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

Convinced she should continue as a sister, she thought perhaps it was a community other than the Ursulines she should join. “I looked at every teaching community east of the Rockies,” she said. The one personal reply that touched her was from the Faithful Companions of Jesus, an international order who taught in Rhode Island.

Sister Cheryl left her position at St. Romuald after the school year in 1975 and went to Portsmouth, R.I., that summer. “It was more structural, everything I wanted, but I realized my roots were deeper at the Mount,” she said. “I always loved the cemetery at the Mount. This Faithful Companions community is worldwide, they were buried in the church where they served. There was no ‘coming home,’ and I wanted that. I decided to stay with the Ursulines.” 

Guided by the gentle wisdom of Sister Marie Goretti, she returned to the Mount to help Sister Catherine Marie Lauterwasser with liturgy and music. “I thought of that as my second novitiate,” she said. “I learned how to make starch to launder the altar clothes. It took me three hours to make my first vase of roses.”

After the first year, the community needed her to teach in the Academy, so she began there in 1976, teaching French, English, and religion. It was an enjoyable time for her, and her last two years gave her the chance to teach her younger sister, Kim. “I hadn’t known her much,” Sister Cheryl said. Kim Haire is 10 years younger, so was just a small child when Sister Cheryl left for the Academy.

Sister Cheryl is a staple of the dinner stands at the annual Mount Saint Joseph Picnic.

“She helped me a lot being away from home,” Kim said, who lives outside Owensboro, not far from Sister Cheryl. “She really became a big sister for me, and now has become a good friend. She anticipates needs very well,” Kim said. “She always steps up to meet the needs of the whole family. She’s the one we all depend on. She cares so much about people, she’ll put anyone else’s needs in front of her own.”

It didn’t dawn on Sister Cheryl that becoming a French teacher would lead her to teach high school, but she was very comfortable with high school students. “I love that age group, you can reason with them,” she said. While a postulant, she was left with a classroom of first-graders all day in New Haven, Ky. “After an hour, I knew I was not cut out to be a primary teacher,” she said. “You can’t reason with them.”

In 1979, she left the Mount for Nebraska City, Neb., and found another group of students she couldn’t reason with. “Lourdes High School was grades 7 to 12, I had all 7th and 8th graders,” she said. “I was miserable. I thought I would always be a high school teacher. That year, I doubted I could teach anyone.”

Despite her troubles in the classroom during her one year in Nebraska, two ministry directions began for her that year – adult education, and social justice.

“I asked the pastor at Lourdes if I could teach a Lenten Bible study in the parish. I loved it,” she said. She had led Bible classes with novices and other sisters in the Academy, but Nebraska was her first connection with lay adults. “It was very energizing.”

In Nebraska City, priests were required to teach certain religion modules, but they did not want to teach prayer or social justice, so those fell to Sister Cheryl. She taught social justice in the spring of 1980, when nuclear proliferation and the Ronald Reagan “Star Wars” initiative were major topics of discussion. “I got involved in the peace movement,” she said.

Also about this time, Sister Cheryl began pursuing a master’s degree in theological studies during the summers at the University of Dayton. 

“I’d taken every class Ed Alcott taught on spirituality at Brescia,” Sister Cheryl said. (Alcott is now an adjunct professor at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.) “I wanted to get my master’s in spirituality, but the community said no, because you can’t teach spirituality. They said I could teach theology.”

She researched every Catholic university east of the Rockies until she found the program she liked at Dayton, run by the Marianist priests.

In 1980, she came to Whitesville, Ky., about 12 miles outside Owensboro, to teach religion, history, music, and English to juniors and seniors at Trinity High School. “I had an adult choir at the parish,” she said.