(Sister Clarita Browning is retired at the Motherhouse and active in the Powerhouse of Prayer.)
When the Owensboro (Ky.) Catholic K-3 Campus invited the Ursuline Sisters to a Mass on Feb. 21, Sister Clarita Browning had no idea of the gift she would receive.
Several of the school’s kindergarten and first-grade teachers came to greet Sister Clarita, who taught them to be teachers during her 22 years in the Brescia College Education Department.
“That was the most wonderful thing to hear those four or five people say, ‘I’m still teaching kindergarten and I’m still using what you taught me,’” Sister Clarita said.
During her 65 years as an Ursuline Sister, Sister Clarita has taught young children and taught college students how to teach them. She has taught adults and children about religion in three parishes and served the pastoral needs of the elderly sisters at the Ursuline Motherhouse. These days, she’s helping at the Motherhouse as a receptionist, mail deliverer, daily annalist and whatever she sees that needs to be done. Every ministry she’s had is a tie for her favorite.
“All my years have been good,” she said. She is glad she chose the life of an Ursuline Sister. “Even when I felt inadequate or unprepared, it was always successful. That just told me that God was always there,” she said. “That really does something to your faith to know it was all a gift.”
A daughter of the holy land
Sister Clarita was born Jane Frances Browning near the small town of Calvary in Marion County, Ky., an area so Catholic it is known as the “Kentucky Holy Land.”
There were seven children in the family. Two older boys became Passionist priests. Of the five girls, Jane Frances was in the middle. Only her sisters Josephine Browning and Ursuline Sister Marie Goretti Browning are living.
“Calvary was a little town, if you bat your eyes as you go through, you miss it,” she said. “It was a town where everybody knew everybody. I went to Calvary School, a public school taught by Ursuline Sisters. It wasn’t uncommon at that time.”
Sister Victoria Brohm, who taught her in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, was the sister who had the biggest impact on her. “She is the one most responsible for me becoming a religious,” Sister Clarita said. “She challenged everything about you. ‘You can do better,’ or ‘you can do this,’ even if you thought you couldn’t. So you said, ‘yes I will.’ She was an excellent teacher.”
Toward the end of Sister Clarita’s eighth-grade year, Sister Victoria urged Sister Clarita’s mother to send her to Mount Saint Joseph Academy. “My mother told her we couldn’t afford it, we were farmers. Sister Victoria said my grades were good enough, I could get a scholarship,” Sister Clarita said. “I got one and I kept it all four years.”
It was during her senior year at the Academy that she began thinking about entering the community. “Sister Mary Constance (Vize) came home due to health problems, she had taught at Calvary, so she knew me,” Sister Clarita said. “Every Sunday, she would ask if she could visit with me. We would sit on the porch at the Academy, she would crochet and we would talk and laugh. She finally asked if I had considered becoming a (sister.)”
It was during a retreat led by Father Patrick Payton her senior year that she seriously began thinking about becoming an Ursuline Sister. Three of her classmates also entered religious communities – Sister Luisa Bickett became an Ursuline, one joined the Ursulines but later left and another joined the Carmelites in Baltimore.
“I never knew. We didn’t talk about it then,” she said. Being a boarding student at the Academy helped her to make the decision to enter the Ursulines, she said. “I think I never would have been a (sister) if I hadn’t come to the Academy. I wouldn’t have left home if I hadn’t done it at an earlier age.”
When she received the habit, her first choice for a name was to honor her parents by becoming Joseph Agnes. She was told several sisters already had the name Joseph and Agnes. She doesn’t recall her second choice, but her third was Clarita, a name she’d read somewhere and thought was beautiful.
“It means little Clare, so I had to figure out who Saint Clare was,” she said. Clare of Assisi was a great admirer of Saint Francis of Assisi, who showed her the way to live the simple life in service to God. She founded the Order of Poor Ladies, later changed to the Order of Saint Clare, but better known today as the Poor Clares.
On a Mission
Sister Clarita wanted to be a sister, and at the time, becoming a teacher was the public ministry the Ursulines served in. Her first mission, in 1950, was at St. Joseph and Paul School in Owensboro, where she taught half the first grade. “I had to work so hard to learn what I needed to do daily,” she said.
The next year she was sent to St. Thomas More School in Paducah, Ky., to take over the second grade from a sister who was teaching two grades. An atomic plant moved to Paducah and a lot of new families were coming in, so the classes were large. “I always liked teaching, but I grew to love it,” she said.
In 1955 she moved to St. Margaret Mary School in the suburbs of Louisville, where she spent four years. After that, she and Sister Vera Marie Wooldridge were sent to Radcliff, Ky., near the Fort Knox military base, to open St. Christopher School.
