My Vocation Story – Sister Mary Jude Cecil

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.”

Comments

  1. Jacqueline Nelson (Watson)

    Sister Mary Jude has been an inspiration to me ever since the first day that I was blessed to meet her at St Mary’s in Paducah KY. I took 4 years of French with her and went on to earn a bachelors degree in French. But this is the least of the impressions that this wonderful woman has made upon me. She taught me so much more than a language in the years that I was blessed to spend with her. Thank you for all that you have given. God bless! -Jackie

  2. Katie Hill Bushby

    I had the joy of having Sister Mary Jude at St. Mary in Paducah. I’m so happy to know she is doing well. Thank you for sharing your story and for your life of service. My French has gotten rusty over the years but my memories of you and St. Mary certainly haven’t faded. Be well Sister!

  3. Diana Yancey

    Sister Mary Jude is an amazing lady and wonderful teacher. I am so glad she taught at St. Mary High School.

  4. Cathy Trussell

    Thanks for befriending my dad, Francis”sport” Breivogel @ St Francis DeSales Church. He loved you and June and I remember you all kept going there until he was unable to go any more due to his aging n deteriorating health. I think of him n you in that back pew when I visit the Church. God Bless n hope you are well n comfortable. Congratulations on your 65th anniversary. Loved reading your story.

  5. Cathy Trussell

    Thanks for befriending my dad, Francis”sport” Breivogel @ St Francis DeSales Church. He loved you and June and I remember you all kept going there until he was unable to go any more due to his aging n deteriorating health. I think of him n you in that back pew when I visit the Church. God Bless n hope you are well n comfortable. Congratulations on your 65th anniversary. Loved reading your story.

  6. Marcia Marty Bunch

    sister Mary Jude was a very important person to me when I was a kid I didn’t know that her nickname was Marty and that’s my nickname too and then I did not know she spoke French and I was born in France that’s probably what connection wasI know when I see her I can’t help but to smile because she keeps a smile on her face thank you God for Bringing sister Mary JUde to my life

  7. Susan Mullen

    Sister Mary Jude with her positive gentle spirit was an inspiration to all of us who taught with her at St Mary. I love her and think about her often.

  8. Shawn Dittman

    I was lucky enough to have Sr. Mary Jude as a French teacher when I was in 8th or 9th grade. I was a troubled teen; full of anger and blaming the world for my problems. I quickly learned that she was a person whose positive power was much greater than my negativity. She saw potential in me and encouraged me. It took many years for me to realize what my problems were, but she was one of those people along the way that truly helped me simply by being herself. She’s a brilliant human being and I’ll forever carry the light that she effortlessly brought me so long ago. Merci beaucoup, Sister Mary Jude!

  9. Carol Crenshaw Knight

    I was so happy to see this and share with my fellow alumni
    ! Sr Jude was such a role model for me at Bishop Byrne in Memphis, TN. Her joyful and generous spirit shine through in her teaching. Her passion for the French language made her class one of my favorites. She also was a spiritual guide in Christian Service class and as I served as the Memphis Diocesan Youth leader for the SEARCH program.
    Although I know longer can speak French I have carried on her spirit of giving as a teacher of children with disabilities and as a job coach and facilitator of smoking cessation classes. Thank you Sr Jude!!!!

  10. John Moore

    I learned much about the Catholic faith from Sr. Mary Jude while at St. Mary High (1988 – 1992). Her love of French was obvious. It was a joy to share the halls with her. Blessings to her in her retirement from an old schoolboy!

  11. Karen Warner Isbell

    Sister Jude, was a teacher at Bishop Byrne in Memphis, TN in the 70’s. We all loved her. Such a wonderful person with a happy spirit.

  12. Marion Oborny

    Sr. Mary Jude was a mentor at Bishop Byrne for the first two years of my teaching career. I remember going to her many times, and her supplying prayerful loving support. (And her support worked. I’m about to begin my 39th year of teaching.)

  13. Sharon Muska Moore

    So good to see Sr. Mary Jude and read about her life. I also taught with Sr. in the late 70’s at B.B.H.S. She was an inspiration to us all.

  14. Natalie McCulley

    What a wonderful gift we were all given at Bishop Byrne to have her as a part of our young lives. Thank you for everything Sr. Jude! I still am wondering where Monsieur T. Is going to dinner? If you had her for French I – you will get the reference.

  15. John Capocaccia

    Sister Jude was a wonderful teacher at Bishop Byrne. I took 3 years of French from her and was also a staple in her ‘SWING CHOIR’. She only asked us to make a joyful noise but we practiced on singing and thank God for the ladies who could carry a tune. I am still thankful for the freshman guys of the Class of 1984, when I asked them to join the SWING CHOIR, they all did and dawned the RED Blazers for all gym school masses.
    I am blessed to have had her as a teacher and a mentor. I wish she still had that 65 Barracuda.. I always liked that car….

