Sister Michele Morek was raised by her mother after her father died during World War II. They were living in Florida, where a doctor threatened to remove Michele’s tonsils.
“Or,” he said, “you can move to a dry climate.” So when Sister Michele was 3 years old, they moved to New Mexico, because her mother was a West Texan, and West Texans think New Mexico is heaven. It was a great place to grow up, where she could learn to appreciate nature and diverse cultures. Fortunately for the Ursuline Sisters, she wasn’t always on her best behavior.
“We were living in Gallup, I was in the fourth or fifth grade in a public school, and I was becoming a juvenile delinquent,” Sister Michele said. “My mother said, ‘We are moving to where you can be in a Catholic school. There’s an Ursuline school in Farmington, they’re supposed to be very good teachers.’”
They moved to Farmington when Sister Michele was in the sixth grade, where she attended St. Thomas School. The first Ursuline Sister she met at St. Thomas was her choir teacher, Sister Fran Wilhelm. “I loved her, she was young and energetic,” Sister Michele said. Sister Fran continues to minister to Hispanics in Owensboro, Ky., with Centro Latino.
After St. Thomas, Sister Michele attended Waterflow Academy, a boarding high school near Farmington. “Sister Consolata (Stallings) was my favorite teacher, she was my science teacher,” Sister Michele said. “It was the first time I’d had science.” Science has been a part of her life ever since, but thoughts of becoming an Ursuline did not come until high school. When she was attending grades 1-3 in Albuquerque, she had known the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, but did not think at that time she could be a sister because she said, “my head was not shaped like that!” (Referring to their veil which rose to a peak in back.)
“In the 8th grade, a Victory Knoll sister talked to the class about vocations,” she said. “I was angry about how easily influenced everyone was. I said, ‘Everyone is going to be a sister except me.’” But during her junior year of high school, she started thinking about joining the Ursulines.
“I really enjoyed the sisters, and I saw how much they enjoyed each other,” Sister Michele said. “Being in a boarding school lets you see them better.”
Her only trip to Kentucky prior to entering the convent was during her junior year of high school, when she and Sister Sara Marie Gomez made a trip to Washington, D.C., and were allowed to stop at the Mount to see a sister from New Mexico take the habit.
“We really didn’t like it at all,” Sister Michele said. “My hair curled, her hair went straight. We thought, ‘What kind of place is this?’”
There was no memorable moment when Sister Michele knew she was joining the Ursulines. “Sara Marie and I had to clean Father’s house and we hated it,” she said. But during one of those cleaning sessions “I told her I was going to join the convent, and she said she had been thinking about it too.”
On Sept. 7, 1961, Sister Michele, Sister Sara Marie, Sister Sheila Anne Smith and Toris Yeager, who later left the community, all entered as postulants. “It was the only time in the history of the community that they had four from New Mexico enter,” Sister Michele said. “We were a marvel.”
There were 18 in her novice class, and five remain in the community today, Sisters Sara Marie, Sheila Anne, Rose Jean Powers and Kathy Stein. “I really enjoyed the novitiate,” Sister Michele said. “I enjoyed having all those sisters.” Her mother remarried when Sister Michele was 11, and had two sons, half-brothers with whom Sister Michele remains close even though they live far away.
Sister Michele got to share her love for science as a teacher. She received her doctorate in developmental biology from Notre Dame and became a biology professor at Brescia College/University in Owensboro, serving there from 1971 to 2004, which included a stint as academic dean. From 1992-2000 she served two terms as a member of the Ursuline leadership Council, then in 2004 began her six-year term as congregational leader.
Since December 2011, she has served as coalition coordinator for UNANIMA International in New York City, a nongovernmental organization at the United Nations made up of 19 different congregations of women religious. It focuses mainly on issues dealing with women and children, especially those who are trafficked or living in poverty; migrants and refugees; and environmental issues like water and climate change. The Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph are one of the founding communities of UNANIMA.
“I love living in community life, and my life as an Ursuline Sister has been such a blessing in so many ways,” she said. “I love how religious life enriches your spirituality, how your sisters support you with prayers and friendship and good example, and how you are always pushed and challenged to ‘Be the best you can be!’ Being a juvenile delinquent in 5th grade was the best thing that could have happened to me.”