My Vocation Story – Sister Judith Nell Riney

Sister Judith Nell Riney grew up just a short hike from Mount Saint Joseph, in an extended family that included several Ursuline Sisters. So it isn’t surprising that she says: “I always had the idea of a religious vocation in the back of my mind.”

But one person was very surprised – her boyfriend, when Judy told him, on a summer date, of her plan to enter the Ursuline novitiate that fall. Her announcement came on the very night that this fine young man had planned to ask her to marry him!

She remembers his response: “Well, you ruined everything.” But Judy’s mind was quite clear about her vocation. She did enter that fall – and in 2022 she celebrates 55 years as an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph.

Sister Judy is the sixth of 14 children (11 girls, three boys) of Francis Guerdon (“FG”) and Winifred Marie Riney. This lively family grew up on a farm less than five miles from the Mount.

“The house was small, so we were outside a lot,” she remembers. “We had our own ball team, we played in the cornfields and swung on the grapevines.” When their parents were away, the children let the calves run in the barn so they could play rodeo. Both the boys and the girls worked hard on the farm. “I helped to plant tobacco, cut it, haul it and even strip it sometimes,” Sister Judy remembers. “I’ve always loved it,” she says – “just the smell of it!”

During the summers, the Rineys enjoyed visiting their Ursuline aunts and great-aunts at the Mount. Sister Judy remembers a time when she and her elderly great-aunt, Sister Elizabeth Kelly, were engaged in a hockey game, complete with hockey sticks and puck, in a convent hallway. “BOTH of us got in trouble for that,” she said with a laugh.

Judy’s elementary education was with the Ursulines at St. Alphonsus School, just across the road from the Mount. “My best teacher was Sister Mary Agnes (VonderHaar),” she said. “She was one heck of a ballplayer – and a great teacher too.” Judy’s faith was always important to her. In the upper grades she began to feel drawn to prayer, making noontime visits to church between lunch and noon recess.

In 1965, finishing her senior year at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, Judy wanted to enter the novitiate in August. But her parents asked her to wait, so she spent a year working part-time at the Owensboro Public Library and studying at Brescia College. “I also ran around a lot and had a good time,” she said. She also corresponded with Sister Elaine Byrne, already a postulant, and her former history teacher, Sister Marie Bernadette Blanford.

In August 1966, Judy entered the novitiate as one of 27 postulants. “We worked hard and had a good time,” she remembers. She also continued her studies at Brescia College, majoring in history – always her favorite subject – together with certification in elementary and secondary education.

After professing temporary vows in 1967, Sister Judy began her teaching ministry in grades 5 and 6 at St. James School, Louisville. From there she moved to St. Angela Merici, a large school in Florissant, Mo., in north St. Louis. Here she was asked to teach math in grades 7 and 8. She found that she “loved teaching math, and also teaching 7th and 8th graders.”

Then, after one more teaching assignment, she asked to take a year’s leave of absence from the Ursuline community. “I just didn’t feel right . . . I wasn’t happy,” she said. During this period she taught in Normandy, Mo., also in the St. Louis area. This time away concluded with a “very powerful” retreat for persons discerning about religious vocations. Here Sister Judy found that “there was something that just wouldn’t let go.” She felt a renewed call to religious life.

Upon her return, she was asked to take a position as a staff librarian at Brescia College. She was ready for this new challenge.

“I can’t remember when I didn’t like to read,” Sister Judy confesses, remembering that, “when the Bookmobile arrived at the Riney house, our family took practically all the books!” Even from childhood, she says, “I think I knew that I wanted to work in libraries.”

So, while she was teaching, she had taken summer courses at Louisville’s Spalding University to earn a master’s degree in library science. And, during her time as Brescia staff librarian, she spent summers at The Catholic University of America, attaining American Library Association approved credentials needed to direct an academic library.

In 1987, Sister Judith Nell was appointed Director of Library Services for the Brescia College Library – now known as the Father Leonard Alvey Library of Brescia University.

Sister Judy has high praise for her predecessors: founding librarian Sister Hilda Mudd and the other pioneer Ursuline librarians, and she has continued in the spirit of these “great women who built this place.” During her tenure – 42 years now – she has directed what she calls “a constant revolution,” with technological enhancements, modern labs, study spaces, 24/7 access to research material and a friendly, helpful environment. The library now has a 21st generation catalog system that allows access to Brescia library material as well as to libraries around the world in one keyword search.

She appreciates her dedicated staff, three of whom have grown with the library during 20 or more years of service. She sees the library as “the students’ office on campus,” and “a continuously evolving learning space and atmosphere for every generation.”

In 2016, Sister Judy added another role to her ministry — serving as an elected member of the Ursuline Leadership Council. Her term ends in 2022.

Looking back on her life, Sister Judy gives thanks for the rural spirituality that has been a support from childhood through her life as an Ursuline of Mount Saint Joseph. She feels happy and at home at the Mount. “You can breathe at the Mount!” she declares with a smile.

Sister Judith Nell loves her vocation and actively seeks other women with the same calling to religious life. “I invite them to come and be part of a community of women who want to serve God and minister to others in a great space and a great opportunity to be FREE to do these things with the support of an entire community.”


  1. Jan (Mills) Gish

    Loved reading this. I was in Sister Judy’s class at The Mount for two years and always loved her spirit, sense of humor, kindness, positive energy, and her laugh. I was a little jealous of her intellectual ability. She was SO smart! Love her!

  2. Sister Mary Agnes VonderHaar

    And I bow to you, Sister Judy, and rejoice that I can claim you as one of my greatest students – yes, we did/do have fun !

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