  16. Jim Magnini

    My big 2 memories of Soure Jude. Evidently I seemed a likely suspect in the French II mystery of “Who smashed a jelly doughnut in Kevin’s French Book.” I was sent to the principles office, questioned but released. Pat took the hit for it. I’m not sure if he actually did it either. I wouldn’t put it past Kevin to do it himself and then blame someone else. I still think Paul was involved. If anybody wants to solve this mystery please do.

    At the end of French II I contemplated taking French III. She pulled me aside and said she didn’t think that was a good idea. I took the hint. For my college degree I needed 4 semesters of a foreign language. I chose French. Straight A’s. Thank you Soure Jude. I was actually listening.

  17. Linda Berner Aljundi

    Sr. Jude was my favorite teacher at BBHS. She was always smiling and loved what she did. She made French class something I looked forward to. I never knew her life story so it was wonderful to come across this story!

  18. Dan Wortham

    What a truly remarkable person and teacher. I worked with her at Bishop Byrne for nearly 10 years. Her love of French was equalled by her love of her students and her service to the community. In the late 70’s! she was the driving force behind a Christian Service program that was incorporated into the curriculum way before it became the norm. Best to you from all your peeps in Memphis.

  19. Laurie LoBello Nudo

    I have so many fond memories from Sister Jude’s French class at BBHS, especially the wonderful French breakfasts she would host! I especially remember her sweet, sweet disposition…always a smile on her face! Thank you for the memories!!!

  20. Valorie Fielder Valle

    What a beautiful article written about a truly beautiful soul. Sr. Jude was indeed one of those teachers one never forgets! Reading her story was a joy and I am happy to have been one of those who were blessed by her goodness! Peace!

  21. Lisa Ping

    I was fortunate to have this wonderful woman in my life my freshman year at Bishop Byrne. Love those memories dearly, especially the trip to Paducah.

  22. Desiree Warner Allen

    Sister Mary Jude has the kindest spirit and most caring heart! I know I am blessed to have had her positive influence in my life.

  23. Tim Cottam

    Sr. Mary Jude, what a joy to read about your life and influence on others. I’ve often wondered how things turned out for you. Your positive influence during my high school years at BBHS (79-82) remains one of my fondest memories. The Catholic church is no longer a big part of my life but rest assure the Christian example I learned from you guides me to this day. Thank you for being you!

  24. David Turner

    I was probably the lousiest French student at Bishop Byrne(French 2 at that) but Sr. Jude was always patient with me. To this day there are still 2 songs etched in my brain from taking her class. When I am on the road for travel and there is a piano player in a lobby – I request La Vie en Rosa.My kids also think I am smart because when I hear it I can reference its origin. Do any of you French students remember this ?

    Chevaliers de la table ronde,
    gouton voir si le vin est bon.
    Gouton voir, oui oui oui,
    gouton voir, non non non,
    gouton voir si le vin est bon!

    Cheers to Sr. Jude – a great inspiration! Thank you Sr. Jude !

  25. Mary Ann Capocaccia

    As a parent of 6 children that attended Bishop Byrne in Memphis, Many Thanks to you Sister Jude for your love and dedication to the students and their families.

  26. Meg Edwards

    The woman responsible for teaching me French which I still know after all these years!!!
    Je suis
    Tu es
    Il est elle est
    Nous sommes
    Vous êtes
    Ils sont elles sont
    Such a special lady!! God bless you Soeur Marie Jude

  27. Meg Edwards

    The woman responsible for teaching me French which I still know after all these years!!!
    Je suis
    Tu es
    Il est elle est
    Nous sommes
    Vous êtes
    Ils sont elles sont
    Such a special lady!! God bless you Soeur Marie Jude

  28. Michael Collins

    Sister, you are such a light. How fondly I recall your loving ministry at St. Mary HS. You are a true example of Christ’s love, a shining model for all. Nancy and I send our warmest regards.
    Peace,
    Michael Collins

  29. Beverly

    St jude was my savior for many years. She always had a sign on her door that said it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile. She probably has no idea that she saved me. First period french 3 years in a row. Bihop byrne class of 82….beverly sneed nichols,

  30. Marla Dittman Harris

    Sister Mary Jude made a tremendous impact upon me as a high schooler at St. Mary in Paducah. She was a fantastic teacher, but even more so, a tireless cheerleader for those who were trying against odds or difficult circumstances. I adopted St. Jude as my own patron saint somewhere in high school and have never been without my tiny, laminated prayer card. I smile whenever I think of her and feel so blessed to have had her in my life at that time. She empowered me to rise up, stand strong, believe in myself and never, ever give up. I am forever grateful to her for the wisdom and grace she bestowed upon me. Oh, I can still speak some French too!

