Sister Ann McGrew: Making people comfortable on their journey with God

Sister Ann is pictured shortly after she was selected to lead the Retreat Center in 2010.

(Sister Ann McGrew completed her ministry at the Retreat Center in 2016, and became director of novices. In 2017, she continued in that role, but also became the local community treasurer at the Motherhouse and part-time director of religious education at St. Peter of Alcantara Parish in Stanley, Ky.)

Sister Ann McGrew’s mother was beloved in the Grayson County, Ky., community where she lived, and noted for always making people feel comfortable.

Now it is Sister Ann’s mission to make others feel comfortable, as they seek a respite from their everyday lives to be still and find their way closer to God.

Sister Ann is the executive director of the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center, a ministry she began in the summer of 2010 after completing her six-year term on the Ursuline leadership Council.

“Being a retreat center director has always been a dream of mine,” she said. “I want to help people deepen their relationship with God. Being in a retreat center seemed like a good way to do that.”

Sister Ann has been a teacher, a formation director, and a parish minister, but other than a year working part-time as program facilitator at the Center, she had no experience in a retreat center.

“I think it’s a great fit,” she said. “The first year, I’ve been trying to find my balance. The staff is really good, very helpful, they know how to meet the needs of our regular groups. The most challenging part of the ministry is that the staff is very small. When we have a group stay a week or 10 days, it’s a challenge to meet all their needs.”

Being at the Retreat Center fulfills her wish to walk with people on their spiritual journey. “I think people have a real desire for a deeper relationship with God,” Sister Ann said. “They want to take time away from the hustle and bustle. Some people come here just to sit and read, just to have time to be with God.”

 

Sister Ann leads a discussion titled “Watered Gardens” during the April 1 Reflection Day at the Center. She told a story about how the crosses we all carry are never too heavy for us, because God will help to bear the weight.

Her favorite part of the first year is the reflection days she leads on the first Friday of each month. The days have brought a small, but devoted group of participants. “The challenge is to choose the right topic to grab people’s attention, let them know they will find something there,” she said. “Getting them here is the biggest challenge.” One participant in the reflection days drove 90 minutes to come to the first one because she wanted a day away, but after the first reflection day, she decided to come back again.

“It was a great move for the Retreat Center,” said Sister Elaine Burke, who ministers with Sister Ann in the Spiritual Direction Training Program. “The Center should have a strong spiritual sense to it. She has brought that to the Center. Nothing is too hard for Ann, everything is possible.”

Those who know Sister Ann the best mention her great sense of humor. “Anyone who has ever gotten Ann to laughing knows how hard it is to turn that laughter off,” said Sister Mary Matthias Ward, her longtime friend. “It comes from the deepest part of her being.”

Being the Center director also means she is head of the Spiritual Life Office for the Diocese of Owensboro. “I’m still growing into that,” she said. “It’s more parish-centered. I gave a confirmation retreat in Hickman, Ky. We have catechist days and confirmation and school prayer days at the Center. When I go to staff meetings at the Catholic Pastoral Center, I listen to what’s going on in the diocese, and see if we can offer something.”

Sister Ann can look back and see that her previous ministries were stepping stones to her role at the Center.

“My years as a parish minister prepared me for this ministry. I worked with all age groups, did a lot of listening,” she said. “It’s probably the teacher in me that makes those reflection days valuable. I’m not afraid of questions. My time as novice director allowed me to develop a desire to work with adults. Walking on their spiritual journey toward a vocation was an awesome experience. I sensed a deep desire. I experience that desire in other people also.”

Growing up

Leona Ann McGrew grew up in the rural area around Clarkson, Ky., where she lived until she was 11, when the family moved to nearby St. Paul. Her father, J.V., was a farmer, and her mother Florence was a homemaker. Once the grandchildren arrived, Florence became “Memaw” to them and to the rest of the community, Sister Ann said.

The McGrews had eight children, but their second child died before he was 2. All of the McGrew children were boys except their second youngest. “I act like an older child because I am the only girl. I had a lot of responsibilities,” Sister Ann said.

She and her siblings mostly stayed on the farm, and she played with the boys because there were no girls around. “I learned to climb trees before I learned to dress a doll,” she said. “I had to learn to jump rope when I went to school, because boys don’t do that.”

