(Sister Marie Brenda went to heaven on July 27, 2018.)
If it weren’t for a fire at Vine Grove (Ky.) High School in the early 1940s, it’s possible Frances Marie Vowels may have never become Ursuline Sister Marie Brenda Vowels.
The fire caused her to attend Flaherty Public School her senior year, where Ursuline Sisters Agnita Sweeney and Ruth Agnes Conners were her teachers. They were the first Ursulines who taught her and they had a profound effect on her future vocation.
“I received a missal for getting the highest average in religion that year and also a scholarship to the Mount Saint Joseph Junior College, but I decided that summer to enter the novitiate,” Sister Marie Brenda said. “Sister Agnita talked about the need for vocations. I thought I should help out.”
Sister Marie Brenda will celebrate 70 years as an Ursuline Sister this year, with 30 of those years spent as a teacher or parish minister in the Southwest, serving the needs of poor Native American or Spanish families.
Sister Marie Brenda was the second oldest of 14 children born to the late Steven Edward and Maude Elizabeth Vowels. She was born in Louisville, but when she was 4, her father lost his job during the Depression and the family moved to her maternal grandfather’s farm in Meade County, about an hour away.
“We had no electricity until I was 13,” she said. “The day we got electricity I did seven loads of laundry.”
The first Ursuline Sister she met was Sister Jamesina Spain, who prepared her for the sacrament of Confirmation when she was 10. “Her storytelling about the saints stuck with me,” Sister Marie Brenda said.
She had not given much thought to becoming a sister until the influence of Sisters Agnita and Ruth Agnes. “I was never sorry I became a sister,” she said. “I’ve had a happy life and loved all my ministries.”
“I had a huge crowd for my investment, relatives even came in a Flaherty school bus and on the back of my grandfather’s cattle truck,” she said. She is still not sure how the name Marie Brenda was chosen for her, but she’s never regretted it. “I’m the only Brenda in the community.”
Her first teaching ministry was in 1947, and she remained a teacher or principal until 1978. For 18 of the next 20 years she was a parish minister teaching religious education in New Mexico and at Houck, Ariz. From 1995-97, she served in outreach in the far western Kentucky town of Benton, taking communion to people in hospitals and nursing homes. In 1997 she returned to New Mexico for a year, but she needed surgery in 1998, and knowing the conditions where she lived in New Mexico were not conducive to her recovery, she decided it was time to come home to the Mount for good.
Sister Marie Brenda worked the community switchboard for 11 years until retiring in 2009. She considers herself blessed to be a sister.
“It’s been a good life. I wouldn’t have done anything else,” she said. “The Lord knew best.”