Sister Karla Marie Kaelin, OSU: Serving the Lord one smile at a time

It was Sister Victoria who took the eighth grade class on a field trip to Mount Saint Joseph Academy. “I fell in love with the place,” Sister Karla said. She got a scholarship to attend, and was a work student to help pay the rest of her tuition. She swept the balconies every day of her freshman and sophomore years, cleaned the school newspaper office as a junior, and cleaned the homeroom and faculty lounge in St. Michael’s Hall as a senior. “We kept that place clean. I’m a neat freak to this day,” she said.

Sister Karla stands in front of the tabernacle at the St. Mary of the Woods Church in Whitesville, Ky., about 50 minutes from Mount Saint Joseph.

It was at the Academy that she made friends with Sister Mary Celine, as well as several other young women from Missouri.

“My fondest memories are of dancing the waltzes and polkas together for recreation,” Sister Mary Celine said. “She was very thorough with her lessons at that time also.”

Sister Karla regularly attends the annual alumnae reunion to visit with former classmates.

“I loved the Academy,” she said. “There’s a bonding done with the girls, and the sisters cared for us. They were strict, but they loved us.”

Serving the Lord

She entered the convent a few months after graduating. “My parents were both very proud of me joining,” she said. “My dad would always introduce me as Sister Karla. I was a daddy’s girl.”

She was born Karla Ann, “but I wanted a Mary name” so she chose Karla Marie when she entered. She was inspired by the painting “Madonna of the Streets” by Roberto Ferruzzi, so chose her Feast Day as May 24, Our Lady of the Way.

Sister Karla taught first or second grade during her 23 years as a teacher, and loved it. Her first mission in 1968 was at St. Catherine School in New Haven, Ky., where she credits Teresa Thompson (the sister of Sisters Joseph Angela and Regina Boone) for helping her.

“On Christmas Eve, I’d go to her house and play Santa Claus for her kids and go to Midnight Mass at St. Catherine,” Sister Karla said.

“I had a few years of teaching experience and she was new,” Thompson said. “I knew what it was like my first year with no one to look after me. She needed someone to share problems with.”

Thompson remembers those Christmas Eve nights. “I had eight kids, trying to get Santa Claus ready and get the presents from the neighbor’s house to ours wasn’t easy,” Thompson said. “I think (Sister Karla) wanted to be Santa Claus. She was a kid at heart. She’s had the same personality all along.”

Sister Karla doesn’t have a window in her office at St. Mary of the Woods, so she hung this jigsaw puzzle. “Now I can work with the sky, a tree, children, and Jesus,” she said.

Beginning in 1972, Sister Karla spent four years at St. Peter School in Stanley, Ky., not far from the Mount. During her last three years, the first and second grades were combined, which made for some hard times, having as many as 36 kids in her class. “I was just trying to keep up,” she said.

In 1976, she got a letter saying she was being sent to Seven Holy Founders School in the St. Louis suburb of Affton, which floored her. “I’d been teaching eight years in the country, I’d heard Affton was affluent,” she said. She ended up spending seven years teaching second grade there and loved it.

“They were beautiful people. I left a big chunk of my heart in St. Louis,” Sister Karla said. “I wasn’t leery of change after that.”

Despite her childhood love of baseball, she rarely attended a St. Louis Cardinals game while in Affton. “I’d rather play baseball than watch,” she said.