Sister Ann poses with the seven members of the 2010-12 class of the Spiritual Direction Training Program and the directors. In the first row from left are, Father Fideles Levri, Janie Monaghan, and Sister Marietta Wethington (director); second row, Shelley Szoka and Sister Elaine Burke (director); third row, Dorothy Wilderman, Monica Armstrong, and Jennifer Ewing; back row, Sister Ann McGrew (director) and Andrew Dolge.

She attended St. Paul School for grades 1-12, graduating in 1964. The high school closed in 1967, the year her younger brother graduated. “Mom and Dad had two families. My oldest brothers were born in 1926, ’29, and ’33. They went to a one-room schoolhouse or to the public school,” Sister Ann said. “My next brother didn’t arrive until 1940, and St. Paul was open by the time he started school. We all went to St. Paul.” Only her identical twin brothers are still living.

She had Ursuline Sisters or priests all 12 years at St. Paul, including Sister Robert Ann Wheatley for first and second grades, and Sister Pauletta McCarty for the eighth grade. Both sisters are retired to the Motherhouse.

“When I met the sisters in the first grade, I wanted to be one of them,” Sister Ann said. “They were helping others. I needed glasses in the first grade, I couldn’t see to read, but I didn’t know it. Sister Robert Ann really worked with me. People seemed important to them. They taught three or four grades, but they tried to meet the needs of each person in the group. I wanted to work where what I was doing would make a difference.”

“I remember Ann as having long curls and a pleasant smile as she came in the classroom each morning,” Sister Robert Ann said. “She would stop at my desk for chit-chat and any help she needed in her class work. Ann was a good student interested in school and wanted everything perfect.”

When Sister Ann decided to join the Ursuline community, “that made me feel really good, it inspired somebody,” Sister Robert Ann said.

The sisters who meant the most to Sister Ann during her high school years were Sister Dolores Ann Mudd (who left the community in 1967) and Sister Marie Kathleen Saffer, who left the community in 1966.

“My father died right after I finished eighth grade,” Sister Ann said. “That was a hard year for me and my family. My mom was badly burned that November, and I had a lot of responsibilities at home. Sister Kathleen knew that and helped me. That solidified that I wanted to be a sister.”

J.V. McGrew suffered from hardening of the arteries, but in 1960, that was a relatively new diagnosis. He took some experimental drugs to combat it, but died on May 24, 1960, at age 58. “My world came to an end, that’s how I felt,” Sister Ann said. “God sees you through it.”

Both her parents impressed upon her the importance of an education, she said. “They taught us we could have anything if we worked hard enough for it. They told us that education was our key. Neither of them had a high school education, they knew it was important.”

That message has stayed with Sister Ann. “I never have a second thought of ‘is this going to take too much time?’ If it helps, I’ll do it.”

Joining the Ursulines

“At Christmas my senior year, I told my mom I was going to enter the Ursulines,” Sister Ann said. “She said, ‘Well Ann, we’ll pray about it, and you’ll know what God wants you to do.’”

The McGrew family did a lot of praying together. “We gathered for church, we had a holy hour on Saturday night. There was always something we did centered on church,” Sister Ann said. “Gathering as a family to pray made you think about the importance of God in your life.”

She entered as a postulant in September 1964, and entered the novitiate in 1965, making this her 46th year as a sister. “I entered pre-Vatican II, there had not been much change yet,” she said. “I had the best of both worlds, I was aware of what we were doing and why, but I was part of the changes too.”

The Ursulines were mostly teachers in those days, but being a teacher was not a reason for her to join. “I just wanted to be a sister,” Sister Ann said. “One day I woke up and thought, ‘Ursulines are teachers.’”

The three sixth-grade classes at the Owensboro Catholic Schools 4-6 Campus came to the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center on May 18, 2011 for a day of prayer. One group started on the Rosary Walk, where Sister Ann McGrew is seen here showing them the way toward the Joyful Mysteries.

She took the religious name Sister Theresa Rose. “I had a great devotion to the Little Flower (Saint Therese of Lisieux),” Sister Ann said. “She promised to send roses from heaven. We had a Sister Ann Jenkins, so we couldn’t have two Sister Anns.” Following the changes of Vatican II, by the end of the 1960s, she returned to Sister Ann.

“There were 17 in my postulant class,” Sister Ann said. Eight members of that class remain: Sister Michael Marie Friedman, Sister Mary Henning, Sister Barbara Jean Head, Sister Elaine Byrne, Sister Emma Anne Munsterman, Sister Marie Joseph Coomes, Sister Maureen Griner, and Sister Ann.

