Proclaiming Jesus through education and Christian formation.

Sisters in Ministry February 2011
Sister Suzanne Sims: A lifetime of meeting the needs of the day

The first grade class at St. Mary of the Woods Catholic School greets Sister Suzanne with a welcome song each day.

Update: Sister Suzanne Sims completed her ministry at St. Mary of the Woods in 2016. In January 2017, she began ministering as director of faith formation at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Owensboro, Ky.

Before the 1975 spring semester began at St. Bernard School in Louisville, Ky., Ursuline Sister Suzanne Sims was asked to take over as principal due to a medical emergency. She was not yet 27 years old, and had been teaching for 3 ½ years.

“It was a nice experience, and I thought ‘Maybe I’ll do this someday,’” Sister Suzanne said. She earned her elementary principal certificate, then proceeded to embark on an array of ministries over the next 34 years that never required her to use that certification.

In October 2009, while looking for a salaried ministry to help the Ursuline community during the economic downturn, she agreed to teach religion for a teacher taking maternity leave in Paducah, Ky. Before that began, she received a call from Jim Mattingly, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., who had a different request.

“Jim asked if I could meet with him about taking over as principal at St. Mary of the Woods,” Sister Suzanne said. “I talked with my housemates over the weekend and asked them to pray about it with me. We met on Sunday and they said, ‘We all think you should do it.’”

St. Mary of the Woods is a small, parish-run school in Whitesville, Ky., a city of 600 people about 30 minutes from Owensboro. The previous principal was dismissed mid-semester amid a scandal that rocked the close-knit community.

“It has been a challenge in every way,” Sister Suzanne said. “I did not know one child’s name when I arrived.”

The Ursuline Sisters believe when there is a need, it is their mission to fill it. Sister Suzanne knows how she ended up in Whitesville. “God led me here, there’s no doubt,” she said.

Mattingly said the school is fortunate that Sister Suzanne accepted the job.

“She’s doing an excellent job,” he said. “She’s very committed, and brings a spiritual presence that’s extremely valuable. She’s increasing their marketing and enrollment efforts.”

It was Father Dave Johnson, the pastor at St. Mary’s, who suggested Mattingly call Sister Suzanne.

Sister Suzanne goes over some scheduling with Christina Huff, the school secretary. Huff started two months before Sister Suzanne. “We were new together,” she said.

“Through the grapevine, I heard she was available, and I knew her reputation of being professional and topnotch,” Father Johnson said. “We were in a difficult situation, and she was the right person to come to our rescue. Never underestimate the power of prayer.”

Norma Kaelin is a kindergarten aide at the school. All eight of her children, now grown, are graduates of St. Mary’s, as is she.

“Sister Suzanne is really encouraging community support, and brings a religious aspect. She’s really dedicated,” Kaelin said. “She just stepped in, open and eager to learn how we were doing things. She didn’t come in to turn everything around to her way, she listened to the teachers. She’s excited about being here, and we’re excited to have her.”

The school has existed for 132 years, run most of those years by the Sisters of Charity. While Ursuline Sisters have ministered at nearby Trinity High School and at St. Mary’s Parish through the years, Sister Suzanne is the first Ursuline at St. Mary’s school.

“She cares very much about the school and the students, and is good at promoting the school,” said Erin Kamuf, who is in her first year teaching the middle grades. “She’s a wonderful example for her students to have someone in a religious community in charge of a Catholic school.”

Like many Catholic schools, St. Mary’s is struggling with its enrollment. There are only 160 students grades K-8, and the school survives because of the generosity of the community and the parish, Sister Suzanne said. It’s not uncommon for grandparents to pay the tuition, or even parishioners who are unrelated to a child, so the student can get a Catholic education. Tuition is $2,500 for the first child, with the parish absorbing much of the cost.

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