(Sister Margaret Marie retired in 2016 and now lives at the Motherhouse, where she is active in the Powerhouse of Prayer.)
Ursuline Sister Margaret Marie Greenwell was an educator for 35 years when she heard a voice from the Holy Spirit telling her to go work with the poor.
For the past 19 years, she has done just that, serving as the receptionist for the Sister Visitor Center in Louisville, Ky., which provides emergency needs for some of the city’s poorest residents.
“It’s awesome,” Sister Margaret Marie said, now serving in her 57th year as an Ursuline. “I loved every year of my teaching, but you know when it’s time to move on. (Sister Visitor) is beautiful, but it’s challenging. A lot of people come in, I’m the first person they see. I pray I can have a cheerful spirit, and try to see Christ in everybody.
“The thing that impresses me is their spirit of humility to ask for help,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “The spirit of thankfulness of what they get. I know they are physically poor, but they are spiritually poor also.” She was particularly moved by a man who came in one day and said, “I just want you to pray with me.” Through the sliding glass window that separates her desk from the entryway, they prayed together.
“There are two quotes that mean a lot to me,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “The first is from Dorothy Day: ‘The closer you are to the poor, the closer you are to God’s love.’ These people have enriched my faith, my contact with the Lord. I hope my faith life has helped them too,” she said. “I love listening to them talk with each other. I know how blessed I am, and how spoiled I am. I am just in awe of these people in the simplicity of their lives.”
The second quote is from DeAnn Hollis: “The heart of a volunteer is not measured in size, but in the depth of our commitment to make a difference in the lives of others.”
“When I came here, I was asked if I were willing to give up a teacher’s salary?” Sister Margaret Marie said. “It’s not the money we make, it’s the service we give. There are so many poor people, I didn’t realize that until I came here. I receive more in my heart than anything we could ever give them.”
A giving heart is a characteristic of Sister Margaret Marie, said some of the people who know her well.
“She is very outgoing to everyone who she meets, especially when it comes to the poor,” said Sister Clara Johnson, her long-time friend and former housemate and co-worker. “She’s very tender-hearted.”
“The words that come to mind about Margaret are thoughtful and hospitable,” said Sister Grace Simpson, who has ministered at Sister Visitor for 28 years. “She calls all the volunteers on their birthdays.”
Sister Margaret Marie answers three phone lines and schedules appointments for clients with case managers in what is typically called the “west end” of Louisville. The office sees an average of 35-40 people a day, and can help them with clothing, food, and money for rent, utilities and some prescription medications. Louisville has 16 emergency service areas, and the boundaries of those areas are enforced to make sure the most needs can be filled without unduly taxing one agency more than another. Still, there is room for a giving heart.
“If someone comes in for food and they are from out of our area, I try to give them something,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “I’ll send them where they need to go, but I’ll give them something for lunch.”
Knowing the boundaries and which agency to send someone quickly is one of Sister Margaret Marie’s valuable assets, said Ursuline Sister Michele Ann Intravia, who took over as manager of operations at Sister Visitor in June 2011.
“She’s very resourceful, and her knowledge of the boundaries is wonderful,” Sister Michele said. “She’s a very kind person, and she wants things to be right. We couldn’t find someone who could come in with all that knowledge. When she’s out and we have to answer the phone, it’s unbelievable.”
Along with Sister Maureen O’Neill, there are four Ursuline Sisters ministering at Sister Visitor, making it the largest gathering of Ursulines ministering someplace other than the 11 sisters serving at Brescia University in Owensboro. The center began as a mission of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, but Ursulines are now the only sisters serving there.
“I think about Angela (Merici), how she reached out to the poor, to people in need,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “I think the four of us here walk in the footsteps of Angela.”
A daughter of the Holy Land
Sister Margaret Marie was born Mary Helen Greenwell in New Haven, Ky., an area of central Kentucky that is so heavily Catholic it is referred to as the “Kentucky Holy Land.” The area is home to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the Sisters of Loretto, but Sister Margaret Marie was taught by Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph every year at St. Catherine Grade School and High School.
“Sister DeChantal Whelan and Sister Marie Julie Fecher had the biggest impact,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “DeChantal was always laughing and cheerful. Marie Julie always had such a gentle smile. She was my music teacher. Every morning I got up at 6 o’clock to sing in the choir.”
Sister Marie Julie, who is celebrating her 70th year as an Ursuline this year, said it took commitment for someone to get up early to sing in the choir. “I appreciated that as a teacher. I think maybe that commitment helped spark her vocation,” Sister Marie Julie said.
The two have been faithful friends during their years in the Ursuline community, Sister Marie Julie said. “She’s very optimistic about everything. That spirit pervades her. When you work with her, she’s always encouraging.”
Sister Margaret Marie is the second of four children (three daughters, one son) born to the late Paul and Marie Greenwell. Her father worked in a factory in Bardstown and her mother was a homemaker. Her older sister is also an Ursuline, Sister Paul Marie Greenwell.
For fun, the Greenwell children visited the skating rink and the movie theater, or just entertained each other. After her sophomore year in high school, Mary Helen decided to enter the Ursuline Sisters, just as her sister had done two years earlier. “I had thoughts about entering in the 7th and 8th grades, but it became more serious when I entered high school,” she said. “I was so impressed by the sisters, the life they lived. I felt the Lord was calling me to do something special in my life.”
“I had DeChantal my sophomore year,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “Paul Marie was already in the convent, my parents thought they were blessed to have two daughters entering the convent,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “My mother kept saying, ‘That’s what God wants.’ She was happy for me.”
