Sister Mary Henning can’t remember when there wasn’t music in her life. “My dad played guitar by ear,” she recalls, “and every morning, before her daily work, just for a few minutes, Mom would sing and play on her small organ – familiar songs like ‘That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine.’”
It’s no surprise that Mary always loved to sing.
Her religious vocation also developed naturally. For a long time she didn’t focus much on her future, Mary says. “But I always knew I wanted to be close to Jesus.” She liked to go to church with her parents, who were devoted to their faith. “I was a very religious little kid.”
Mary’s parents, Frank and Pauline Henning, were farmers in the community of Axtel in Breckinridge County, Ky. She had two sisters and four brothers. “I was smack-dab in the middle,” she said with a laugh.
Mary Agnes (her baptismal name) loved farm life, a family endeavor that often included helpful neighbors too. “It was a healthy life,” she remembers. “We grew our own food – no junk food! – and all summer we worked on canning fruits and vegetables for winter.” Once her father needed her to drive the tractor – with a manual shift – a new experience. “Dad hung a rosary on the gearshift and told me I’d be OK. And I was.”
Ursuline Sisters taught at St. Anthony’s in Axtel, the two-room school where Sister Mary completed grades 1-8 and sang in the choir. For high school, she moved to Mount Saint Joseph Academy, following her sister Betty Ann, who had just graduated and was a postulant in the Ursuline community.
Mary thrived at the Mount. She received the good education that her parents wanted for her, and she kept singing – in choral groups and in private voice lessons from Sister Francesca Hazel, one of the community’s fine music teachers.
Now Mary began thinking seriously about her future. She considered joining the Carmelites in Louisville. When her father frowned at the thought of the cloister, Mary turned toward the Ursulines, her childhood teachers. She was also close to her aunt, Ursuline Sister Mary Laura Henning. And at that time, her sister – who later left and married – was a novice. After her graduation in 1964, Mary entered the Ursuline community, making her final profession in 1972.
In her early life as an Ursuline, Sister Mary completed her bachelor’s degree in education at Brescia College in Owensboro. She began her ministry in Jeffersontown, near Louisville, as a first-grade teacher at St. Edward School. She kept singing, and Sister Sylvester, superior and school principal, recognized her gift for music.
Along with her teaching, Sister Mary began studying piano with Ursuline Sister Marie Julie Fecher, who was teaching in Louisville. Mary remembers that “Sister Sylvester got a piano and set it up in the parlor for me. I fell in love with it! I probably drove the other Sisters crazy with all my practicing, but they never fussed about it.”
Just a few years later, Sister Mary left St. Edward’s to become a full-time music student – first in the bachelor’s program at Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods College, then at Northwestern University, where she received her master’s degree.
In 1979, Sister Mary began teaching music at the Academy, her alma mater. Two years later she moved to Brescia College (now University) where she taught music classes, directed choral groups and a handbell choir, gave private lessons and contributed her skills to liturgies in the college chapel. Loved and respected by her students, she served at Brescia for 32 years, including several years as coordinator of the music program.
Then, in 2013, Sister Mary accepted her current position of Director of Worship and Liturgy at Mount Saint Joseph, a ministry to which she brings her dedication to the liturgy, her love of music and her bright personality that even makes weekly choir practice a delight for the Sisters.
More recently she accepted the position of Director of Postulants, in which she plans and implements a program focused on prayer, the heritage of the Mount Saint Joseph congregation and the call to consecrated life in community. Twice monthly, Sister Mary meets with Ursuline postulant Stephany Nelson for reflection, prayer and relaxation.
Along with all this, Sister Mary continues her study of music, taking organ lessons and dedicating an hour every evening to practicing on the chapel organ. After that, if time and weather permit, you might find her out touring the campus on her bicycle, keeping up her energy and physical fitness.
This year Sister Mary is celebrating her 50th anniversary as an Ursuline Sister. “I’m so happy I chose to become an Ursuline,” she says. “I’m grateful for my life and for all the opportunities I have had.” They are opportunities she has shared generously. As she desired, she has stayed close to Jesus, and she has helped many others – her students, her family and friends, her Ursuline Sisters – to come closer to Jesus, too.