The school year had just ended on June 2, 1954, when Jane Louise Johnson made an appointment with Ursuline Sister Jean Claire Ballard, who was the principal at St. Joseph Catholic School in Mayfield, Ky. The sisters at the school were leaving for Maple Mount the next day, but Sister Jean Claire told Jane Louise she had time to talk.
“Later she told me it was the busiest day of her life,” the woman now known as Sister Francis Louise Johnson said. “She knew what I wanted to talk about.”
What Jane Louise wanted to talk about was becoming an Ursuline Sister. It was a decision she has never regretted.
“I wasn’t sure that whole summer,” Sister Francis Louise said. When she arrived at Maple Mount on Sept. 7, 1954, she went into the chapel to pray. “I had a very deep peace about the whole thing, that it was right,” she said. “That’s never left me. It has definitely been the right decision for me.”
She chose Francis Louise as her religious name to honor her parents. Francis was her father’s first name and her mother’s middle name. Finding her full name a bit too many syllables, Sister Francis Louise is known to almost everyone as “Sister Lou.”
Jane Louise was born in Waverly, Ky., but when she was 7 months old, her family bought a farm in Hickman County in the far western part of the state. She was the sixth of nine children. In an effort to move where their children could attend Catholic school, the Johnsons bought another farm in Mayfield.
“Church was important to us,” she said. “Both my parents were devout Catholics. It was just a part of my life.”
Her first inkling about becoming a woman religious happened in sixth grade – while she was attending public school.
“I asked my public school teacher what the word ‘destined’ meant, and she said it meant ‘what was ordained to happen in the future,’” Sister Lou said. “Then she said, ‘Like if you were destined to become a Catholic sister.’ I didn’t know why she said that, because she was a Methodist.”
Jane Louise attended St. Joseph School in Mayfield for the final years of elementary school and high school, graduating in 1953.
“We had all sisters in the whole school,” she said. The two sisters who had the biggest influence on her were Sister Jane Frances Donahue in the eighth grade, and Sister Jamesina Spain, who taught her in high school.
“They liked us and they were excellent teachers,” Sister Lou said. “It was a small school, so we got a lot of individual attention.” In later years when Sister Lou became a teacher, she realized that individual attention was the only way some students could learn.
“I learned a lot from Sister Jane Frances and Sister Jamesina,” she said. “They challenged us, but they didn’t make it so difficult that we couldn’t do it.”
She put being a sister out of her mind until she was 19. After graduating from high school, at 18 she got a job with Bell Telephone as an operator. It was a good job, but Jane Louise knew she would someday become a teacher.
“I thought I’d go to Murray (State College, now University) and get my degree. Things changed,” she said. “When I was 19, for some reason I was very aware of the Holy Spirit. I told myself, ‘It’s now or never.’”
That led her to her conversation with Sister Jean Claire. A few weeks later, Sister Jamesina, her former teacher, was visiting Mayfield, and Sister Lou went to see her to discuss joining the Ursulines. Her classmate Teresa Riley was also there.
“We both thought, ‘What are you doing here?’ Neither of us knew the other was considering joining,” Sister Lou said. She and Sister Teresa both entered as postulants in 1954, and novices in 1955, making this their 60th year as sisters. The remaining members of their novice class are Sisters Marietta Wethington, Catherine Marie Lauterwasser, Marie Michael Hayden and Margaret Marie Greenwell.
When Jane Louise told her parents and siblings she was entering the convent, “Some said she’ll be back in a week, others gave me two weeks,” she said. Her father rarely cried, but her sister told her that when she made her vows, her dad cried on the way home.
Sister Lou likes to inject humor into every situation possible, so she told her sister, “He’s not crying because I made my vows, he’s crying because I may not keep them.”
Becoming a sister allowed her to fulfill her dream of being a teacher, which she did for 25 years in Kentucky, Nebraska, Missouri and New Mexico. She then served in parish ministry from 1984 to 2002, first in Paducah, Ky., then 13 years at St. Aloysius Parish in Pewee Valley, Ky.
“The people from St. Aloysius come every year on my birthday. They are very dear,” Sister Lou said. “Some of the children I taught still write to me. It’s amazing.”
Since 2003, she has been coordinator of the Guest House at Maple Mount, which gives her an opportunity to welcome visitors to campus.
“I have been blessed with lots of love in my family, friends and community,” she said. “Every day my prayer should be, ‘Thank you, dear God.’”
She especially loves living at the Mount with about 85 of her Ursuline Sisters.
“Now is one of the most wonderful parts of my life,” she said. “Our sisters in (Saint Joseph) Villa, we’re living with saints. I have more time to pray and to enjoy the sisters and other people,” she said. “I just see myself getting happier and happier.”