  31. Debbie Jordan Longton

    Sister Jude was such a wonderful teacher. I was so honored to have had her for Christian Service and one year of French. I have never known someone who was so passionate about their work and their devotion to God. She was such a blessing to all of us who had the pleasure of having her in our lives whether it was as a teacher or just for guidance. She will never be forgotten. God bless Sister Jude

  32. Rick Borges

    Stories like these are becoming extinct but I hope the caring, passion and love of teaching continue. I met Sister Jude 5 years ago when I moved to Paducah with my wife after we both retiring from the Navy over at her mother Magaret Cimeley’s. She was infectious and obviously happy even though she was losing her eye sight. @ 48 I just began to lose my close up vision and it is frustrating everyday and I wished I dealt with it as good as Sister Jude and she was going blind – a much larger scale. Everyone can learn from her even if you never saw her teach – she is special and people know it. I hope she has a good time at the mount and enjoys the rest of her days. I hope to be able to rise to my challenges as she has done her entire life for others and her family.

  33. Keith J Ahern Sr

    My two grown children were taught by Sister Mary Jude at Saint Mary in Paducah in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. This woman is a fantastic educator that could relate to students at a personal and meaningful level. She made a substantial difference in students lives. She is truly blessed by God as a very special teacher. She has more than a wonderful gift as an educator; she had the additional gift of easily conveying the message of Jesus Christ, Our Lord in practical ways with real life examples. She made a true connection with my daughter. She encouraged her to continue to study the French language, which she did. Sister’s educational teaching ability gave my daughter the skills to start as a Junior in French at the the University of Louisville in her Freshman Year. This was and is amazing!! Sister’s teaching got my daughter immediately recruited by the UofL language lab as a French tutor. My daughter tutored many African American students and helped them get through their UofL language requirement for their degree. She turned many C’s and D’s into A’s and B’s. That, I believe, was Sister’s hands working through my daughter to help others. Sister, did you know you indirectly helped numerous African American students to be successful at UofL…you did!!! There are around two dozen degrees that these students earned due to your efforts! Our Lord works in mysterious ways.

    My daughter earned a BA in French and an MS in Speech Language Pathology from the University of Louisville. Her ability to switch from a BA to an MS was also due to Sister Mary Jude. Sister instilled a sense of driving to achieve positive goals in my daughter. That switch…Arts to Science…has always been quite challenging.

    Lastly, my daughter had incredible travel experiences in France and Quebec, Canada due to the language skills Sister gave her. The French language knowledge she taught my daughter provided a spring board for her to have experiences beyond any monetary value. One summer in the South of France, my daughter’s sponsor family took her to an old fashioned French barn dinner and sing-a-long. The many of the songs were classic French children’s songs. My daughter knew every-single-song by heart from Sister’s classes. Her sponsor’s were shocked!!! My daughter’s two UofL co-students knew none of the songs and were dumbfounded at the barn party. My daughter’s knowledge of these songs allowed her to relate to small French children though French adults. The French elderly were especially excited that an American knew French culture. They truly had something in common to share. The all claimed that my daughter’s grandmother at home had to be French and taught her?..she did have a French grandmother of a sort: Sister!!! Sister gave my daughter a window into French culture her fellow UofL students did not have…all due to Sister Mary Jude! My daughter also had the skills to work two summers in France: one as a railroad station ticket clerk (yes she sold the tickets in French to French passengers) and the second was the French equivalent of a USA HUD office. Without the self confidence sister developed in her, this would not have been possible.

    Sister Mary Jude is a educator, a wonderful & kind woman, and a Sister representing Our Lord beyond compare. My family was blessed to have her in our lives. God Bless you Sister! You made a real difference…not subjective…rather objective, my daughter’s skills could be measured and the feedback she received was fantastic…you are responsible for all of that. Two dozen UofL degrees would not have been earned without you. You really made a difference Sister and Our Lord knows that!

  34. Patty Sipes Mekus

    Sr. Jude was one of my favorite teachers at Bishop Byrne High School in Memphis, TN. I loved being a student in her classes, especially her French class. I so enjoyed reading this article about her young life, of which I knew nothing about. I thank God for blessing me with people like Sr. Jude in my young life. She is a big part of molding me and giving me the wings to fulfill the mission God has for me while I am here on earth. Merci Beaucoup Soeur Jude! May God Bless you and Keep you Always!

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