Wake Reflection for Sister Jean Madeline Peake, OSU
July 22, 1915 – October 23, 2014
“Oh God, You have turned my mourning into dancing;
You have . . . clothed me with gladness,
that I may praise You with full voice
and give thanks to You forever.”
Psalm 30: 12-13
On Thursday, October 23, 2014, at Evening Prayer, we rejoiced with the Psalmist, singing, “You have clothed me with gladness, that I may praise You with full voice and give thanks to You forever.” Scant moments later, Sister Jean Madeline Peake made the same proclamation face-to-face with her God, and we were asked instead to rejoice that she had been an Ursuline with us for more than 80 years before she went home to her God.
Sister Jean Madeline began her joyous dance into God’s arms as Mary Wilbie Peake on Thursday, July 22, 1915, in Holy Cross, Kentucky, when she became the only daughter of John Carter and Annie Nettie Medley Peake, who had danced into each other’s’ arms a few years earlier. Wilbie brought light to her parents and two step-sisters who had experienced the darkness of their father’s tuberculosis and the loss of a baby boy.
On a bright September Tuesday, Mary Wilbie was baptized at Holy Cross Church, and just two weeks later, John, her father, succumbed to the tuberculosis. The family simply could not stay together; Wilbie’s step-sisters went to live with their grandparents, while Wilbie and her mother made a home with Wilbie’s maternal grandparents, Albert and Ada Jane Medley – soon to become Wilbie’s “papa” and “mammie.”
In spite of the dark beginnings, Sister Jean Madeline remembered her early years as light-filled. In a poem she wrote at the time of her step-father’s death, she remembered her dolls and playing house – with a tiny rocking chair, doll buggy, and complete tea set. Sister Jean Madeline would also write: “I recall the many times I rode with Papa in the big buggy to a town nearby to buy groceries. Papa would let me drive Old Dan . . . .” And, “At seven years old I started school in a little one-room school house. . . . The main feature I can remember about that first year was making mud tunnels below the rocky hill in a little branch nearby.”
But then came another sea change, although ultimately a happy one. When Wilbie was about eight, she and her mother attended a picnic in Loretto, and there Nettie (her mother) met Mr. Blanford. Sister Jean Madeline tells it best:
“My mother and Mr. Blanford talked while I stood in the distance calling every minute, ‘Come on Mother, let’s go.’ Later Mr. Blanford came to see my mother. He always drove a beautiful horse and buggy to visit my Mom. In trying to discourage him from coming, I would stand on the front porch and say to him, ‘Your old horse ain’t pretty.’ But deep in my heart I thought he was really a beautiful animal. And when the wedding day came, I had secretly packed all my toys to go to my new home. Mother’s wedding not only brought me a step-father, but also several step-brothers and –sisters who were truly in spirit my own sisters and brothers.”
The family would grow to be “your child, my child, and (ultimately) our children” and included: Mary Beatrice, Buren, Mary Carolyn, John, Mary Jeanette, Carl, Thelma, and Mary Wilbie. Many times, Sister Jean Madeline would say and show, “family was very dear to me.” And so, on behalf of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, to her nieces and nephews and all her family I offer our prayers and condolences.
Soon, on a chilly Tuesday, November 25, 1924, at Holy Rosary in Manton, Kentucky, Wilbie took her next step in faith, receiving confirmation and adding Magdalen to her name. Sister Jean Madeline would later say of her faith journey, “At the early age of eight years old, I felt the call to the religious life . . . from a kind and loving Sister of Loretto . . . [then, in my adolescence] from the Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines at Holy Cross School. They too sparkled with kindness and joy.” Wilbie’s grade school years took her throughout Marion County to Gandertown School, Gootie School, Hagam School, and Loretto School. When she graduated from eighth grade, she spent some time helping her “Papa” and “Mammie,” and then, in spite of the efforts of Ed and Junior (who would later find other sweethearts), Wilbie was drawn irresistibly to the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.
On a Friday, the 8th of September in 1933, Mary Wilbie Peake began her six months as a postulant, and on Sunday, March 18, 1934, joined nine others in the novitiate class of 1934. And Sister Jean Madeline has now rejoined all her classmates: Sisters Carmencita Bickett, Marie Bernadette Blanford, Aloise Boone, Charles Borromeo Calhoun, Ethelreda Hayden, Mary Mercy Hayden, Joan Marie Lechner, Agnes Francis Osborne, and De Chantal Whelan. Again, what an incredible class.
Sister Jean Madeline brought her energy and enthusiasm to the Novitiate where she remembered, “Sister Teresa, our novice mistress, often gave me stern corrections for running up and down the stair ways and for leaving my black stockings on my bed in great view!” Shortly after making her temporary profession on Thursday, March 19, 1936, Sister Jean Madeline was on her way to Saint Anthony in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where she served as housekeeper until the great flood of 1937, which she experienced very firsthand.
