REFLECTION ON THE LIFE OF SISTER MARIE BRENDA VOWELS, OSU
July 30, 2018
By Sister Mary Matthias Ward, OSU
In Psalm 16 we find Sister Marie Brenda’s favorite piece of scripture, ”You show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand forever.” I dare to say with her great devotion to the rosary that path of life could be compared to a walk with Mary from Nazareth to Calvary. To Barbara and Ken and to all the relatives and friends, we offer you our prayers and sympathy at this time of sorrow.
The path of life began for Francis Marie Vowels at her birth on April 24, 1926 in Louisville to Maud Elizabeth Byerly Vowels and Stephen Vowels. Frances Marie was the second child of fourteen. Her siblings were: Ruby, Joseph, Helen, Virginia, William, Leo, Jane, David, Barbara, Judith, Dale and twins, Stephen and Sylvester who were still born. Francis Marie’s spiritual path began on May 9, 1926 when she was baptized, and confirmation would come when she was 10 years old and Sister Jamesina taught her. During the depression and Marie was 4 years old, her father lost his job and the family moved to Meade County.
Francis Marie’s path of education began when she went to live with grandmother Byerly in Vine Grove because it was too far for her to walk to the neighborhood school. Francis Marie would go to the public school until her Senior year. Ruby and Marie went to school daily and Ruby was studious, but Marie found it difficult to settle down and do homework. When she was ready for the second grade she moved back with her family and attended Hynes School in Meade County. She attended Vine Grove High School, but the school burned, and she attended her Senior year at Flaherty, Kentucky. It was there she met the Ursuline Sisters Sisters Agnita and Ruth Agnes. When Marie graduated from Flaherty, she was given a scholarship to attend Mount Saint Joseph Junior College at Maple Mount.
Marie decided to pursue her path of being woman religious by entering the Ursuline Convent. On September 8,1944 she entered as a postulant along with Sisters Theresa Ann Legeay, Philomena Cox, Laura Henning, Mary Mercedes Knott and Joseph Cecilia Muller. They all preceded her in death and must have awaited her coming home. On August 14, 1945 Marie Vowels was invested and received the name Sister Marie Brenda. She didn’t know how she got the name but loved it because there was never another Brenda. She made her first profession on August 15, 1947 and her final profession on August 15, 1950.
In 1947 the path of teaching began for Sister Marie Brenda at St. Romuald, Hardinsburg and for a period of 31 years she taught back and forth in Kentucky and New Mexico. She was also principal from time to time in both states. From Hardinsburg, she went to Knottsville, St. Charles, Axtel, Harrodsburg, Paducah, New Haven, Precious Blood in Owensboro, to Flaherty. In New Mexico, she was in Farmington, St. Joseph, San Fidel and Grants. Many of the sisters went to New Mexico and stayed until retirement but not Sister Marie Brenda. She went and came, went and came, back and forth.
At the same time her path of teaching began, she began the path of education for herself. She attended Brescia College for thirteen summers and how she loved it. She received her BA from Brescia and started for her Masters at St. Louis University in St. Louis. She graduated in 1972….25 years in coming. During those years she received some grants in history and went to Springfield, Illinois, Valley Forge, PA., Boulder, Colorado, and St. John Carroll University in Cleveland Ohio…no weeds grew around her. Her pursuit of education was just like her playing cards or cribbage…fast and set to win.
In 1978 Sister Marie Brenda changed her ministry. She went from classroom teacher to being DRE. For 15 years she worked in religious education for 10 of those years she worked at Acoma Pueblo. And how she loved them, and they loved her in return. She worked three years at San Juan Pueblo in the Diocese of Santa Fe and two with the Navajos in Houck, Arizona, back to the Gallup diocese.
Sister Marie Brenda always learned a little of the native language, so she could greet the elders and talk a little bit with them. Many did not speak English, but she communicated with those beautiful eyes and smile. She never met a stranger, and everyone seemed to know her. It was told that Barbara and Ken came to visit her at San Juan. They had been teasing her that everyone knew her. They went into Santa Fe to the Mayor’s office. The secretary said, Hi, Sister Marie Brenda, do you want to see the Mayor? From there they stepped over to the governor’s office and the secretary said Hi, Sister Marie Brenda do you want to see the governor? Whether she was at a large restaurant, a roadside trading post, Old Town in Albuquerque … both Anglos and American Indians … all seemed to know her. And to the American Indians and the Franciscan Friars, we give you our prayers as you grieve your dear friend.
Sister Marie Brenda’s path of prayer goes back to her early childhood. She learned to pray with her parents, with her family. As a small child she prayed the rosary while waiting for the school doors to open. The Mass was central to her life, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was dear. If one walked pass her closed bedroom door in the villa, one could hear the rosary being given out on her Cd player. She prayed the four mysteries in the morning. Her deep peace, her deep faith, her patient endurance of pain teaches us that life from the beginning to the end is beautiful. For Sister Marie Brenda aging was but another blessing from God.
Sister left the Southwest and came home for awhile. She did parish ministry at Benton in 1995. Her ministry in Marshall County was very different from her New Mexico/Arizona days. So, in 1997 Sister Marie Brenda went back to the ministry of religious education at the Zuni Pueblo in the diocese of Gallup. An illness and approaching surgery brought her back to Mount Saint Joseph. In 1999 she worked in hospitality at the switchboard until 2009. Sister Ann Patrice drove her to the health park for 12 years and a lasting friendship built around water and the full moon developed. To you, Sister Ann Patrice, we offer our prayers and sympathy. We thank the many nurses and aides of the villa who ministered as caregivers to Sister Marie Brenda.
Sister Marie Brenda’s path of entertainment wove in and out of her life as does the making of an American Indian rug … she loved to talk about New Mexico to any and all who had ever been there. She loved to exercise in the water, watch the full moon, play cards and cribbage. She would maintain she was using a God given talent when she cheated to win the game. She also crocheted baby blankets. She was a moon gazer and would wheel herself to the connector between aisle one and two and sit watching the cemetery. The full moon seemed to appear over the cemetery.
Her path of life always answered Mary’s statement, ‘Do whatever he tells you to do.’ And she followed that right up to the last breath of her life, during the full moon on July 27 at 9:30 when St. Peter met her and said, “Hi, Sister Marie Brenda, do you want to see Jesus?”…. Anglos, American Indians and God knew her.
“I wish to conclude with a note Sister received after she left Zuni. It reads: “Sister Brenda, Some people wonder if one person can really make a difference in the world, but I think it’s possible because I’ve seen the difference you make in the lives of those around you. You don’t just talk about making the world a better place, you do something about it by reaching out and giving your time when others need you. You’re a wonderful example of what a caring person should be and in a world that sometimes seems a bit cold and impersonal, your warmth and compassion really shine through. You’re a very special person who has made a beautiful difference in a lot of lives, including mine and I just thought you might like to know! Thank you, Sister Brenda, for caring. God be with you and protect you from pain.” And I thank you Sister Marie Brenda for being Ursuline …. for being so alive … tiny but mighty.
Sister Marie Brenda requested, and we want to honor it, that no one speak in remembrance of her but instead she left this piece of scripture for us to ponder and reflect; ‘rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again. Rejoice! Everyone should see how unselfish you are. The Lord himself is near. Dismiss all anxiety from your minds. Present your needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude. Then God’s own peace, which is beyond all understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus.”
Finally, my brothers and sisters, your thoughts should be directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise. Live according to what you have learned and accepted, what you have heard me say and seen me do. Then will the God of peace be with you.” (Philippians 4:4-9) (after a pause) The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.