Sister Cecelia Joseph Olinger hits the road for Jesus

One of Sister C.J.’s favorite pastimes is to visit Big Springs near her home in Van Buren, Mo.

This article was written in 2013. Currently, Sister C.J. is located at the Mount serving as coordinator of the Guest House.

The distance between the tiny Ozarks town of Van Buren in southern Missouri and St. Louis is roughly 150 miles. That’s about as many miles as Ursuline Sister Cecelia Joseph Olinger drives on the weekend – just to go to Mass.

That’s because Sister Cecelia Joseph is the pastoral associate for three churches in Van Buren, Piedmont and Williamsville, a tourist area that features the Current River and the Mark Twain National Forest. It requires 144 miles of driving to attend the four weekend Masses at the three churches.

“I go to Piedmont for 11 a.m. Sunday Mass because they have religious education beforehand. I’m usually a Eucharistic minister or lector on Saturday night in Piedmont,” she said. “I’m usually always at Van Buren for the 8 a.m. Mass.” Once a month she attends the Saturday evening Mass in Williamsville when the parish has its potluck.

She just finished her second year in this ministry and is glad to be back in the diocese where she grew up, just 66 miles from her hometown of Glennonville. She coordinates religious education for the children and works with RCIA and the Arise program with adults.

Being on the road for the Lord is nothing new for Sister Cecelia Joseph, who almost everyone calls “C.J.” She spent 15 years ministering in New Mexico, first as a teacher and then serving three Native American churches in a pueblo. She’s ministered in Clinton and Benton, Ky., which are areas with few Catholics where she went out to visit the sick or worked with parishes in neighboring counties.

“She never runs out of people to see, places to go or ideas to share,” said Sister Elaine Burke, her friend since the two ministered in New Mexico together 25 years ago. “If you visit her, she makes sure you see things you’ve not seen before.”

Sister C.J. has a gift of joy, Sister Elaine said. “She’s a very cheerful, fun-loving person. She loves to laugh, sing and entertain. But she sees prayer as a top priority.”

Cotton patch girl

Sister C.J. was born Evelyn Marie Olinger (pronounced “Oh-linger”) among the cotton fields of Glennonville, the 10th of 11 children born into the farming family of Joseph Matthias and Cecilia Magdalene Olinger. She was called Mary Evelyn during her childhood, and didn’t know her actual name until she entered the convent, she said.

Sister C.J. attended Glennonville Public Elementary School, in which the teachers were Ursuline Sisters. When Missouri outlawed sisters in religious garb from teaching in public schools, the people of Glennonville chose to turn the school into a Catholic school named St. Teresa, rather than risk losing the sisters as teachers, Sister C.J. said. She attended the school as St. Teresa only her last year.

The two Ursuline Sisters who had the most impact on her both died in the past year – Sister Frances Miriam Spalding taught her in the first and second grade and Sister Miriam Medley taught her in the seventh and eighth.

“Sister Frances Miriam taught me phonics and that helped me with reading and spelling,” Sister C.J. said. “Sister Miriam was instrumental in getting me to (Mount Saint Joseph) Academy. She talked to my mother a lot, and sometimes I wonder if she told my mother that she thought I had a vocation.”

Sister Clara and Sister C.J. spend time in the botanical garden of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas in 2008. The two sisters, who were novices together, have traveled together across the country.

St. Teresa could not afford to have a Catholic high school as well, so some of those families who wanted to continue a Catholic education sent their daughters to Mount Saint Joseph Academy, 250 miles away in Maple Mount, Ky. Sister C.J. is one of six Glennonville natives who are Ursuline Sisters, the others being Sisters Amelia Stenger, Rebecca White, Diane Marie Payne, Mary Celine Weidenbenner and Michael Marie Friedman.

Five girls from Glennonville and nearby Wilhelmina came to the Mount in 1954, but only Sister C.J. and Viola Seely Fortner graduated. (Fortner died in October 2011). “If I hadn’t gone to the Academy, I don’t know if I would have entered the community,” Sister C.J. said.

“I was excited to come to the Academy, plus there were others from Glennonville going,” she said. “I didn’t get homesick until after a few days.” She received a partial scholarship to attend the Academy and worked off the rest of her tuition by cleaning the student shop and the post office.

Her call to become an Ursuline Sister was gradual. “March was vocation month, they gave us a little talk,” she said. “Each year the calling got more persistent. I felt sure after my junior year, I had the feeling I was being called to do this.” Three other members of her 1958 graduating class entered with her, but she is the only one who stayed. She and Sister Clara Reid are the only remaining members of her 1959 novice class.

“She was the same then as she is now, always joyful,” Sister Clara said.

