(This article was written in 2013. Sister Catherine continues to serve at the Motherhouse caring for plants, decorating the dining room and participating in the Powerhouse of Prayer.)
When Ursuline Sister Catherine Kaufman’s mother was in her final days in 1993, she lamented that none of her daughters quilted. “I said, ‘Mom, I can quilt,’” Sister Catherine said. “But you don’t,” her mother responded.
“She should be very happy with me now,” Sister Catherine said.
Since moving to Maple Mount in 2005, Sister Catherine has been dedicated to completing quilts for the Ursuline Sisters Quilt Club, and she still does two to three a year, working a few hours a day. She has been a craft person all her life, crocheting afghans and decorating bulletin boards, and is an accomplished cook.
“When there is a difficult thing to do with a quilt and no one else seems willing or able to do, Sister Catherine will tackle it with vim,” said Sister Eva Boone, who heads the quilting ministry at the Mount. “When questioned about why she does those seemingly impossible tasks, she replies that ‘it is a challenge.’ That is the way she lives her life, it seems to me,” Sister Eva said. “Whatever she chooses to do, you can count on her to do it with vigor and persistence.
“When I moved to the Mount, I was still able to do some baking, and make apple butter,” Sister Catherine said. She is a miracle worker when it comes to resurrecting plants that appear too far gone to save. “If people only knew how little I know about it,” she said.
Sister Catherine was an Ursuline Sister of Belleville, Ill., prior to the merger of that community with the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph in 2005. The merger was difficult, especially leaving her friends in Belleville, but she is glad she’s at the Mount.
“In 2001, I came to the Mount for a week of rest, relaxation and retreat,” she said. “I got out of the car at the Retreat Center and something went through me that said, ‘This is home.’ In 2004, I realized I needed a change. I had met more Ursulines at the Mount and moved here in January 2005,” 10 months before the merger officially took place.
“In Belleville, I always felt I was not going to be buried in the cemetery with the other sisters,” she said.
Sister Catherine was born Helen Marie Kaufman on the hottest day of 1931 in the tiny town of Dahlgren, Ill., southeast of Mt. Vernon. She was the second child of Charles and Gertrude Kaufman, following her older brother Henry, and then 18 months later came her brother Charles. But in June 1933, shortly before her second birthday, her father died. She has no memory of him.
Her mother remarried when Sister Catherine was 4, to Joseph Kreher, who had five daughters and three sons from a previous marriage. Together the new couple had four more daughters and two more sons. She still has two half-brothers and four half-sisters living.
Sister Catherine attended St. John the Baptist School, which was a public school where the teachers were Precious Blood Sisters from Ruma, Ill. “One of my friends said she was going to Ruma, so I thought I would go too,” Sister Catherine said. “But that isn’t what God wanted.”
“As I look back, God spent a lot of time getting me where He wanted me to be,” Sister Catherine said. “I had a boyfriend when I was 18, and one day I said, ‘I might be in the convent someday.’ It shocked me and it was the end of him.”
It was three years later, while riding on a Greyhound bus, that she heard the call to religious life. During a gathering of various women religious communities in St. Louis, she became interested in the Franciscan Sisters in Springfield, Ill. She entered in 1953, but left 14 months later in January 1955.
“My brother Gene was in the seminary in Belleville, so I ended up there,” she said. “Someone introduced me to the Ursuline Sisters in August 1956, and I entered on Aug. 18,” she said. She became a novice in 1957, making this her 56th year as an Ursuline Sister.
“When I was 3 or 4, Santa brought me cookie cutters,” she said. “I figured that’s how my life was going to be.” After her mother died in 1993, she found she still had those cookie cutters, which are now back with Sister Catherine.
Sister Catherine ministered in various ways at the convent in Belleville until 1964, when the sister who worked in the kitchen went to Germany to visit a relative. “I offered to help with the cooking,” Sister Catherine said. “I told the superior if we needed a cook, I could do it.”
Thus she embarked on her ministry for the next 40 years, serving as the cook in Belleville until she moved to Maple Mount. When she began there were 30 sisters and 20 aspirants, so it was challenging. She was well known for baking breads and desserts, and for holiday treats like Easter bread and lamb cakes. She is an expert canner, from apples to peaches to sauerkraut.
For 30 years she hauled produce from Brautigam Orchard near Belleville — strawberries, apples, grapes, plums, blackberries, melons, and countless others. It makes her nostalgic when Sister Amelia Stenger brings gifts of fruit to the Mount from Reid’s Orchard outside Owensboro.
Sister Catherine often felt God’s providence in her work as a cook. She recalls a time when she was providing lunch for a group of 70 women who were meeting at the convent.
“The same day one of the sisters asked to bring a family for their lunch after burying their father,” Sister Catherine said. “After objecting, they did come and I found enough food to serve them after the 70 ladies. It seems God provides, soon the phone rang and we were offered two butchered pigs. It taught me to share what God gives us.”
Two special opportunities she was proud of included the scripture and church history class led by Father Roger Karban. When he needed a new location to accommodate the growing class, he began offering it at the Belleville Motherhouse every other Sunday. That continued for 25 years, and Sister Catherine and Father Karban grew to be good friends.
When Sister Mary Ellen Backes was superior of the Belleville community (1989-95), she urged Sister Catherine to attend a two-year ministry program, which led to her bringing Communion to people in the hospital. “I found that very fulfilling,” Sister Catherine said.
Sister Mary Ellen, who now ministers in Springfield, Ill., said she thought at times Sister Catherine’s ministry as a cook was taken for granted because she was always there to feed the sisters three meals a day.
“She had so much more to give,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “I was proud of her that she listened with her heart and allowed herself to experience something new and different and opened herself to new ways of ministering to others.”
Sister Catherine’s gifts often unfold in surprising ways, Sister Mary Ellen said. “The gift that Catherine brings to community is her strength of character, her honesty, directness and openness to help others and minister with her gifts. She shares her faith in her unique ways because she has a rich spiritual life,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “Her wit and humor is refreshing.”
Sister Catherine has always felt blessed to be an Ursuline Sister. “This is where God wanted me, and what God wanted me to do,” she said. “The day I entered the Ursulines, I was told I needed to get a degree in sanctity. I feel I’m still working on it.”
By Dan Heckel