“Like her mother, Ann has a gracious heart and is agreat caregiver,” said Sister Emma Anne. “She is very faithful to her prayer life and her God. She is determined, resolved, steadfast, and will complete anything that she begins or is responsible for.She is very attentive to detail. Service to people has been very life-giving to Ann and she particularly finds the Spiritual Direction Program positive.”

On a mission

Sister Ann’s first ministry was as a second-grade teacher at St. Peter of Alcantara School in Stanley, Ky., not far from the Motherhouse. “I loved to teach, I had 18 students who had all been in first grade together,” Sister Ann said. “Sister Laurita (Spalding), Sister Mary Celine (Weidenbenner) and I were there, it was a good community experience.”

After a year, she switched to St. Denis School in Louisville. “Louisville was the one place I didn’t want to go,” Sister Ann said. “I stayed six years and loved it.” Her first year was a great challenge because the Catholic schools in Louisville at that time did not have first grade, and relied on parents to send their children to Catholic school after a year in public school.

“I had 36 second-graders who came from five different first grades,” Sister Ann said. “They were all over the place when it came to their preparation, so I had to get them all toward one goal. Sister Henrietta Mackin was the other second-grade teacher, she took me under her wing. Every day she’d tell me what she was going to do the next day. She was a great teacher and mentor.” Sister Henrietta died in 1981. Sister Ann taught second grade for four years, and first grade for two at St. Denis.

Sister Ann McGrew, right, addresses members of the first Reflection Day of Prayer on Jan. 7, 2011. The first reflection was titled “New beginnings as we enter into a new year.”

In 1971, Sister Mary Matthias came to St. Denis as principal while Sister Ann was teaching second grade. “We lived with maybe 12 sisters, half younger and half older women,” Sister Mary Matthias said. “If dishes were left in the sink the ‘young’ group was accused of having a party. One Saturday morning, Ann was going up the steps when she was stopped by an older sister who told her that she was sure the Blessed Mother was crying because Ann’s dress was shorter than sister thought was appropriate,” Sister Mary Matthias said. “We have had many good laughs over that.”

In 1975, Sister Ann began her longest ministry, nine years at St. Brigid School in Vine Grove, Ky., about two hours from Maple Mount. She was a teacher until 1979, and both principal and teacher the next five years.

“By the time I became principal, I’d taught everyone in the school, except the incoming students,” Sister Ann said. “I taught first grade every year, even as principal. I think I wouldn’t have liked it if I had to be principal without being a teacher. Being a teacher was life-giving. You see growth in the students you’re teaching.”

Raising sisters

On Valentine’s Day 1984, Sister Mary Irene Cecil, the major superior, asked Sister Ann if she would consider being novice director. “I laughed, I thought it was a joke,” Sister Ann said. “She was dead serious. I never thought I was qualified. I prayed about it, I believed if the community asked me to do something, God must have a hand in it.”

She studied at St. Louis University for a year and began as director of novices in 1985. “Father (Charles) Saffer helped me,” Sister Ann said. “He said, ‘Do you think you’ve learned to be an Ursuline Sister? That’s all you have to do, teach them how to be Ursuline Sisters.’ It made it more possible. It’s God’s work in the person through me.”

Sister Aloise Boone was her novice director, but the world had changed since then, so Sister Ann knew she would have to lead differently. “It’s helping people learn to discern,” she said. “In my years as novice director, we talked more about Saint Angela. Religious life was different, people approached it differently.”

Parish ministry

On July 9, 2010, Sister Ann McGrew anoints Kathy Sarver, of Toledo, Ohio, a new graduate of the 2008-2010 Spiritual Direction Training Program.

While director of novices from 1985-92, Sister Ann had several part-time jobs as well, including substitute teaching. When she noticed her patience wearing thin while teaching, she thought perhaps she should look for another ministry. “I was always trying to figure out what God wanted me to do.”

After seven years as director of novices, she took a 100-day sabbatical to the University of Santa Fe, N.M., in September 1992, where she received credit for pastoral studies. She could apply those credits to a master’s degree in religious studies if she attended Loyola University, which she did in Chicago the following January. “My goal was to work in parish ministry,” she said.

In 1993, she became pastoral associate at St. Leo Parish in Murray, Ky., and director of the Newman House at Murray State University. “I liked the students, and I met with the ministerial association,” she said. “I did RCIA, religious education, liturgical training for lectors and Eucharistic ministers.”

