Wake Reflection: Sister Cordelia Spalding, OSU
In the afternoon of Palm Sunday, April 5 2009, Sister Mary Cordelia Spalding made her triumphant entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem. After 73 years living a life dedicated to God, how appropriate that she could follow the Lord into the Holy City (perhaps saying “Wait for me”)! And how appropriate that a baby whose first home was Holy Cross, Kentucky would find her way home during Holy Week.
Mary Martha Spalding was born October 15, 1918 on a farm in Marion County Kentucky, right on the Beech Fork River, the first child of Archibald Aloysius Spalding and Mary Edna Bowling. She was baptized at Holy Cross Church, by a pastor who, she said ”First demanded that my father write him a check for a half-year’s pew rent before he would baptize me!” Later the family grew to include brothers Charles Sylvester and Joseph Leo, and sisters Elizabeth Ann, Emily Rose, Lucy Regina, and Margaret Laverne.
When she was almost six years old Mary Martha went to live with her maternal grandparents near the Boone’s Mill School, between New Haven and Howardstown in Nelson County. In that one-room school she began her elementary education with Nellie Hagan. She would spend the summers at home, and return to live with her grandparents for the school year. The family dog Rover was her only playmate when she wasn’t at school, so she often said “Grandma, I have nothing to do.” And Grandma would reply, “Go say your prayers.”
Her first two years of high school were at Howardstown. Daisy Boone, Lucille Boone, Maude Clements, and Emily Bowling were some teachers she remembered from elementary or high school days…some of you probably are related to them! When the Howardstown school closed, Mary Martha finished her junior and senior years at Saint Catherine School in New Haven, under Sisters Mary Carmel, Raphael, and Mary Wilfrid. She noted proudly that during her senior year she was president of the Bardstown Chapter of the Catholic Students Mission Crusade. Father James Willett was pastor at New Haven at that time, and she said he was very influential in her life. She had planned to become a religious but not an Ursuline, so he directed her steps to the Mount.
She entered the novitiate on September 8, 1935, with classmates Alma Uhing (S. Mary Bernice), Lura Lush (S. Walter Louise), Thelma Warren (S. Ancilla Marie), Beatrice Warren (S. Mary Edgar), Mary Ruth Mattingly (the former S. Mary Gemma), Janette Bowling (S. Mary Janette), and Gonzaga Logsdon (S. Joseph Marian). When she received the name Mary Cordelia at her investment ceremony, she didn’t even know who her patron was or when her feast day would be, until Sister Mary Celeste told her the story of Saint Cordula. After that she loved telling about her patron—just look up the legend of Saint Ursula and her companions and have a little chuckle over Cordula. Our S. Cordelia had a great sense of humor.
Here were some of her novitiate memories: “Our novice mistress, Mother Martina, believed her novices should be tested. Her strong belief was that we learned how to be present for community observances regardless of how unprepared for college classes we may have been.” But Mother Martina was not unreasonable. S. Cordelia’s father had died 26 days after she became a novice, and when told by the superior that all sisters were required to get woolen underskirts for winter, she told Mother Martina that her widowed mother could not afford to buy the wool. Mother Martina’s practical reply? “Child, keep quiet. I wear the same, winter and summer.” Also during her novitiate, she became a friend and companion to S. Celeste McCue, and after S. Celeste’s death, she kept in touch with friends and members of the Kappa Delta Phi Sorority that S. Celeste had founded before entering the community. In fact, she gave a talk about S. Mary Celeste at the 1997 Kappa Delta Phi Convention—and even made them a quilt for a raffle!
When it was time to go on her first mission, she was a little dismayed at being sent to teach sixth grade at St. Columba’s School in Louisville. She said “I grew up on a farm and came to the novitiate on a farm. I did not think I could live in a noisy city, but did so for 14 years.” She learned quickly that you have to be adaptable in religious life, because she went on to say “Then I was assigned to be principal and seventh and eighth grade teacher (at St. Thomas More in Paducah). I had never taught two grades in the same room, never been (local) superior or principal, and did not know how to cook a meal or write a check—but learned all this in five years.” She turned out to be a good cook. My first memories of S. Cordelia were summer memories, when she would be coming in with a bucket of blackberries, or with her sleeves rolled up in the canning room, making preserves or canning fruit juice.
