Sister Cheryl Clemons: God’s researcher returns home to Brescia

Ursuline Sister Mary Gerald Payne was her first- and second-grade teacher, and Sister Paul Marie Greenwell taught her third and fifth grades.

“Sister Paul Marie talked about the (Mount Saint Joseph) Academy when I was in the fifth grade,” Sister Cheryl said. “That was the last year (St. Benedict) was open. She played a lot of games with us after school, and she’d let me come to the convent and help her cook. She would talk about the Mount, what a wonderful place it was, that there was a school there. She wrote me for a year after the fifth grade.”

Music has long been a big part of Sister Cheryl’s life, and she was encouraged while at St. Benedict. “I started getting toy pianos for Christmas, I’d pick out songs by ear,” she said. “Paul Marie taught me to play benediction hymns by ear.” 

 

Knowing the school was closing, and thus the sisters would not be there to play music at Mass, Sister Paul Marie urged the pastor to get Sister Cheryl music lessons so she could play at Mass. “It took my dad six months to agree,” Sister Cheryl said. “The lessons were on a Saturday, and that was a work day.” Finally he relented, and Father Walter Hancock drove around Grayson County to give rides to Leitchfield where Ursuline Sister Mary Eileen Howard gave music lessons.

Sister Paul Marie, who is retired at the Motherhouse, said she remembers Sister Cheryl as a great student. “I taught her to play the organ,” she said.

A Mount girl

Sister Cheryl transferred to the public school in Peonia for the sixth through eighth grades, but sisters taught there also. “When Mother Joseph Marian (Logsdon) came to visit the sisters in the convent when I was in the eighth grade, Sister Sylvester Marie (Allen) brought her to meet me,” to discuss attending the Academy, Sister Cheryl said. (Sister Sylvester Marie died in 1982.)

Sister Cheryl is joined by Sister Martina Rockers, center, and Sister Angela Fitzpatrick, at the Ursuline Convocation in July. Both Sister Martina and Sister Angela were Ursulines of Paola, Kan., prior to the 2008 merger with Mount Saint Joseph.

Her parents supported her moving to the Academy for high school. “This was the mid-1960s, Mom and Dad thought it would be a safe place,” she said. Sister Cheryl was also excited to go, because there wasn’t much to do in Wax.

“We got a phone when I was in the sixth grade, but it was a party line, so we weren’t allowed to use it,” she said. “My parents didn’t want people gossiping about our family. Leaving home didn’t scare me.”

She didn’t realize until she was an adult how much of a hardship her leaving was for her mother. “My next youngest sister was not yet 7, she gave up a lot of her childhood to help with housework,” Sister Cheryl said. “My mother never hinted that it was a hardship.”

While she was a boarding student at the Academy, the whole family travelled to visit her. For her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, all the children recorded comments for a video. “All the kids said they had happy memories of trips to the Mount, because that was the only thing they did together,” Sister Cheryl said. “There were no family vacations. I didn’t realize how important it was to them.”

Attending the Academy opened up many possibilities for Sister Cheryl. “My parents were really strict, I was freer in a convent boarding school than I was at home,” she said. “My sophomore year, I stayed with a friend from Louisville. My junior year, I went to a six-week summer course at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. We had classmates who were Acoma Indians from New Mexico, and I had my first contact with an African American. That would never have happened at home.”

Sister Cheryl appreciated the nurturing from the sisters. When she cleaned the post office for her work-study job, the postmaster, Sister Rose Emma Monaghan, “always acted like she was so interested in my day,” Sister Cheryl said. “Sister Marita (Greenwell) would keep me after music class to talk.”

French was typically taught to juniors and seniors, but Sister Cheryl was one of 10 sophomores offered the chance to learn French, and thus have three years of lessons. When her senior year arrived, French was not offered. The girls were afraid they would lose much of what they learned for college if they did not take French their senior year. “Sister Mary Jude agreed to work with us. Eight of us met with her in the lunch hour that year,” Sister Cheryl said. “Interacting with the sisters was just wonderful.”