanted.”
“As I look back, God spent a lot of time getting me where He wanted me to be,” Sister Catherine said. “I had a boyfriend when I was 18, and one day I said, ‘I might be in the convent someday.’ It shocked me and it was the end of him.”
It was three years later, while riding on a Greyhound bus, that she heard the call to religious life. During a gathering of various women religious communities in St. Louis, she became interested in the Franciscan Sisters in Springfield, Ill. She entered in 1953, but left 14 months later in January 1955.
“My brother Gene was in the seminary in Belleville, Ill., so I ended up there,” she said. “Someone introduced me to the Ursuline Sisters in August 1956.” On Aug. 18, just shy of her 25th birthday, she joined the Ursuline Sisters of Belleville, and became a novice in 1957, making this her 58th year as an Ursuline Sister. In 2005, that small community merged with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.
She received the religious name Catherine almost by default. She was allowed to submit three names when she entered and she chose variations of Joseph, Charles (for her father and brother) and Catherine, a name that she and her mother liked. “I was told we had enough masculine names in the community, so I got Catherine,” she said.
Sister Catherine ministered in various ways at the convent in Belleville until 1964, when the sister who worked in the kitchen went to Germany to visit a relative. “I offered to help with the cooking,” Sister Catherine said. “I told the superior if we needed a cook, I could do it.”
Thus she embarked on her ministry for the next 40 years, serving as the cook in Belleville until she moved to Maple Mount. When she began there were 30 sisters and 20 aspirants, so it was challenging. She was well known for baking breads and desserts, and for holiday treats like Easter bread and lamb cakes. She is an expert canner, from apples to peaches to sauerkraut, and continued to can for several years after moving to the Mount.
When the Second Vatican Council allowed women religious to return to their baptismal names, Sister Catherine decided against changing back to Helen. “We had another Helen in the community and I didn’t want to be known as ‘Sister Helen in the kitchen,’” she said.
Another of her skills she utilizes is completing quilts for the Ursuline Sisters Quilt Club. She still does two to three a year, and one of her handmade quilts that she also finished embroidering is a prize in the Mount Saint Joseph Picnic Raffle on Sept. 13, 2015. She has been a craft person all her life, from crocheting afghans to decorating bulletin boards. She is also adept at rescuing plants that others think are lost causes.
Although the 2005 merger was difficult, especially leaving her friends in Belleville, Sister Catherine is glad she’s at the Mount.
“In 2001, I came to the Mount for a week of rest, relaxation and retreat,” she said. “I got out of the car at the Retreat Center and something went through me that said, ‘This is home.’ In 2004, I realized I needed a change. I had met more Ursulines at the Mount and moved here in January 2005,” 10 months before the merger officially took place.
Sister Catherine has always felt blessed to be an Ursuline Sister. “This is where God wanted me, and what God wanted me to do,” she said. “I’ve had so many opportunities for growth. The day I entered the Ursulines, I was told I needed to get a degree in sanctity. I feel I’m still working on it.”