Martha Elizabeth Cecil was known as “Marty” by her family, but when she became an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, she chose “Mary Jude” as her name because of her mother’s great devotion to Saint Jude, “the saint of the impossible.”
Whenever the family had tough times – and there were many – her mother would say a novena to Saint Jude, “and the universe opened up for her.”
Looking back over 65 years of religious life, Sister Mary Jude Cecil can recognize that the answer to her mother’s prayers often arrived as Ursuline Sisters.
Marty grew up around Owensboro, Ky., during the Depression as the middle of nine children born to Tony and Lucy Cecil. In 1937, the Cecil family moved to Knottsville, on the east side of the county, when Marty was 5. Jobs were scarce during the Depression and her father took whatever work he could get. A job blacktopping a road from Owensboro to Knottsville led to their move to the rural community.
“We lived on a little tract of land that was almost given to us by my mother’s father,” Sister Mary Jude said. “It was small and cramped, with boys on one side and girls on the other. St. William School was across the street and the church was across the street from that. All my young life I lived across the street from a school or a church.”
The Ursuline Sisters lived next to the church. In her early grades at St. William, Marty remembers fondly Sister Mary Jane Hicks and Sister Mary Leo Johnson as her teachers. In the later elementary grades, Marty had Sister Rose Emma Monaghan and Sister Merici Mattingly for her teachers. But they were much more than teachers.
“They knew the Cecils had all these kids who were hungry,” Sister Mary Jude said. “They’d stop by and say, ‘Do you know anyone who could use these dresses? The children they belonged to outgrew them.’ I’d say, ‘I sure do,’” Sister Mary Jude said. The sisters often found they’d made one too many pies and would ask the Cecils to take the extra. The sisters walked to church and for night prayers, and would stop every day with some treats for the children.
“They were very generous to Dad, he paid what he could in tuition,” she said. After her sixth grade year, her maternal grandfather died, who had been helping the family with their expenses. Her dad went to Owensboro and got a job with Turley Supply Co., a farm supplier. He was able to save up enough money to get the family a home on Fifth Street in Owensboro, across the street from St. Joseph School, where the Ursulines taught.
“From the first time I saw an Ursuline, I wanted to be one,” Sister Mary Jude said.
Her first teacher at St. Joseph was Sister Mary Damian Abell. “She was one of the sweetest women,” Sister Mary Jude said. “She knew from the sisters at St. William that we were poor.”
When farm work slowed in the winter, her father got a job selling cars at Harry Holder Ford. “He loved that. He did that until he died,” Sister Mary Jude said.
When Marty was in the 10th grade, her life changed again. Her mother went into deep post-partum depression after giving birth to her sister Judy on June 13, 1948.
“I was the oldest child at home, there was no one to take care of the younger children,” Sister Mary Jude said. St. Joseph School was closing and Marty was faced with moving to a new school without Ursulines as teachers for the first time.
“I told Dad I could take care of the children,” she said. “He said I was staying in school. It was against everything he believed, he wanted the children to get a good education. I told him I could get the Ursulines who taught college in Owensboro to teach me English, religion and math. They could give me lessons and I would study the rest of the week at night.”
A group of sisters who taught at the Mount Saint Joseph Junior College were also teaching some college classes in Owensboro while staying in a house on 8th Street. (A few years later, the junior college would move to Owensboro and become Brescia College.) After much prodding, she remembers her father crying for the first time in front of her, saying “I can’t let you do this, but I don’t have a choice.”
Her father took her to the house on 8th Street and explained the situation to Sister Casimir Czurles, who said she would need to ask the other sisters in the house. When Sister Casimir returned, she said there were three sisters willing to teach Marty, and she was one of them. Another was Sister Martha Ann Cargile.
“None of the sisters drove back then. Dad would take the sisters to Owensboro or to the train station,” Sister Mary Jude said. “The sisters were glad they could do something for him.”
By Thanksgiving, her mother was starting to revive and by Christmas she was mostly back to normal, Sister Mary Jude said. Her parents asked her if she would like to attend Mount Saint Joseph Academy for her junior and senior years, where her mother had graduated from in 1924.
“I told them they couldn’t afford it,” she said. The sisters told the Cecils they would figure out what their costs would be, but they never took a penny, Sister Mary Jude said. Marty began her second semester of her junior year in January. “I was thrilled,” she said. Sister Martha Ann moved to the Mount to teach at the Academy, which was another benefit for Marty.
At Christmas 1949, during her senior year, Marty decided she wanted to join the Ursuline Sisters.
“My parents were ecstatic,” she said. “I didn’t know it at that time, but Mom had always wanted one of her children to join the convent.” Marty entered Feb. 13, 1950, before she graduated. She entered the novitiate in August that year, making this her 65th year as a sister.
“I’ve probably been one of the most fortunate people in this community,” she said. “I knew it was where I was supposed to be. Others would question whether this was the right place for them, but I thought ‘How could you ever want to leave this?’”
Sister Mary Jude wanted to be a sister and a teacher, and she was fortunate to be a teacher and sometimes principal from 1952 to 2007 in Kentucky, Nebraska and Memphis, Tenn. For 36 years, in four stints, she taught in Paducah, Ky. The first nine of those years were at an impoverished school called Rosary Chapel.
“There was no money for salaries,” she said. “But they brought us food and Father Phil Riney would take care of our local medical expenses,” she said. “That’s where I discovered the gift of having hard times, living with those who had nothing, yet who were loving and generous and helped us keep the school going.”
When she and Sister Mary Corda Carrico saw students bring a fried egg on a biscuit as their only thing to eat all day, they helped raise money to start a cafeteria at the school.
Another love of Sister Mary Jude’s is the French language. She earned her master’s degree in French, and became a French teacher at Mount Saint Joseph Academy and in Memphis. But her greatest joy was the 27 years she taught French at St. Mary High School in Paducah. These days she is retired at the Mount, but she still teaches French two hours a week to Sisters of the Lamb of God stationed in Owensboro, whose motherhouse is in France.
“J’aime beaucoup l’univers parsceque c’est le Bon Dieu,” is her favorite French saying, meaning “I love the universe because it is God.”
Sister Mary Jude left teaching in 2007 and remained in a ministry of presence at Rosary Chapel in Paducah until 2013, when failing eyesight brought her home to the Mount. “It’s a gift from God to love what you do,” she said. “I’d still be teaching if I could.”
When she came back to the Mount, she was blessed to be given a room in Saint Joseph Villa, the community’s long-term care facility, she said. “I know every inch of this room,” she said. “It took away all my apprehension. I’ve felt very loved.”
Anyone who meets Sister Mary Jude immediately recognizes the joy and hospitality she exudes. She says that is just part of who she is, but she does awake each morning and prays to be a positive person.
“Love is so much better than complaining, or trying to get ahead or being negative,” she said. “There has to be a caring for people.”