A teacher is born

Sister C.J. began her first of 36 years in the classroom in 1961 at Precious Blood School in Owensboro, Ky., where she taught second grade. After two years she moved to Holy Cross, Ky., to teach first grade for two years and then to Immaculate Conception in Hawesville, Ky., for a year in 1965, making the jump to seventh and eighth grade. She played music with her classes.

“My first three assignments were because I am an ‘organist,’” she said, accentuating the air quotes. “I’m not really skilled at the organ, I can just do the basic stuff. I had piano lessons my freshman and sophomore years of high school, and organ lessons as a novice,” she said. “We joked that if you knew where middle C was you became the organist.”

It was while she was teaching at Immaculate Conception that one of her students started calling her “Sister C.J,” she said. “I liked it,” she said. “There are too many syllables in ‘Sister Cecelia Joseph.’”

Sister C.J. is pictured in the top row to the left in her first year at St. Romuald School in Hardinsburg, Ky. The other sisters pictured with her are, from left in her row, Sisters Dolores Gatton, Florentia Mahoney, Emma Cecilia Busam and Mary Oderic Settles; first row from left, Sisters Lucille Blincoe, Jean Teresa Taylor, Paul Joseph Mattingly, Charles Emaline Clements and Mary Carl Sherron. Only Sister C.J. and Sister Emma Cecilia are still living.

When she arrived at St. Romuald School in Hardinsburg, Ky., in 1966, she fell in love with teaching music to children. “They had a good background. Sister Marie Carol (Cecil) gave them a good start in first and second grade.” She taught the fifth and sixth grades, then later seventh and eighth during her seven years at the school.

From 1973-78, she taught seventh and eighth grade math and religion at St. Margaret Mary School in Louisville, and also played music with the fourth-graders. “Music ministry with the little kids is what I enjoyed the most,” she said.

Being a teacher was never what she would have chosen, but she believes she was a good one. “I was tough,” she said. “I was either loved or hated.”

One of her favorite missions began in 1978, teaching math and language arts to fifth through eighth grades at Sacred Heart School in Poplar Bluff, Mo. It was her chance to return to her home diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

“I was enjoying teaching and realizing I could expand things beyond the books in the classroom,” she said. During Lent she had her students act out the Passion before the rest of the school.

During the summers while she was in Poplar Bluff, she helped with Camp Re-NEW-all, a Catholic camp for children in the fifth through ninth grades. “We’d have 100 campers. I was religious formation director some years, a cook or a counselor,” she said.

Since she returned to the diocese to minister in 2011, she decided to help cook at the camp last summer and was inspired by the adults who took their work vacations to help at the camp.

“I went last year because I wanted there to be a real live flesh and blood sister there,” she said. “I was the only one.”

She left Poplar Bluff in 1984 and spent two years teaching in Madisonville, Ky., when she decided to take on a new adventure. Her mother died in 1985, and she felt free to venture farther away from home. She had visited her friend Sister Clara once in New Mexico, but hadn’t considered a move there.

“I thought I was being missionary enough moving from Missouri to Kentucky,” she said with her customary infectious laugh.

Sister Clara was principal in Grants, N.M., and had an opening in 1986. “I told Sister Mary Irene (Cecil, then major superior) about it, she said there was more need in San Fidel, and I thought it was probably better not to work for my friend,” Sister C.J. said.

Sister Clara, who continues to minister in New Mexico, was glad to have her friend nearby. “Once she’s your friend, she will always support you,” Sister Clara said. “I can share anything with her. She’s very serious about her prayer life and very generous to help people.”

Sister C.J. pictured in her classroom at the Saint Anthony Zuni Indian Mission, Zuni, N.M., in 1995.

Sister C.J. made sure not to teach differently in San Fidel than she had elsewhere, but there was a different work ethic in the San Fidel children. “They came 20 miles to school, it was hard to keep a kid after school for not doing his homework,” she said.

While at San Fidel, she lived with Sister Marie Brenda Vowels, who was working in Acoma, and the two enjoyed playing cribbage together. “She’s outgoing and friendly to everybody,” Sister Marie Brenda said. “She’s a lot of fun to play cards with. She’s a very intelligent person and generous.”

Sister Elaine was serving 16 miles away in Grants in 1988. “When we got together, we’d work puzzles, go walking or gather cans along the highway,” Sister Elaine said. “We’d climb Mt. Taylor, all sorts of creative things. There’s never a dull moment when you’re with Sister C.J. She can come up with so many different things to do.”

In 1991, Sister C.J. began serving as teacher, librarian and in charge of liturgical music at Saint Anthony Zuni Indian Mission, Zuni, N.M. During that time she lived with members of other religious communities, which was an enriching experience, but also made her more grateful for her Ursuline community, she said.

When she left Zuni in 1995, she spent 11 months on sabbatical at the New Life Center in Middleburg, Va. “I learned skills and strategies to handle the challenges with myself and other people, especially in conflict situations,” she said.

