For Sister Joyce Marie Cecil, “Little House on the Prairie” is not just her favorite TV series. “I love it so much,” she says, “because it reminds me so much of my early life on the farm. Working in the soil and watching things grow helped me to become contemplative at a very young age.”
Joyce Marie Cecil was born on V-E Day – May 8, 1945 – to Earl and Mary Agnes Lyvers Cecil, the fifth of nine children. They lived in the rural town of New Hope, Ky., “about two miles from the church and three miles from the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani.”
Their family life centered on the farm, the church and the surrounding community. “I often witnessed and was part of Mom and Dad’s generosity,” she remembers. “We were always taking milk, or butter, or strawberries or pickles to our neighbors, especially the needy and bedfast.” Sharing family meals was important, she says: “Like the Eucharist.”
Even as a young child, Joyce experienced an intense closeness to God. When her life was hard – as it sometimes was – she turned to God. Once after an especially difficult experience, she stood in the garden looking up at the stars.
“I remember feeling like I was surrounded by the immense presence of God,” she said. “I call this my Abraham experience – the beginning of my life as a contemplative.” She was about 9 years old at the time.
Joyce enjoyed school, first with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, then, for high school, with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. She remembers that her seventh-grade class was visited by a postulant (candidate) of the Sisters of Charity. The theme of her talk was: “Are you one of the generous ones?” Joyce was already thinking that she would be.
In Joyce’s senior year at St. Catherine School in New Haven, Ky., Sister Lennora Carrico invited the class to Mount Saint Joseph for a retreat. “I attended and loved every minute of it,” Sister Joyce Marie remembers. “One day, walking out by the gift shop, I felt the Holy Spirit so very strongly, and I heard inside of me: ‘This is it!’” In August of that year she became a postulant in the Ursuline community.
Sister Joyce Marie has many happy memories of her novitiate days, when “Vatican II was just becoming a reality for us.” Prayers formerly in Latin were now said in English, and the priest now offered Mass facing the people. She remembers her novice mistress, Sister Aloise Boone, as “a wise woman who taught us to think for ourselves and to be leaders.”
During her novitiate, Sister Joyce Marie began work on a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Brescia College. Later she went on to earn a master’s in education from Western Kentucky University.
At first, though, she felt “too shy” to be a teacher. Perhaps, since she loved children, she could work in an orphanage? Mother Joseph Marian Logsdon, superior at that time, told her to prepare herself to be a teacher and to make the decision after two years. Sister Joyce Marie finds God’s direction in this wise counsel.
Now she remembers her ministry as a teacher with great joy. “I loved every minute of it,” she said, and then laughs, “well – almost!” As a primary teacher, she was happy and creative. She especially enjoyed teaching children to read. Her first assignments were in Kentucky schools. Later she taught in Missouri and, for seven years, in New Mexico.
Gradually she began to do some parish ministry along with her teaching duties. Then, after 25 years as a classroom teacher, she spent seven years in full-time service as a parish minister and director of religious education. “This was a different kind of teaching, and it was good,” she said. “Preparing those who wanted to join the Church was a great blessing.” But God was obviously leading her in another direction.
In 2003, serious health problems made it necessary for her to retire from active ministry. Living now at Mount Saint Joseph, she works in the community library with her longtime friend, Sister Mary Angela Matthews. Here it’s very easy for her to indulge in reading, one of her favorite pastimes.
Sister Joyce Marie is also part of the Powerhouse of Prayer, which provides spiritual support for the community, especially for the sisters in active ministry.
“I take my prayer ministry very seriously,” she says. “I believe that it makes a difference in the lives and ministry of all the people that I pray for.” For the past few years she has tried to be more intentional in the way she lives and relates to others. “All through the day I focus on being aware of God in my life and all that I do.”
Last year, Sister Joyce Marie celebrated her 50th jubilee as an Ursuline Sister. She finds the hand of God in all the joys as well as all the hard things in her life. She describes her peaceful room in Saint Ursula Hall as her “sanctuary” for prayer and reflection.
“I love being an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, and I am grateful to God for all that I have become,” she says. “I am a very blessed person.”