If it weren’t for a fire at Vine Grove (Ky.) High School in the early 1940s, it’s possible Frances Marie Vowels may have never become Ursuline Sister Marie Brenda Vowels.
The fire caused her to attend Flaherty Public School her senior year, where Ursuline Sisters Agnita Sweeney and Ruth Agnes Conners were her teachers. They were the first Ursulines who taught her and they had a profound effect on her future vocation.
“I received a missal for getting the highest average in religion that year and also a scholarship to the Mount Saint Joseph Junior College, but I decided that summer to enter the novitiate,” Sister Marie Brenda said. “Sister Agnita talked about the need for vocations. I thought I should help out.”
Sister Marie Brenda has been helping out as an Ursuline Sister for 68 years, with 30 of those years spent as a teacher or parish minister in the Southwest, serving the needs of poor Native American or Spanish families.
Sister Marie Brenda was the second oldest of 14 children born to the late Steven Edward and Maude Elizabeth Vowels. (She has one brother and two sisters still living.) She was born in Louisville, but when she was 4, her father lost his job during the Depression and the family moved to her maternal grandfather’s farm in Meade County, about an hour away.
“We had no electricity until I was 13,” she said. “The day we got electricity I did seven loads of laundry.”
The first Ursuline Sister she met was Sister Jamesina Spain, who prepared her for the sacrament of Confirmation when she was 10. “Her story telling about the saints stuck with me,” Sister Marie Brenda said.
She had not given much thought to becoming a sister until the influence of Sisters Agnita and Ruth Agnes. “I was never sorry I became a sister,” she said. “I’ve had a happy life and loved all my ministries.”
“I had a huge crowd for my investment, relatives even came in a Flaherty school bus and on the back of my grandfather’s cattle truck,” she said. She is still not sure how the name Marie Brenda was chosen for her, but she’s never regretted it. “I’m the only Brenda in the community.”
When she entered in 1945, the Ursuline Sisters were predominantly teachers, and her first teaching ministry was in 1947 at St. Romuald School in Hardinsburg, Ky., teaching third, fourth and fifth grades all in the same room.
“It’s kind of hard preparing lessons for three levels,” she said. After stops in two more Kentucky elementary schools over the next seven years, she was asked to teach the first four grades at St. Anthony School in Axtel, Ky.
“That was hard to have them all in the same classroom,” she said. “I had to keep the older kids busy while tending to the first-graders.” When the superior asked her in the summer of 1958 if she would like to teach at Sacred Heart School in Farmington, N.M., she jumped at the chance.