(Sister Mary Angela went to heaven on April 5, 2020.)
Ursuline Sister Mary Angela Matthews had a feeling God was calling her.
“I was going to do something special for God, but I didn’t know what,” she said. Her lack of clarity was easily explainable – she’d only just made her first Communion.
Through her academic years of being taught by the Ursuline Sisters in grade school and high school, it became more clear to her just how God wanted her to serve. But it was a few moments of silence in the back of her church in Hardinsburg, Ky., that brought it all into focus.
Her Aunt Blanche was a Sister of Charity, who for some years took care of Sister Mary Angela’s grandmother.
“I took a liking to her, so I thought I might be interested in the Sisters of Charity,” Sister Mary Angela said. “I wrote for some information from them. I was in the back of church one day at St. Romuald and there were two Ursuline Sisters kneeling in the front row. I thought, ‘Why am I kidding myself? I know I want to be an Ursuline.’ Talk about being a witness. It was the Lord pecking me on the shoulder.”
She was born Mary Rita Matthews near the town of Axtel, Ky., which is better known as a tourist town for nearby Rough River.
“My mother named me for St. Rita Church in Detroit, my family lived there for 10 years,” Sister Mary Angela said.
Grace and Alva Matthews were farmers who were the parents of four boys until Mary Rita came along. Another daughter died after nine days, and then a younger son came along.
“My youngest brother, Tom, and I were very close,” Sister Mary Angela said. “We’d switch, he’d play housekeeping with me and I’d play cops and robbers with him.”
She went to a one-room public school the first two grades, then switched to St. Anthony School in Axtel for the third through eighth grades, where her teachers were Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Her teacher in the fifth through eighth grades was Sister Theodora Thompson.
“I admired her long habit and rosary,” Sister Mary Angela said. “She got me a scholarship to the Academy.”
Mary Rita’s family lived too far for her to ride the bus to the public high school, so attending the boarding school at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Maple Mount was a bit of a necessity her freshman year, she said.
“The Mount had a good reputation as a school, that was important to me,” she said. “We had Mass every morning. All that attracted me.”
Her family moved to the larger city of Hardinsburg after her freshman year, so she could have stayed home to attend St. Romuald High School. “But by then I was hooked,” she said. “I was so homesick, every year I would say, ‘this is my last year, I’m going to stay home and go to school with Tommy.’ I said that every year until my senior year.”
“We had so many advantages at the Academy,” she said. “Sister Lucita (Greenwell) was the principal, I was very close to her.”
During her senior retreat after Christmas, she told a Jesuit priest that she would like to join the Ursuline Sisters, but she wanted to wait a few years to repay her parents.
“My dad’s tobacco crop was my tuition,” she said. But the priest told her, “Don’t keep God waiting.”
She was nervous about telling her father, because in those days, the sisters could not go home to visit their families. She waited until Easter to tell her father, who was unhappy with her choice. But her older brother said, “Let her do what she wants, the rest of us all did.”
She graduated from the Academy in 1949, and entered as a postulant that September. The following year, during her investment ceremony in 1950, her dad told her, “I feel better about this now.”
“It’s been a good life, a happy life,” she said.
In those days, two sisters could not have the same name, and the community already had a Sister Mary Rita.
“There was a girl in my class freshman year named Mary Angela Wayne, I thought that was a beautiful name,” Sister Mary Angela said. “When I took the habit in 1950, Sister Angela Kohl was dying, she was one of the first five sisters after we became an autonomous community. They called her Mother Angela, she was greatly loved.”
Mary Rita submitted three possible names, but Sister Theodora, her former teacher, said, “Oh, take Angela.” Mother Angela Kohl died May 9, 1950, and Mary Rita became Sister Mary Angela on Aug. 14, 1950.
Sister Mary Angela was a teacher or principal in Nebraska and Kentucky from 1952-1980. Her last stop was two years as principal of her alma mater, Mount Saint Joseph Academy (1978-80).
After being in education for 28 years, she wanted a change, so she earned her master’s degree in pastoral studies and religious education from Loyola University in Chicago. “I wanted to prepare for what I would do next,” she said.
She was a director of religious education or religion coordinator from 1981-1997, with 1985-97 spent in New Mexico. She loved her time in New Mexico – the climate, the beauty and the people.
“They had to pull me out, I didn’t want to leave,” she said.
She returned in 1997 to serve five years as a parish minister in Calvert City, Ky., then came home to Maple Mount in 2002 to serve as a business office volunteer. She spent 18 months helping to care for a sister in Louisville, then another year as postmaster before taking on her current ministry in 2006, librarian at the Motherhouse. It’s the longest tenure she’s had in one ministry.
“I like being around books,” she said. “I like helping people find what they need.”
After 65 years as a sister, Sister Mary Angela said she is glad she joined the Ursuline Sisters, which has helped her do something special for God.
“I always felt this is what God wanted me to do,” she said. “I keep pursuing God and God pursues me.”