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

She came back to St. Joseph in 1983 to spend a difficult year at St. Alphonsus Parish, but at least got to serve with Sister Mary Celine.

“When I was head teacher at St. Alphonsus, I found her to be a very thorough, and effective teacher,” Sister Mary Celine said. “She was always ready in the evening for some card games that to this day, I believe, kept both of us balanced, and ready for the situations that developed in school life.”

With a desire to teach elsewhere, Sister Karla moved to her native Louisville in 1984 to teach at St. James School, one of the first schools the Ursuline Sisters opened in 1906.

“It got me closer to my parents, they were getting up in age,” she said. She was the only Ursuline Sister teaching at the school, but Sister Susan Mary Mudd was the principal the first few years.

In 1989, she moved across town to St. Matthias School in Shively for her final teaching mission. “There’s great wisdom in change, so you don’t get in a rut,” Sister Karla said. “I was starting to get in that rut.” Sister Joan Riedley was at St. Matthias, a troubled school in which 85 percent of the students were not Catholic, but they were there for the discipline the school demanded, she said.

Farewell to the classroom

“Madonna of the Streets,” painted by Roberto Ferruzzi in 1897, inspired Sister Karla to make her feast day May 24, the Feast of Our Lady of the Way.

In 1991, Major Superior Sister Mary Matthias Ward told Sister Karla her name kept surfacing as a good choice to be novice director for the community. “I thought eeeeeee-gads!” Sister Karla said.

She went to the Institute of Religious Formation at St. Louis University for training, and loved the experience. “There were a lot of instructors who were well-known authors in the Catholic community,” she said. “There were 43 priests, brothers, and sisters in the program, and only 16 were American citizens. I have friends around the world.”

As director of novices from 1992-95, she had classes and attended the intercommunity novitiate in Melbourne, Ky., which offered assistance to small classes of novices from Ohio and Kentucky. The only novice during her tenure was Sister Nancy Liddy, quite a contrast from the 21 women in her postulant class, or the 57 who were in the novitiate during her time.

In 1994, while continuing her last year as novice director, she began as a pastoral associate for Immaculate Conception Parish in Hawesville, Ky., and St. Columba in neighboring Lewisport, both one county over from Maple Mount. “I put out the monthly newsletter, worked with catechists, did a little bit of everything at the parish.”

With Sister Clarita Browning ready to leave St. Mary of the Woods in 2000, Sister Karla reunited with Fr. Richard Powers, whom she’d worked with at St. Peter. She did sacramental work, and took communion to the sick, but suffered through her first of two knee surgeries.

In 2003, Sister Frances Miriam Spalding was ready to retire and leave her parish outreach in far-western Marshall County, Ky., but wouldn’t leave without a successor. Sister Karla arrived in July 2003, and from 2004-2008, she also doubled as pastoral associate at St. Joseph Parish in nearby Mayfield.

“Only 1 percent of Marshall County is Catholic,” Sister Karla said. “I just made myself available, talked my religion, spent time in the assisted living community, and did sort of an evangelization. It’s important to keep a Catholic Church presence. The bishop wanted a sister down there.”

Being a Catholic in that area isn’t easy, but her tenure was easier than some. “The prejudice when the first sisters went there was tremendous,” she said.

Despite living on her own, she stayed connected with her bonded community of Sisters Mary Jude Cecil, Mary Celine, and Teresa Riley, who ministered in neighboring counties.

“I loved the people there,” Sister Karla said. “I felt like I made a difference down there, to show that the Catholic Church is not an evil thing.”

Sister Karla spent a lot of time driving or behind a desk, both of which were hard on her knees. “I could not keep up the pace, so I asked leadership to bring me back to Owensboro,” she said. “I wanted to be closer to my family and closer to the sisters.”