(Sister Mary Sheila went to heaven on Feb. 17, 2018.)
Ursuline Sister Mary Sheila Higdon’s only trepidation about entering religious life was whether her mother needed her more. When her mother told her she was happy for her, Sister Mary Sheila began what has become 67 years as an Ursuline Sister.
Sister Mary Sheila was born Dorothy Marie Higdon, the 10th of 11 children to Bernard Joseph and Mary Philomena Higdon. She had two sisters, but all her siblings near her age were boys.
“I grew up a tomboy, all I had to play with were boys,” she said. “They all grew up to be wonderful men.” Just two of her siblings, both brothers, are still living.
Her father, Bernard, was a common laborer who often worked on the highways, and the family moved often around Owensboro to various rental properties, Sister Mary Sheila said. “I remember the excitement of moving to another place,” she said. Later in life, her father worked in a furniture store and with her brother raising chickens.
Everyone called her mother Maffie. Her mother’s father, Adolph Strehl, came from Germany at 18 and married a woman who grew up in Stanley, not far from Owensboro.
“When I was 5, my mother became ill,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “Her illness was never diagnosed, but it was like multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy. She couldn’t walk alone. This all started when she was in her early 40s, in 1936, and she was never well after that. She died in 1963 at age 74.
“My last memory of her walking normally was when she took my little brother and me to a Shirley Temple movie,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “After that, she was either in bed or on crutches. My two sisters, older brothers and my dad took on much responsibility caring for the house, etc., until I got old enough to take it on. I learned so much from my mother as she guided me in housekeeping and cooking. She spent the last 10 years of her life in a wheelchair.”
Dorothy Marie attended St. Joseph School in Owensboro all 12 years. Her third- and fourth-grade teacher was a young sister in her first ministry, Sister Jean Madeline Peake, who died in 2014 at age 99.
“The sisters were so caring. They so impressed me, they were such inspirations to me,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “When I got in high school, Sister Mary Damian (Abell) took me under her wing, and increased my desire for a vocation. She worked with me after school, helping me with spelling, after which I was able to participate in spelling bees. I think she recognized a vocation in me.”
When she graduated from high school and decided to become an Ursuline Sister at age 18, it was difficult for her to go because her mother relied on her so much.
“I had taken over all the housework. It bothered me quite a bit,” Sister Mary Sheila said. Her mother told her she was happy about her decision to enter the convent, so after graduating in June 1947, she entered that September with 12 other young women.
“During the Depression, my grandparents, Zachary and Mattie Higdon, lived with Father James Higdon (our relative) who was the pastor at St. Alphonsus,” the parish across the road from Maple Mount. “They cared for the house and the grounds. As a young child, when we would visit them, I would be very curious about the beautiful place called Mount Saint Joseph,” she said. “Little did I realize that someday that would be my home.”
“My mother and dad were able to come to my investment on Aug. 14, 1948,” she said. When she prepared to make her final vows, she again worried about her mother, but she knew she had enough brothers and sisters to take care of her.
When it came time for Dorothy Marie to choose her religious name, she submitted three choices. Her first was Marie Bernarde, after her parents; the second was Catherine Marie for her sister. As she was looking through a Catholic newspaper, The Record, she saw the name “Mary Sheila” and thought it was pretty, so she put it down as her third choice.
“I didn’t find out it was my new name until Bishop (Francis) Cotton announced it,” she said. “I found out later that ‘Sheila’ is Irish for ‘Cecilia,” which was my confirmation name.”
Sister Mary Sheila was a teacher or principal for 30 years, and then worked in several parishes as director of religious education and pastoral associate for the next 31 years. She retired July 1, 2011. These days she lives at the Motherhouse and volunteers in various roles, including driving sisters to doctor appointments.
“My life as an Ursuline Sister has been most rewarding and fulfilling,” she said. “I have lived in convents with only two of us and as many as 22 sisters, and lived alone on my last four missions. When I left the classroom, I found that very hard because I loved teaching the little ones so much.
“Ministering in a parish was probably the most fulfilling because of the variety of ministries,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “I especially loved teaching adults who were interested in joining the Catholic Church through the RCIA process. There’s nothing more rewarding than to witness the joy of Easter when those you instructed were baptized, received holy Communion and confirmed all at the Holy Saturday Vigil service. I have been blessed with good health most of my life, which enabled me to live the charism of Saint Angela in the Ursuline way of life all these years. I am most grateful.”