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

Sister Mary Jude, who is now a religious presence in Paducah, Ky., said, “When you have a student like Cheryl who is hungry to learn, you will jump through any hoop you can. We ate peanut butter crackers for lunch and spoke French.”

Sister Cheryl was always an eager student, Sister Mary Jude said. “From the moment she walked into my class, her smiling, bright-eyed face never looked away. She asked wonderful questions. She was a dream.”

Hearing the call

“I thought about becoming a sister my junior year, but I was looking at the Daughters of Charity,” Sister Cheryl said. “This was the 1960s, young people were going to save the world.”

She then considered becoming a contemplative sister, a woman religious who would focus mostly on prayer and have little interaction with the outside world. “Msgr. Bernard Powers came my senior year to help the chaplain,” Sister Cheryl said. “He told me, ‘There’s a difference in the call to contemplative prayer, and the call to contemplative life.’ I never forgot that.”

Sister Cheryl was the keynote speaker at the 2010 Associates and Sisters Day, speaking about Saint Angela Merici’s Spirit of Contemplation.

By the end of her senior year, Sister Cheryl was no longer considering religious life. “I came to Brescia College to major in social work. I was going to be a social worker in Appalachia,” she said. One weekend she rode out to the Mount to visit some students and former teachers, and ended up spending time with Sister Mary Durr. “She talked about how you can shape the world as a teacher,” Sister Cheryl said. “By the end of the weekend, I was thinking of becoming a teacher.”

That Sunday evening, she went to Mass at St. Stephen Cathedral in Owensboro, carrying her paperback New Testament. She opened it and found these words from John: “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

“The thought was, ‘You’ve already decided you want to give your life in service, why not give it all?’ Giving it all meant the Ursulines,” Sister Cheryl said. “I called Mary Durr and asked her to make me an appointment. I came to the Ursulines because they taught.”

She entered in January 1970, and became a novice later that year, making this her 41st year as a sister. The changes instituted following the Second Vatican Council were still rippling through the community. “It was difficult living as the rules said, because we saw others not doing it,” she said. Sister Marie Goretti Browning was the novice director for the five young sisters in her class, which included Sister Pam Mueller.

“She talked to us and treated us like adults,” Sister Cheryl said. “She told us it was her job to teach us to live by the constitutions.”

Sister Cheryl earned her undergraduate degree in French from Brescia. “I started in sociology, but some family members were discouraging that,” she said. “I’d always loved French because of Mary Jude. One of my professors wrote on a paper, ‘Have you considered being a French major? We’d love to have you.’ If I’d been asked to be a history major first, I would have, I loved it.”

On a mission

Her first mission was teaching at St. Romuald High School in Hardinsburg, Ky. She taught French, religion, music, history, and English to juniors and seniors.

“The kids were very much like the kids I knew in Grayson County,” she said.

However, the greater freedom of living on a mission was both exciting and troublesome, since community structured seemed to be breaking down.

“At the Mount, the structure is there. I didn’t have the internal resources to create my own structure. I didn’t have the discipline I needed,” she said. She was so involved with the students in extracurricular activities, that she found herself spending more time with the kids than with the sisters in the convent.

During her second year in Hardinsburg, she faced a decision. “It was not making sense to me, so I thought maybe I should leave,” she said. “I had a wonderful moment when I felt God say, ‘No, I want you to stay.’”