“The school wasn’t built when I was assigned there, but they had it finished by the time I arrived,” she said. They lived with Ursulines in Vine Grove, about 4 miles away, and since the sisters didn’t drive, parishioners took turns bringing them to school each day. When another sister came to teach the upper grades, they moved to an apartment for a year and then moved above the school to await the completion of a convent.
Because most of the students were children of Army members, the enrollment changed week to week, Sister Clarita said. “There were so many cultures, it made it interesting,” she said. She had students from Germany and two brothers who spoke mostly French.
One of Sister Clarita’s duties was to put on a Christmas play with the first and second graders, something she felt ill-equipped to do. “Sister Rose Ann Boone was the principal, she told me to ask some of the mothers to help me with the play,” Sister Clarita said. “It helped me to learn how to delegate.”
In 1965, after six years in Radcliff, she was asked to teach first grade at Immaculate School in Owensboro. She would later learn that Sister Annette Thomas, head of the Education Department at Brescia College, was interested in Sister Clarita being an education instructor.
“I got a call (from Mother Superior Joseph Marian Logsdon) asking me to get a master’s degree in early childhood education, because Brescia wanted to train kindergarten teachers,” Sister Clarita said. “I said ‘Mother, I know nothing about this.’ She said, ‘Sister Annette will work it out.’ I had taken several of her classes and she thought I could do it.
Sister Clarita earned her master’s degree from Indiana University by taking classes over two summers and for a year in 1966-67. She began at Brescia in July 1967 and was an education instructor there for 22 years.
In 1973, she established a kindergarten on the Brescia campus, which was taught by Sister Mimi Ballard until it closed in 1978. “The public schools didn’t have kindergarten, they only had Head Start, but they were gearing up for it,” Sister Clarita said. The student teachers did their practicums and student teaching at Brescia’s kindergarten.
“Some of the kindergarten students were children of the staff, but we were always full,” Sister Clarita said. The program closed when the public schools began offering kindergarten.
During her tenure at Brescia, she also supervised interns in classrooms at public and Catholic schools and wrote a new certification program for kindergarten through third grade to comply with changes made statewide.
When Sister Marie Michael Hayden worked for the Diocese of Owensboro from 1979-87, she lived with Sister Clarita at Brescia.
“She’s very prayerful and she would do anything for you,” Sister Marie Michael said. “She’s a good listener and she’s always looking out for others. Sometimes I would meet people and tell them I’m an Ursuline Sister and they would say, ‘Do you know Sister Clarita? She taught me at Brescia.’ They said she was a marvelous teacher.”
Sister Clarita was often asked during those years to talk to parents in parishes about sacramental preparation, so the community leadership suggested that she pursue a master’s degree in religious education. She spent several summers of study through St. Meinrad in Indiana to complete her degree. She thought she would use that degree at Brescia, but it wasn’t needed at that time. By 1989, she knew she needed a change.
“I loved Brescia and I loved the students I taught,” she said, “but I didn’t want my second degree to get old before using it.”
She came to the Mount to work at the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center for a year with her sister, Sister Marie Goretti Browning, until she found her next mission. That turned out to be at Immaculate Parish in Owensboro, the last place she taught before going to Brescia. She was a pastoral associate and director of religious education from 1990-96, leading adult education, serving on the liturgy committee and preparing children for the initial reception of the sacraments.
In 1996, she filled a similar role at St. Mary of the Woods in Whitesville, Ky., for four years, and then moved to its mission church, St. John the Baptist in nearby Fordsville. She replaced her sister, who was elected to community leadership. It was a new experience for Sister Clarita.
“A lot of my work was taking communion to the sick or going out to meet people where they were,” she said. She led the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and taught religious education as well. “I felt good about everything there.”
In 2002, community leadership asked her to come to the Mount and minister in pastoral care to the elderly sisters in the new infirmary, Saint Joseph Villa. “I thought I didn’t know anything about pastoral care, but I realized I’d been doing it all along,” she said.
She and Sister Mary Irene Cecil were co-directors of pastoral care until 2009. “It was a wonderful time in my life,” Sister Clarita said. “I got to know the sisters in the Villa. I feel like they gave me as much as I gave them.”
“She was very responsible and dependable,” Sister Mary Irene said. “We worked well together. She’s very thoughtful and a good listener. She was wise in her insights into people’s needs.”
Because the two were about the same size, sisters often confused them, Sister Mary Irene said. “They called us twins,” she said. “Some of them still don’t know us apart.”
Sister Clarita retired in 2009, the year she turned 80. Her favorite activities in her spare time are to read and pray. These days she works the reception desk, records the daily annals for posterity and handles the mail on Saturdays. Anytime there is a donation of fruit or vegetables to cut up or envelopes to be stuffed, it’s likely that Sister Clarita will be involved volunteering her time.
“If I see something that needs to be done, I do it,” she said.
By Dan Heckel