In a series of post cards and a letter, which actually had to be “flown in an airplane” to be delivered to her mother, she shared some of those soggy days:
January 25, 1937 Left Jeffersonville Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. to Jeffersontown and the sisters. We stalled in the water along the way, but got there. So, if the water gets here, we may just as well say the end of the world is here. . . . We have hundreds of people here in the Church and school . . . I’ve never seen such a sight. . . . We hear the water is now over the top of our school house and our house.
February 18, 1937 We went back to Jeffersonville this afternoon and my, what a pitiful sight. We saved nearly all our things, but they were all messed up. Our house was terrible, the water even got on the second floor.
Sister Jean Madeline then took an “all-day bus trip” to Seven Holy Founders in Afton, Missouri; after six months there, she returned to Owensboro where she began to teach at Saint Joseph School, while at the same time beginning and completing her own high school diploma at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, followed by college years at Mount Saint Joseph Junior College for Women. In 1965, in her 28th year as a teacher, she would receive her Baccalaureate degree from Brescia College.
By then, Sister Jean Madeline would have further shared her energy, enthusiasm, smile, and love of God with children and teachers at Saint Joseph School, Central City, Kentucky; Seven Holy Founders, Afton; Holy Name of Mary School, Calvary, Kentucky; Saint Benedict School, Wax, Kentucky; and Saint Andrew School, Harrodsburg, Kentucky – as principal and teacher at these last two. After receiving her degree, she taught twenty more years, most of these at Saint Bartholemew School in Buechel, Kentucky.
After 48 years teaching and serving as principal, Sister Jean Madeline would say, “I hate to give it up. I just really love children – I love people. And the people of the parish, they’ve been so great to me. But I feel that it is time for the younger people to take over. They have so many new ideas and methods, and all these young people are just full of energy and enthusiasm.” But Sister Jean Madeline still had barrels of that energy and enthusiasm to share.
For the next eleven years, Sister Jean Madeline would work in parish ministry and as a Catholic presence at Saint Joseph parish in Leitchfield, Kentucky. There she gained renown not only as the loving face of God to so many in the parish and town, but as a provider of rather famous jam cakes, one of which was auctioned for $361.00. In what she called her Leitchfield diary (really just an extended annals for her last year there), Sister Jean Madeline imagined that “no one else could sell one cake for $361.00!”
Perhaps these entries from that same diary help paint the picture of Sister Jean Madeline and what was important to her as parish minister and hospitable Ursuline:
- January 27, 1996: Father Dave started teaching a class today, Introduction to the New Testament. We will study for the next five weeks.
- February 6, 1996: Fathers Jerry, Greg, and Gary, and Sister Mary Cabrini ate dinner with me. We enjoyed each other’s’ time.
- February 22, 1996: I have made my decision to retire in July.
- March 19, 1996: The Ursulines around here were to come and have dinner together in my apartment. Because of snow and cold we couldn’t get together.
- April 1, 1996: UK won the national basketball tournament.
- July 24, 1996: . . . left Saint Joseph’s parish in Leitchfield today – with a very sad and heavy heart, but happy to be going to Mount Saint Joseph.
Father Dave would say of Sister Jean Madeline’s time at Leitchfield, “You continued to spread God’s love with your infectious laughter and gentle kindness.”
In 1996, Sister Jean Madeline came home to the Motherhouse, where her quilts gained in fame as she coordinated all the work of the Craft Room and continued to sow the seeds of God’s love with her incredible smile, infectious laughter, and gentle kindness. By 2003, as her health declined a bit, Sister Jean Madeline retired from the Craft Room and accepted the ultimate ministry of the Powerhouse of Prayer. During those last years, she found ways to still quilt and even volunteered, at 93!, at the Precious Blood Day Care. But above all, she continued to share the gift of God’s love through her smile and laughter. For all those on the health care and pastoral care staff, on behalf of all the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, I extend our thanks for your gentle care for Sister Jean Madeline and offer our prayers and condolences.
Sister Jean Madeline once said to me that she hoped she would live to be the oldest Ursuline ever (and that would have been 104); I would say, “Sister Jean Madeline, although you did not meet that goal, your smile and your gentleness and your faith will outlast us all.” And you have surely lived up to this closing prayer that you prepared almost thirty years ago:
Dear Lord, thank you for giving me many chances to serve others through You. My life has been a happy one all because of Your love and goodness to me.
And so, with all God’s people whom you touched with your happy life, we bid you farewell and respond to your prayer with a hearty “Amen!”
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph