Smiling comes so naturally to Ursuline Sister Mary Celine Weidenbenner that people often ask her what she’s so happy about.
Exuding joy has been a constant part of her life for the 59 years she’s been an Ursuline Sister. She has spent 52 years in ministry as a classroom teacher or principal.
Born Theresia Marie Weidenbenner, she grew up in the Missouri boot heel of Glennonville, a place that has produced several Ursuline Sisters. Her parents worked a small farm raising cotton, corn, beans and alfalfa.
“It was very tight knit. I grew up on a farm where church was central and school was central to our life,” Sister Mary Celine said. “We were very supportive of each other.”
She was taught by Ursuline Sisters, first in the public school, then in St. Teresa, and admired their life. “I was interested in a religious vocation, I just loved the sisters,” she said. “They were such a part of our life. If we brought in watermelons or vegetables, we sat a box aside for the sisters.”
School started in July, and by mid-September the students would take a “cotton vacation” for six weeks to pick the crop. “We couldn’t wait for the sisters to come back,” she said. One of the sisters who had an impact on her in those days was Sister Frances Miriam Spalding, who would remain her dear friend in the community until her death in May 2013.
Sister Mary Celine had many cousins who were sisters in various religious orders, so the thought of a vowed life wasn’t uncommon. When the public high school closed in Glennonville in the 1950s, some students went to St. Louis for a Catholic education, while others – like Sister Mary Celine – came to Mount Saint Joseph Academy.
Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to the Academy until her sophomore year, but there were seven or eight other girls from Glennonville coming that year also. Still, leaving home at such a young age was difficult.
She first considered religious life as a seventh-grader, because of her high regard for the sisters.
“The sisters in the lower grades would play with us during recess,” she said. “I knew they were for us to do our best. I felt this was my way to best worship God.”
As a senior in high school, she considered a cloistered community, but thought her outgoing personality wouldn’t fit there. One day, while walking the grounds at the Mount, she stopped at a stump that had a quote from Daniel (12:3), “They that instruct others into justice shall shine as stars for all eternity.” Sister Angeline Mattingly told Sister Mary Celine that was the Ursuline motto. “That’s when I started thinking seriously about the Ursulines,” she said.
The fall after she graduated in 1962, she joined as a postulant, and entered the novitiate in 1963. There was already a Theresa Marie in the community, so she took the name “Celine” because she was the sister of Saint Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower” who was her namesake.
Sister Mary Celine has served at seven schools in Kentucky as either a teacher or principal, bringing her brand of creativity and enthusiasm wherever she’s served. Since 2007 she has taught at Mary Carrico Memorial School in Knottsville, Ky., about 45 minutes from Maple Mount.
“Life as an Ursuline has been enjoyable in these three areas,” Sister Mary Celine said. “The deep prayer life I have developed has sustained me through the many trials. It still does! The experiences in community that have been life giving have brought me deep joy. Also, the teaching ministry, from my freedom to choose history as a major for my first degree to my master’s in education, has led me to a ministry that is made to order for me. God is so good.”