St. Leo is the only Catholic church in Murray, which is a mostly Protestant area, much like where Sister Ann grew up. “Through my parents, I learned to appreciate the people for who they are,” she said. “That’s what I did at Murray.”

After three years, Sister Ann asked for an assignment closer to her mother. “My mom was sick my last year at Murray, I was making a three-hour trip one way to see her,” she said. “The body can only take so much of that. I couldn’t do my work at Murray and do that.”

She became the pastoral associate at St. Stephen Cathedral in Owensboro, only an hour away from her mom. “It’s a big job at St. Stephen. You have big doings with a lot of fanfare being a cathedral. If I had three people at Murray, I had a crowd. I had much larger groups at St. Stephen, 20-25 people,” she said. “I’m glad I had my years at Murray, it would have been difficult to start at St. Stephen.”

Her greatest joys were taking Communion to shut-ins, and working with people joining the Catholic faith through RCIA. “You see them grow through that year,” Sister Ann said. “It’s their relationship with God growing. It’s an awesome experience, like being a novice director.”

When leading RCIA, she often recalled the advice Sister Henrietta gave her as a young teacher. “Sister Henrietta taught me you have to find out where people are. What do you hope to find out? What brought you here?” Sister Ann said. “Some have gone to Mass with a spouse for 20 years and decide to become Catholic. Some have read every book on Catholicism. Father Saffer said, ‘You know how to be a Catholic.’ This is what we believe, this is why we believe it. I think all Catholics would learn a lot if they went through RCIA.”

Back on campus

After five years at St. Stephen, in 2001 Sister Ann became the first supervisor of the Women’s Discernment House at Brescia University. College students lived in the house and Sister Ann lived in the attic. “They were regular college students, it gave them an opportunity to discern. It was not exactly for religious life, but we hoped,” she said. “We had regular prayer time, and met weekly for a meal. There was also a men’s discernment house, we got together for a meal. We had speakers from different vocations, married couples, single people, religious men and women, the bishop always came,” she said. “It was an opportunity to allow God to be part of their college experience, rather than living in a dorm.”

During her first year with the Discernment House, she also worked part time as pastoral associate at the small St. Anthony Parish just outside Owensboro, so she could take care of her mom. In 2002, she was asked to become campus minister at Brescia along with her role at the Discernment House. In 2003, she began ministering part-time as the coordinator of the spiritual component of the ministry formation program at Brescia.

Spiritual Direction

Prior to the beginning of the July 2011 week of the Spiritual Direction Training Program, the coordinating team gathers to bless each other with oil and pray for guidance to help the members of the class. Sister Ann, center, blesses Sister Marietta Wethington, as Sister Elaine Burke supports her.

In 2002, the first meetings were held to form the Spiritual Direction Training Program at the Retreat Center.

“I thought it was important because of the struggle in finding spiritual directors,” Sister Ann said. “There were people in parishes who needed help. In the reading I had been doing, people were searching to deepen their relationship with God. I found in college-age people, they don’t want to go to church, but they want a relationship with God.”

The program has grown and evolved, and is now in the middle of its fourth class. “I think when we started out, it was probably more academic than it needed to be,” Sister Ann said. “It deals with listening, letting the person discover where God is leading them. Being able to walk with someone is very important. That has developed throughout the years.”

The first class began in 2004. The sisters who have worked with Sister Ann from the beginning are Sister Marietta Wethington and Sister Elaine Burke.

“Ann is organized, detailed, and decisive,” Sister Marietta said. “That is one of the reasons she makes a good leader for our spiritual direction training course. But that is not the only reason and it is not the greatest reason. She has a love for the ministry of spiritual direction and recognizes what a privilege it is to accompany another on the journey to God. That motivates her to take great care in shepherding the content and the process of our program. She wants to make sure that the participants are given the best training possible and leave us with the confidence they need to be good directors.”

Sister Ann knows her gifts as well as the areas in which she needs help, Sister Marietta said. “She seeks out those who complement her. I enjoy working with Ann because we are such opposites and we do complement each other.

“Working on the Spiritual Direction Program has been a real joy and stretching experience,” Sister Elaine said. “It is there that I’ve gotten to know Ann. What a blessed experience to witness her faithfulness, sincerity, and acceptance. She’s a true organizer, and can overlook others who are not.

“She has an acceptance of who each one of us is,” Sister Elaine said. “Our meetings are open, we don’t have to mince words. She can give a word of encouragement and affirmation at just the right moment. When I need to know the truth of a situation, she cares enough to speak up. She can be quiet and discerning before she speaks, so when she speaks, it is worth listening to.”

Sister Ann is fiercely loyal to people and to what she believes in, Sister Marietta said. “She is very loyal to our spiritual direction training course and will always take care to see that it is a program of high quality and that it serves well those who come for training.”

A farewell

On Christmas Eve, 2002, Florence McGrew died at age 96. “The lesson my mother taught me was, you can’t help adding years to your life, but you don’t have to be old,” Sister Ann said. “She was never old. She was a great storyteller, and she read everything. The bookmobile came to her house and left crates of books, she would read them all twice before they came back to pick them up.”

Her mother loved to watch ‘Jeopardy,’ and she knew most of the answers, Sister Ann said. “Mother chose to be happy in life. She lost four of her children, but she taught us to be happy. One of my first memories is my mother reading to us. I learned to appreciate reading from my mom. I tried to instill that in my students.”

Sister Mary Matthias said one virtue that may get overlooked with Sister Ann is her strength. “There were so many tragic deaths in Ann’s family and she helped and saw her mother through the deaths of her husband and sons. She was the caretaker of her mother for years.”

 

Sister Ann served on the Ursuline Council from 2004-2010. From left are Sister Maureen Griner, Sister Ann, Sister Michele Morek (congregational leader), Sister Cheryl Clemons, and Sister Barbara Jean Head. Sister Maureen and Sister Barbara Jean were in Sister Ann’s novice class.

The year following her mother’s death was one of transition. “I had been a caregiver so long, I had to learn to be something else,” Sister Ann said. A year after her mother’s death, the community chose another role for her, when she was elected to the leadership Council.

Leadership

Being elected to a six-year term on the Council was a surprise to Sister Ann. “Like being asked to be novice director, I didn’t see myself in that role,” she said. “Whatever the community asks me to do, I need to consider.”

Being in leadership taught Sister Ann that she would stand up for what she believed was right.

“You learn that when you have to make a decision that affects 170 people, not everybody is going to be happy with it,” she said. “You have to get beyond that, and be concerned with what will move the community forward. The world changes, needs change, our ministries change. It opens your view. I may not like it as an individual, but it is for the common good.”

Seeing her sisters from a different vantage point taught her something else. “I learned we each have our own individual struggles, but we all choose to be Ursuline Sisters, and we want to be the best Ursuline Sisters we can be.”

After taking office in 2004, she became director of formation and director of the temporary professed, walking with Sister Monica Seaton through her years toward making final vows. “Formation is gaining in knowledge of being an Ursuline Sister. How do you see living the vow of poverty today? What does each vow mean today?” Sister Ann said. “I see being director of the Center fulfilling my vow of instruction.”

In 2005, she spent a year as director of RCIA at St. Martin Parish in nearby Rome, Ky., and then after a year as program facilitator at the Center, she returned to St. Martin and St. Elizabeth Parish as parish minister in 2007. She was reunited with Father Pete Hughes, her pastor during her days in Murray.

“I asked Father Peter if he’d like a part-time person,” Sister Ann said. “He’s very undemanding, not a micromanager. He expected me to do RCIA, and he knew I’d do it.” She worked with all age levels at St. Martin, although it’s an older parish.

“I enjoy whatever I do. When I was teaching I would have said I didn’t want to do anything else,” she said. “But I’ve enjoyed parish ministry as much as teaching.”

Free time

 

During Community Days 2010, each outgoing member of the community’s leadership Council received a bag with significance to them, made by Sister Mary Louise Knott. Sister Ann McGrew shows her bag, which features her love for cooking.

Sister Ann’s love of reading hasn’t subsided through the years. “I love to read about anything. I have at least one book going that’s light reading, where I don’t have to learn anything,” Sister Ann said. “I’m reading about the new missal, and I read about the liturgical seasons.”

She also enjoys doing counted cross-stitch and crocheting afghans, but she has none of them in her possession. “I give them away,” she said. True to her love of learning, she just recently learned Sudoku.

Another one of her favorite pastimes is cooking meals for those who want to visit. “Cooking and sewing I learned from my mother,” she said.

“I learned Sister Ann through her mother first,” Sister Mary Matthias said. “Ann had just left for the convent when I went to teach in her home parish. After being around her mother I knew that if Ann cooked half as good as her mother she was an excellent cook. Ann does follow her mother’s example in that. Her mother taught her well.”

Today, Sister Ann continues to pass along all the lessons her mother taught her.

By Dan Heckel