A new ministry

In 1996, she returned to teaching in St. Louis, but she planned to look for another ministry at the end of the school year in 1998. The sister who was serving as pastoral associate at St. Jude Parish in tiny Clinton, Ky., became ill, and Sister C.J. was asked to take over in January 1998.

Sister C.J. prepares a take-out order of fish, river chips and hush puppies on May 3 during the St. Catherine Parish fish fry in Piedmont, Mo. In the center is Diane Lewis and at left, Gina Young. St. Catherine is one of three churches in which Sister C.J. ministers.

“I thought I’d be there five months,” Sister C.J. said. “Clinton is not a Catholic area. As pastoral associate I did whatever needed to be done.”

There were Catholic churches in two neighboring counties. Father Mike Clark served in Fulton, Sister Mary Agnes VonderHaar in Hickman. “We did RCIA as a team, lots of formation as a team,” Sister C.J. said. “It was a beautiful fit for me, it gave me the courage to do other things. I enjoy parish ministry on a collaborative level.”

After five years in Clinton, the Franciscan priest she’d worked with previously in New Mexico, Father Dale Jamison, urged her to return to minister as pastoral associate in the Franciscan ministry at Tewa (“Tay-wuh”) Missions in Espanola.

“I came to do music and RCIA, but that wasn’t a full-time job,” she said. “I visited the homebound and taught kindergarten religion.”

Native Americans who live in towns are said to live in “pueblos,” as opposed to “plains,” where they are more scattered. Three pueblos comprised one parish, although they each had their own church. She played music at Mass for each of the churches.

Father Jamison left in 2006, and there were no Franciscans to take his place, so Sister C.J. became parish life coordinator that October and ran the parish her final three years there. By 2008, Sister C.J. felt a desire to leave New Mexico.

“I didn’t think I was having the impact I wanted in developing the people as practicing Catholics,” she said. In late 2008 one of her sisters died and in April 2009, another sister died. She has three brothers and two sisters living. Being so far from her family was difficult for her, so she prepared to leave New Mexico in the summer of 2009.

She called Sister Mary Sheila Higdon, who was ministering in Van Buren, and asked her if there were any openings in the area. Sister Mary Sheila told her she would likely be retiring in the coming year or so, and she could replace her.

Sister C.J. instead came to Benton, Ky., which has no Catholic church, to serve as a Catholic presence. She visited the sick at nursing homes and helped with a clothing ministry. “It was delightful, but I thought I had more I could still give,” she said. “I wasn’t contributing financially to the (Ursuline) community.”

When Sister Mary Sheila returned to the Motherhouse in 2011, Sister C.J. replaced her in Van Buren. Now in her 54th year as a sister, she is looking forward to ministering in the area for several more years.

Sister C.J., second from left, selects and organizes the Sunday music for the choir at St. George Church in Van Buren, Mo. Pictured here are the choir members, from left, Sister Pat Murphy CSJ, Sister C.J., Louise McKeel, Ken Haberl and Lynna Biscoito.

She bought some colored bells with grant money in 2005 and made sure to bring those to Missouri with her.

“I used them with children at the three pueblos in New Mexico, with children in Calvert City and Mayfield, Ky., and now in Piedmont,” she said. “I’ve used them with adults at Native American Christmas dinners, even getting Archbishop (of Santa Fe Michael) Sheehan and pueblo governors to play bells. Adults at senior citizen centers have played them as well as adults at Camp Re-NEW-All and sisters at the Mount. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the $100 bells.”

Sister Elaine said Sister C.J. adjusts to new missions and fits in immediately. “She finds new ways to work with people. Any new idea, she wants to discuss it right away,” Sister Elaine said. “She’s very curious intellectually. She always wants to be learning.”

In her free time, Sister C.J. enjoys playing computer games, walking to the Current River to watch it flow or walking across the river to observe it from on high. She also enjoys reading or watching a movie on the Hallmark Channel. She’s been fortunate to travel.

“I’ve been to the Holy Land twice. That was a dream come true,” she said. “I took an Alaskan cruise, I’ve been to Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and on a Saint Angela pilgrimage.”

She’s glad she made the decision to become an Ursuline Sister.

“It may be the best decision I’ve ever made. I’m getting richer and richer,” she said. “We come to the community for one reason, but we stay for a different reason. You can’t do the ministry without realizing you’re serving God.”

By Dan Heckel


  1. Senaida R. Hall

    Sister CJ, I read your story & enjoyed it so very much. I’m going to read it over and over again. I cried when I saw your picture. You look just the same as you did when you were living next door to me. Your hair looks so pretty and you still have that beautiful smile. God Bless you, Sister.

  2. Sister Ruth Gehres

    CJ, congratulations on this wonderful story. You’ve had a rich and adventurous life . . . what a blessing! I wish continued blessings on you and all those you work with in your ministry. With lots of love, Ruth

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