Ursuline Sister Marie Goretti Browning was taught by Ursuline Sisters and Sisters of Loretto. Two of her brothers were Passionist priests and her sister, Jane, joined the Ursulines and changed her name to Sister Clarita.
But it was none of these people who showed the woman born Isabel Browning that her future should be with the Ursuline Sisters. It was an 11-year-old Italian girl who’d been murdered 47 years earlier named Maria Goretti.
“I didn’t want people to have a foregone conclusion that I would become a religious,” Sister Marie Goretti said recently. “I think I was trying to get away from it.”
She was the second youngest of seven children born to Joseph Leo and Mary Agnes Browning in the tiny central Kentucky town of Calvary. She grew up on a farm, helping to hoe the tobacco and the garden, and playing games like croquet.
“Our parents were faith filled,” she said. “We prayed the rosary at times together and we went to Mass. My mother wanted us to be at Mass as often as we could.”
She attended Calvary Public School, where the Ursuline Sisters taught and then offered religion class on the weekends. Her eighth-grade teacher, Sister Charles Marie Coyle, had the biggest impact on her.
“She was interested in us, and a companion outside the classroom,” Sister Marie Goretti said. “I always admired her very much.”
Jane was more than three years older than Isabel and was attending Mount Saint Joseph Academy. The family didn’t have the money to send Isabel as well, so she attended St. Augustine Catholic High School, where she was taught by the Sisters of Loretto.
One of those sisters, Sister Joanna Marie, had a great influence on her becoming a woman religious, Sister Marie Goretti said. But she never considered any community other than the Ursulines.
“I was able to attend the Mount my senior year,” Sister Marie Goretti said. “I was surprised I wanted to go. Laura Abell was my classmate at St. Augustine, she was coming and I wanted to come with her.”
The resistance Isabel had about becoming a sister quickly vanished when she arrived at Maple Mount to begin classes.
“When I got here, I was zapped. I knew this is where I belonged,” she said. “I felt so comfortable here, there was peace. God was present here.”
This transformation was alarming to Isabel and she wasn’t sure what to do. Her brother, a Passionist priest, gave her some information on Maria Goretti, who was being promoted for canonization. In 1902, young Maria Goretti had fought off the sexual advances of a man because of her love for Jesus, and the man stabbed her to death. Before she died, she forgave him, as did her mother when he was eventually released from prison.
“I started praying to her, and as soon as I did, the doubt went away,” Sister Marie Goretti said. “It was kind of a miracle.”
Isabel entered the community as a postulant on Feb. 1, 1950. Maria Goretti was canonized a saint on June 24, 1950, and less than two months later, on Aug. 14, Isabel took the name Marie Goretti as an Ursuline Sister.
During her 65 years as an Ursuline, Sister Marie Goretti has had extremely varied ministries, including teacher and principal, director of novices, elected assistant superior and councilor, director of the retreat center and parish minister.
The 10 years she spent as director of novices (1970-80) broadened her perspective on vocations to religious life, she said.
“It gave me a deep view of religious life. I hoped they were getting a clear message from God,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Am I doing what needs to be done?’ I worried about it and prayed about it.”
But the role also made her aware of the need to continue looking inward toward her own relationship with God. It also better prepared her for her two terms in leadership.
“I felt like I understood the growth that was required, the challenges the sisters met,” she said.
It is her ministries within the community that she looks back on most fondly.
“They helped me to understand my vocation,” she said. “It’s been challenging and caused me to grow a lot.”
Now retired at the Motherhouse, Sister Marie Goretti is able to look back and know that she made the right decision to become an Ursuline Sister.
“Having the opportunity to grow spiritually has been the greatest gift,” she said. “Having met so many wonderful people I’ve worked with and lived with has been such a gift to me. All the things I’ve learned in my studies. I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.”