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

“I had to pass reading exams in Latin, Greek, French and German,” she said. “If you want to know the history, that’s the language it’s written in.”

She studied in Washington through June 1992, but two significant events happened in 1991. That summer, she began teaching at the University of Dayton as a visiting professor, teaching Christian mysticism, sacraments, and Christian discipleship for the next 13 summers. At the end of 1991, she was elected to the community’s leadership Council, beginning in the summer of 1992.

She returned to nearby St. Meinrad, Ind., in summer 1992 to work on her dissertation and serve on the Council. “By November, I still hadn’t written anything. By February, it was apparent I wouldn’t get it done unless I moved back to Washington,” she said, which she did in March, getting the dissertation completed in May 1994.

The topic of her dissertation was Saint Gertrude the Great, a 13th century Benedictine mystic from Germany.

“I wanted to find someone I was interested in, but it has to be someone the faculty is interested in learning about,” she said. After several suggestions were rebuffed, she began to worry. “I had Father David Power for class, he was the hardest teacher there. I wrote to him saying I was interested in Christology, the theology of God, something related to women, the medieval period, and the sacraments.” She was hoping for just one of those topics.

“He wrote back saying, ‘I’ve just come across Gertrude the Great. Her writings have all of those things,” Sister Cheryl said. “From the first moment I started reading, I was hooked.”

Her experience with Father Power was not nearly as pleasant. “He was difficult. I never got one compliment in nearly two years of working on it, not until my defense,” she said. “After I returned to Kentucky and was completing the work, he’d mail me his feedback and I’d carry it around for a week to 10 days. I was afraid to open it, I knew it would be brutal.”


Sister Cheryl is joined by Sister Michele Morek, left, and Sister Maureen Grady, an Ursuline of Cleveland, by the table where the Ursuline Book of Prayer was available for purchase at the 2010 North American Ursuline Convocation in Cleveland, July 1-4.

She served on the Council led by Sister Mary Matthias Ward in her second term, and Sisters Mary Agnes VonderHaar, Michele Morek, and Vivian Bowles. “That Council group was wonderful, they kept me connected to the real world,” Sister Cheryl said.

She returned each month from Washington for Council meetings while she finished her doctorate, trips she was glad to make. “It was a chance to see the sisters at the Mount. It helped the process,” she said.

In 1994, she taught one class at Brescia, and in 1995 she began teaching full-time as an assistant professor of religious studies, then eventually was promoted to associate professor. Councilors were allowed to serve part-time in that role so they could maintain another ministry, she said. She taught at Brescia until 2004.

“Being there was wonderful. The quality of teaching I could do was enhanced by my doctorate — I could tell more stories,” she said with her quick smile. “I could see people complete the program.” She expected to remain a professor at Brescia until she retired.

In 1996, she was elected to a second four-year term on the leadership Council, this time under Sister Rose Marita O’Bryan as major superior. Sister Cheryl assumed she could continue in her nearly full-time role at Brescia and serve part-time as a councilor. “I didn’t think to ask before the election, it was my fault,” Sister Cheryl said. Sister Rose Marita thought it was more important to give the Council work greater priority, Sister Cheryl said.

At the time, there was not another sister who could have taken her place at Brescia, and there was not sufficient money in the Brescia budget to hire a lay replacement. “It would have been a hardship for Brescia,” she said, so half a year into her second term, she resigned from the Council, replaced by Sister Annalita Lancaster.

Ursuline Book of Prayer

Unlike some other religious communities, the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph have never had their own prayer book. In the late 1990s, the community decided it was time to have an Ursuline Book of Prayer, and asked for volunteers to create it. Sister Cheryl agreed, along with Sister Ruth Gehres, Sister Mary Matthias Ward, and former novice Leeta Shuecraft.

The goal was three volumes, Advent-Christmas, Lent-Easter, and Ordinary Time.

Advent-Christmas was completed in 2008, and contains Morning and Evening Prayer for each day of the Advent and Christmas seasons, as well as liturgies for the major feasts and celebrations during this time. Brief biographies and prayers are also provided for the saints whose feast days occur during the Advent and Christmas season.