S. Cordelia had taken classes through the Mount Saint Joseph Junior College during her formation, later attending Saturday classes at Ursuline College in Louisville, and finishing her bachelor degree in biology at Fontbonne College. Right after completing her degree in biology, she was assigned the role of director of the novitiate in August 1957, which position she held for three years. I know some of her former novices are going to speak later about those years.
But in 1960 she got to teach science and math for nine years at Saint Francis High School in Loretto, before moving to Saint Charles High School for one year. Finally she joined seven other Ursuline sisters as they began teaching at the brand new consolidated public high school, Marion County High in Lebanon, where she taught science and math for 18 years. In 1967 she had earned a masters degree in education from Spalding College in Louisville. In the course of her education she took classes at Brescia, Creighton University, San Diego State, St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg Maryland, the University of Colorado, Ball State, and various extension campuses of the University of Kentucky, Western, and Eastern Kentucky U.
In 1988, after fifty years of teaching, she “retired” and came to the Mount, to quilt for 14 more years! She was a gifted seamstress—many of us have enjoyed seeing her lovely quilts, each a work of art and lovingly done. While she was still teaching in public school, she entered a quilting contest sponsored by a Connecticut quilt materials company, and won a $50 savings bond for her quilt block entitled, “Peace.” Her block was later sewn into a quilt that was displayed throughout the country. Sister also made the quilted Ursuline Coat of Arms banner that we use in our chapel sometimes. She ran the Quilt Club from 1995 to 2003, keeping a very detailed diary of the date, the name of the quilt, the name of the persons who made the top and/or who quilted it, and the monthly winner. She kept all the financial records, too—not bad for someone who did not know how to write a check until she was in her mid-30s!
In 2003 she really retired, but continued to attend daily Mass, to eat her meals in the main dining room, and to be active for as long as she was able. When she had to move to Saint Joseph Villa in 2004, she enjoyed the Bingo and exercise activities, and used her trusty walker to walk all the way out the farm road to the highway and back almost every day. We Ursuline Sisters are so grateful to the Saint Joseph Villa staff, and to our sisters in pastoral care, for their loving care for our sister in her final years and days.
One of the hardest crosses for S. Cordelia to bear, as she became less mobile, was that she could no longer visit her family. She loved her family, and she loved to travel. Her personal archives reports mention many trips to Montana, Arizona, Maryland, and California to visit family, or to help them in an illness. A highlight of 2006 for her was that two of her sisters, Betty and Lucy, could be with her to celebrate her 70th jubilee. To you, her family, the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph offer our special sympathy and prayers.
In her personal belongings there was an essay, “Quilt of Your Life” about a person standing at the last judgment as the angels stitched up the pieces of her life into a quilt. She noted with shame that her pieces were full of holes and threadbare, while other people’s quilt pieces were hardly worn and still full of vibrant color. But when her quilt was held to the light everyone gasped as the light flooded the many holes, creating an image—the face of Christ. Then the Lord said, “Every time you gave over your life to me, it became my life, my hardships, my struggles. Each point of light in your life’s quilt is when you stepped aside and let me shine through, until there was more of me than there was of you.” Surely, S. Cordelia, your quilt is thread-bare and full of holes, worn out in the service of your Lord and his children. You have let his image shine through you to us. Thank you.
S. Cordelia, like your patron saint Cordula, you are just now running to catch up with your classmates, to join them in their victory. Ursula and all her companions are strewing your way with flowers as you enter the heavenly Jerusalem with Jesus, to shouts of “Hosanna!” Our hearts rejoice with you, even as we grieve your loss and share our happy memories of you. Thank you for being our friend, our mentor, our guide, our quilter, and our sister.
Michele Morek, OSU
April 8, 2009