She completed her high school at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. Sister Paul Marie told her to “do what the Spirit was guiding me to do. She was happy about it, but she did not put pressure on me to come,” Sister Margaret Marie said.
She took her mother’s name, Margaret Marie, but at the Sister Visitor Center, she is called Sister Margaret. “They said it’s too long to say ‘Margaret Marie,’” she said.
Her first mission was as a second-grade teacher at St. Brigid School in Vine Grove, Ky. “They were happy years. I was 18-19 years old and had no college training at that point. But I loved children and I knew I could relate to them,” she said. She credits Sister James Rita Sims with making sure she got her education degree from Brescia College in Owensboro.
During her time in Vine Grove, her father suffered a heart attack and died in 1958, at age 45. “Daddy was so family oriented, anything that had to do with the family, he was there,” she said.
After two years, she moved to St. Columba School in Louisville, a big change for a young sister from a small town. “The whole atmosphere of being in the city was an adjustment,” she said. St. Columba, which is now closed, was just eight blocks away from where she now ministers at Sister Visitor.
In 1961, she moved to St. Denis School in Louisville, where she taught first grade. Her favorite age to teach was kindergarten. “When you talked to kindergarteners about your faith life, they just loved it,” she said. “I loved teaching religious to all grades, even the 8th graders.”
In 1967, she began the first of 18 years at St. Thomas More School in Paducah, Ky. “I went as a second-grade teacher, and then became a full-time religion teacher. Different grades, different views, I loved it,” she said. “I still hear from some of those students.”
She recalls a young boy named Bud who was very taken with her story of how God was everywhere with us. He went home and told his mother, “God is in our kitchen.”
Shortly after returning from Christmas break in January 1968, Sister Margaret Marie’s mother died from a stroke.
“Mama was a very prayerful person,” she said. “Every evening we knelt around the bed and said the rosary. She’d say, ‘If any of you did anything to each other today, ask forgiveness before we go to bed.’ My prayer life came from my home life. My mother was a generous person, she tried to get us to give.”
Sister Nancy Murphy was principal at St. Thomas More from 1978-80, and said Sister Margaret Marie was an excellent teacher. “She had great rapport with the parents and students,” Sister Nancy said. “She was very dedicated and had a great interest in the kids bettering themselves.”
Sister Nancy still has a cookbook that Sister Margaret Marie instructed her second-graders to make one year. “They got the recipes from their mothers,” she said. “She always kept the kids interested.”
The two also lived together during those years, along with two other sisters who are now deceased. “She was a great lifeline for me,” Sister Nancy said. “We’d go have a piece of pie and coffee and talk about the trials and tribulations of school.”
When St. Thomas More needed a principal in 1983, Sister Margaret Marie agreed to take over, which she did for two years. “I missed the contact with the kids, but I loved working with the teachers,” she said.
It was in 1983 that Sister Clara came to Paducah to serve as librarian, and thus began a friendship the two have shared ever since.
Father Aloysius Powers was pastor at St. Thomas More in 1985, and he left to take over St. Ann Parish in Morganfield, Ky. “He said he could use two parish ministers and asked Sister Clara and I to come,” Sister Margaret Marie said.
They worked in the parish doing RCIA, faith formation and visiting the sick. Two Sisters of Charity taught in the school, but after a year, those sisters decided to leave, and Father Powers asked the two Ursulines to work in the school. Sister Clara became librarian and Sister Margaret Marie was principal the first year until a replacement could be found, then she taught religion from 1987-93.
After being in urban schools in Louisville and Paducah for 26 years, she did not have trouble adjusting to the rural school in Morganfield. “Children are children wherever they are,” she said.
Father Powers, who is retired in Owensboro, said he knew both sisters were excellent teachers, that’s why he wanted them to come to Morganfield. “Sister Margaret Marie was the principal for one year and did a fabulous job,” he said.
One of her strengths as a teacher was being a good disciplinarian, Father Powers said. He recalled when she took over teaching a second-grade class when the teacher took ill. The children were “climbing the walls” with the previous teacher, Father Powers said, but Sister Margaret Marie was quickly able to renew the children’s interest in learning. “They appreciated her,” he said.
In 1993, Sister Margaret Marie told Sister Clara she thought it was time for her to do something new, and Sister Clara said she had the same thought. “A sister who worked (at Sister Visitor) told me there was an opening,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “There were two jobs, receptionist and secretary. I said, ‘I know which one I want,’ and (Sister Clara) knew which one she wanted. I like to communicate with people, I wouldn’t want to be in an office and not see anybody,” Sister Margaret Marie said.
The two wanted to find their next ministry together after serving 10 years with each other. “We felt like we had jelling personalities that helped us work well together,” Sister Clara said. “Where I lack something, she complements me, and vice versa.”
Sister Clara is detail-oriented introvert with a good sense of humor, while Sister Margaret Marie is an extrovert. “You can always get a laugh out of her,” Sister Clara said.
The two lived and worked together until early 2011, when Sister Clara moved to the Mount as she battles health problems. The two still talk at least once a day. “I live alone now, but I have many friends,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “I love my computer at my home, I send emails on birthdays and feast days to the sisters, and I call or write our donors.”
In her free time, Sister Margaret Marie goes out to eat with friends, or goes to the movies. She is in a bonded group with eight Ursuline Sisters serving in Louisville, and they take turns hosting their monthly gatherings. “They have been a strength for me,” she said. She has two siblings in Bardstown, a short drive away.
How long she’ll remain at Sister Visitor is up to God, Sister Margaret Marie said. “I’ll be here until God directs me in another direction.”
By Dan Heckel