(Sister Rosalin went to heaven on March 29, 2017.)
Sister Rosalin Thieneman’s long life as an Ursuline Sister proves that God’s insistence can be stronger than human resistance.
From childhood, Mary Margaret Thieneman heard God’s call early and often. Her usual response was: “I’ll check it out later.” At age 27, already convinced that she was too old, she heard the call yet again, even stronger. Now, after 65 happy years as an Ursuline Sister, she gives thanks that she finally responded “Yes!”
Mary Margaret grew up in Shively, Ky., an area that’s now part of metropolitan Louisville. In 1920, her birth year, Shively was an expanse of farmland bordering the Ohio River. “It was a beautiful sight!” she says, her eyes still sparkling.
In this spot her parents, John Joseph and Elizabeth Mary Senn Thieneman, cultivated a vegetable farm that became the family business. Mary Margaret was the firstborn of nine children – four girls, five boys – in a devout Catholic family.
Mary Margaret’s education began at home. When she entered first grade at St. Denis School, she could already read, write and spell. Very quickly she was promoted to second grade. An excellent student, she loved her Ursuline teachers. She tells about Sister Thomas Ann (Thompson) taking extra time to prepare her for the diocesan spelling bee. “We worked through the whole dictionary,” she recalls. She did well, but, as she still remembers, she went out on the word “affability.” She adds with confidence: “I’m still a good speller!”
At eighth-grade graduation, as valedictorian, she was “embarrassed by so many awards. I started praying that I wouldn’t receive any more,” she says.
At home, her parents worked hard on the farm, her father counting on her mother to help in the fields. As the oldest child, Mary Margaret gradually learned to keep house and cook for the growing family. (She’s still remembered as “a great cook.”) When it was time for high school, there was no affordable transportation for her to go to a Catholic high school in Louisville, and her parents didn’t want to send her to the area public school. So she continued working at home.
Mary Margaret stayed in contact with her Ursuline teachers and friends, including Sister Thomas Ann and Sister Edwardine (Murphy), and later, Sister Mary Henry (Russell). In the eighth grade, she wrote an essay about her desires for her future. “Timidly, and without commitment,” she later wrote, “I chose the life of ‘a sister.’ Thus began my more or less serious thought about entering a convent.”
Later, as a teenager, she felt “too awkward and insecure for convent life. And at 21 I reasoned, ‘No one enters a convent when they are this old!’”
In the meanwhile, she enrolled in St. Helena’s Commercial College, directed by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Here she became proficient in typing, shorthand, dictation, bookkeeping and accounting. She joined the St. Helena’s Commercial Club – a group of young men and women with whom she enjoyed an active social life. She held several positions that made use of her excellent preparation as a secretary and bookkeeper. “I felt happy and satisfied with my life,” she remembers.
But the invitation to religious life had not faded away. Sister Mary Henry kept asking, “Are you ready?” “I sometimes wished she’d just dry up and blow away,” Sister Rosalin says with a laugh. At 27, she knew she really was too old.
Then, finally, returning home after an hour’s adoration at a Forty Hours Devotion in her parish church, Mary Margaret heard the same persistent voice, now saying: “WHO TOLD YOU THAT YOU WERE TOO OLD?” At that point she knew she had “to check it out.” She approached a priest counselor for advice. He recommended the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, who were “such good teachers.” Of course Mary Margaret already knew that. The next question was: How do I get started? God provided a quick answer.
Just a few days later, headed home from work, Mary Margaret spied Sister Mary Henry sitting alone toward the back of the bus. “I raced to get back there before someone else took the empty seat beside her,” Sister Rosalin remembers. When she got there, she had just one thing to say to Sister Mary Henry: “I think I’m ready.” And Sister Mary Henry was ready to help this now eager young woman to answer her call.
Mary Margaret entered the Ursuline novitiate in February 1949, thinking she’d be far older than the rest of the group. But she was amazed to find a 40-year-old novice in the class above her. “It was as if the Lord was saying to me again, ‘And who told you that you were too old?’” Her classmates, it turned out, assumed that she was the same age as they were.
During her novitiate years, Sister Rosalin was given the opportunity to complete the high school education she had missed earlier. After professing temporary vows in August 1951, she embarked on a 10-year teaching ministry at Kentucky elementary schools in Vine Grove, Paducah and Owensboro. During this time she was also completing a degree in business administration at Brescia College.
In 1961, Sister Rosalin’s life took a significant turn. The young and growing Brescia College, founded in Owensboro just 11 years earlier, needed her obvious administrative ability. Her Brescia ministry began at the time of a major expansion in federal and state student financial aid. During her 27 years of service at Brescia, she directed the growth of a robust financial aid program while serving, sometimes concurrently, as assistant registrar, director/dean of admissions and director of financial aid – positions that included many diverse responsibilities. To bolster her credentials, she took a year off for study at the University of Detroit, where she earned a master’s degree in education with emphasis in student personnel services, counseling and guidance.
Her dedication to hard work (“lots of Saturdays and Sundays,” she remembers) was always tempered by her sincere concern for the students and her sly sense of humor. Her efforts built a solid foundation for a strong financial aid program at the college. Today’s Brescia University owes a significant debt to her pioneering work.
With her retirement in 1988, Sister Rosalin was ready for a less strenuous position. She moved to Jeffersontown, Ky., to a part-time ministry to the homebound of St. Edward Parish and to residents of three nursing homes under parish care. “This,” she says with conviction, “was truly the most satisfying and fulfilling of my varied ministries as an Ursuline Sister.”
Now retired and living at Saint Joseph Villa in Maple Mount, Sister Rosalin looks back on her life with gratitude. Does she regret waiting so long to answer the call to religious life? Not at all. She knows that “during those early years, God was leading and preparing me for a happy life and fulfilling ministry as an Ursuline Sister.”