Ursuline Sister Patricia “Pat” Rhoten grew up in a home with no running water in the tiny farming community of Palmyra, Neb. There was a well about 30 steps from the house, and along that path her mother decorated with a white picket fence and rose moss.
Along another flower bed her mother put rocks, and then painted each a different color using free paint she got from the Salvation Army.
“My mother taught me a love of beauty and organization,” Sister Pat said, two traits she has used throughout her life.
Patty Rhoten was the oldest of five children and didn’t have a sibling until she was 10. Playing house and decorating the corn bins was a staple of her young life.
Though not taught by Ursuline Sisters at St. Leo Church School in Palmyra, the Ursulines from Nebraska City came every summer morning for two weeks to prepare children to receive the sacraments.
“They taught us Marian hymns by heart and they tried to teach me the Memorare,” Sister Pat said. “I remember Sister Walter Louise Lush,” who died in 2008.
Following her seventh grade year, the Rhotens moved to Nebraska City. Patty attended St. Mary Elementary School, where Ursuline Sister Mary Jude Cecil was her teacher. Patty moved on to Lourdes High School, where the Ursulines taught. It was her senior year that she started hearing the call to religious life.
That year, 1961, Sister Victoria Brohm arrived as principal.
“She liked everybody,” Sister Pat said. “She had a special regard for those of us with no study skills.” (In her Palmyra one-room school, only half the grades were taught each year, Sister Pat said. One year would be kindergarten, first, third, fifth and seventh, then the next year would be kindergarten, second, fourth, sixth and eighth. Sister Pat went from kindergarten to second grade, so she missed many of the studying skills that others received.)
“Sister Victoria was very patient,” Sister Pat said. “She was a woman who was all the things I wanted to be – a woman of integrity, generosity, gratitude, graciousness, beauty and forgiveness.” When Sister Pat’s parents were struggling, it was Sister Victoria who helped them through the rough times. “My sister named one of her little girls Victoria,” Sister Pat said. (Sister Victoria died in 1992.)
In October of her senior year, Patty was thinking more and more about religious life. She went to Sister Victoria’s office to ask if there was a form she could just look at that described the life of a sister.
“This heavyset woman leapt up and said, ‘I knew you’d be a nun!’” Sister Pat said. “That was not what I was saying. I just wanted to look at a form, but when I left her office, I knew I’d done the right thing.”
After graduating high school, she entered the postulancy on Sept. 9, 1962, a few days after turning 18. She entered the novitiate on Aug. 14, 1963, making this her 52nd year as an Ursuline. She became Sister David Clare, which combined her father’s name with her favorite saint, Clare of Assisi.
“She had to have a feminine way of loving nature like Saint Francis had,” Sister Pat said of Saint Clare. Sister Pat was later able to visit Assisi and see Clare’s remains.
When the changes that occurred during the Second Vatican Council allowed women religious to return to their baptismal names, Sister Pat did so around 1970.
Sister Pat initially thought she lacked the skills to be a teacher, but the Ursulines did not. She was a teacher or principal in Kentucky and Missouri from 1967-79, when she came back to Maple Mount to be vice principal at Mount Saint Joseph Academy for a year.
“I came out of my room one night and there were five or six little girls sitting there wanting to talk. They were so lonely,” Sister Pat said. She was grateful she never looked back during her time in the community, or she was sure she too would have been terribly homesick after leaving Nebraska, she said.
After three years as teacher and then principal in Hardinsburg, Ky., she spent nine years back in Nebraska City as principal of her former high school, Lourdes. “I taught the children of boys I dated in high school,” she said.
In 1993 she moved to Owensboro to be assistant to the president of Brescia College, now University. She was asked to help with the transition of Sister Ruth Gehres’ departure as president and Sister Vivian Bowles moving into the position.
A few years later, Sister Carol Shively, who had been a teacher in Hardinsburg when Sister Pat was principal, was the principal of Sacred Heart School in Poplar Bluff, Mo. Sister Carol called saying she needed to replace a sixth-grade teacher in mid-year. Sister Pat volunteered her teaching skills and started at the school on Jan. 2, 1996. She remained there three years.
In 1999, Sister Pat began her six-year stint as local coordinator at the Motherhouse. “The sisters were so kind, so patient and appreciative,” she said.
That role allowed her to utilize one of her favorite gifts – decorating. She talks with great affection about how rooms were decorated for holidays or special events. “I take my creativity with me when I move from one position to another,” she said.
Many of the sisters who leave teaching for another ministry never return. But in 2005, Sister Pat returned to the classroom again as a junior high school teacher at St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, La., where she taught English and literature to inner-city teenagers. Because there is an Air Force base in Shreveport, many of her students had moved often in their young lives, she said.
“I followed (Saint) Angela while I was there. They needed consistency,” Sister Pat said. “They knew what was expected of them and they happily responded.”
In 2008, at age 64, Sister Pat was diagnosed with cancer. After coming to the Mount on health leave, she returned to finish the school year in 2009, then came to the Mount for good. In October 2010, following the unexpected death of Sister Vickie Cravens, the community archivist, Sister Pat responded to a call to help in the archives.
She is an assistant to archivist Heidi Taylor-Caudill, does research and helps run the office when the archivist is splitting her time with the Diocese of Owensboro. She tries to show appreciation for the many sisters who volunteer in the archives.
“My mother instilled in me a need to offer appreciation,” she said. “She insisted on ‘thank you’ notes.” The latest bit of news for Sister Pat to appreciate is that she is now cancer-free.
After 52 years of “never looking back,” Sister Pat can reflect on her time as an Ursuline Sister as a wonderful decision. It’s easy for her to name the best part of being a sister – “my relationship with Jesus,” she said. “We’re on a first-name basis.”