(This article was written in 2012. Sister Marie Goretti remains active in the Powerhouse of Prayer at the Motherhouse.)
During the seven years of her first teaching assignment from 1952-59, Sister Marie Goretti Browning taught the first, third, sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
“Other sisters would say, ‘Oh I just love to teach first grade, I can build on that each year.’ I never got to teach the same grade long enough to feel that way,” she said. “That turned out to be a blessing. I was helped to become more adaptable.”
That adaptability led Sister Marie Goretti to one of the most varied ministry careers of any of the current sisters. She’s been a teacher, principal, novice director, twice elected to community leadership, directed a retreat center and worked in parish ministry.
“I believe that everywhere I was is where I was supposed to be,” Sister Marie Goretti said.
She spent her first 16 years of ministry in education, teaching at St. Bartholomew outside Louisville, at Seven Holy Founders in the St. Louis suburb of Affton, and four years as principal of St. Leonard School in Louisville. But it was the ministry she did during the 1970s that had the greatest impact on her.
Community leadership asked her to get a master’s degree in psychology, which she received from Xavier University in Cincinnati in 1970.
“I think there was an opening at Brescia (College in Owensboro),” she said, but by the time she completed her degree, there was a greater need in the community. Sister Aloise Boone had been novice director for 10 years, and was ready to change ministries. Sister Marie Goretti was asked to take over.
“I thought God was speaking to me, I was willing to do it,” she said. “I was oblivious to what was facing me.”
The fallout of the Second Vatican Council was leading to many changes in the Church and in religious life in 1970.
“I had blind faith,” she said. “I felt like God would provide. Those 10 years were years of profoundly challenging growth. We were updating our entire way of life following Vatican II. What to teach novices was an unanswered question.” There were about a dozen young women in the novitiate when she began her duties.
“I worried a lot and prayed a lot,” she said. “I made many mistakes, but in a way they were important years. Women were being called by God, and to be on that journey with them, it was such a privilege.” Even all these years later, she gets tears in her eyes when she talks about those novice years.
“It was such an awesome opportunity,” she said. “That’s the heart of all the ministries I’ve had. That has impacted my life more than anything else. I thought God wanted me there.”
In 1980, Sister Marie Goretti was elected as the assistant superior for the Ursuline Sisters, serving under Sister Mary Irene Cecil. “During that time, (Mount Saint Joseph) Academy closed,” Sister Marie Goretti said. “I had to go from the formation of individuals as a teacher and novice director, to a broader spectrum. I had to be more broadminded. It was good to have a group, the Council, working together.”
Sister Mary Irene, who lives at the Mount, said Sister Marie Goretti was in charge of researching whether to keep the Academy or close it. “She has a lot of organizational skills,” Sister Mary Irene said. “We felt confident about the decision to close the Academy because she had done such a good job researching both sides.”
Sister Mary Irene said she could always trust Sister Marie Goretti’s judgment and support. “I’m still aware of her support and friendship,” Sister Mary Irene said.
When Sister Marie Goretti’s term ended in 1984, Sister George Ann Cecil, president of Brescia, asked her to be her assistant. Soon after, Sister George Ann learned she had cancer, so Sister Marie Goretti stayed just one year, until 1985. Sister George Ann died in December 1985.
From 1985-88, Sister Marie Goretti began her fourth career, serving as parish coordinator at Immaculate Parish in Owensboro. “I coordinated all the efforts of the adult leaders at the parish, all their committees,” she said. “That was wonderful, very fulfilling.” She was also the director of RCIA.
In 1988, Sister Mary Matthias Ward, the director of the Mount Saint Joseph Retreat Center, was elected superior. As one of Sister Mary Irene’s final appointments, she named Sister Marie Goretti as the new director.
“She has attentiveness to prayer and consulting the Spirit,” Sister Mary Irene said. “Because she had that prayerful spirit, it made her a good fit for the Retreat Center.”
“That was overwhelming, but so exciting,” Sister Marie Goretti said. “It was hard work. It was good to be with groups who were interested in spiritual growth. I did some directed retreats, but mostly my job was administrative.”
She was at the Center until 1994, and in her final years the renovation project began to upgrade the facilities. “I didn’t think I had the gifts to see it to fruition, it was time to turn it over to someone else,” she said.
She spent the following year on sabbatical, first at The Blessing Place in Lacombe, La., then with Sister Marie Michael Hayden at St. Francis DeSales Parish in Lebanon, Mo. It was while she was there that she got to know Vickie Cravens, who would later become an Ursuline Sister.
In 1995, Father Jerry Riney asked Sister Marie Goretti to become the pastoral associate at St. Thomas More in Paducah, Ky. She handled RCIA and adult education, and enjoyed the energy of the congregation. In 1999, she moved to Fordsville, Ky., to be pastoral associate at St. John the Baptist, a small mission church. She was responsible for religious education, RCIA and anything else that needed to be done. She expected to be there for many years, but in 2000 she was elected again to leadership, this time as a councilor.
During that term, she was the liaison with the Motherhouse during a restructuring of that organization. “We needed to restructure in order to meet the changing needs and to clarify responsibilities in light of fewer sisters in service at the Motherhouse and a growing number of lay employees,” she said.
Sister Marietta Wethington served on the Council with her during those years. “She’s a deeply spiritual woman,” Sister Marietta said. “She’s very dedicated to God, the community and to what she believes in.”
Sister Marie Goretti is always willing to share her gifts with others. “I think she believes whatever the community is calling her to is what God is calling her to,” Sister Marietta said.
In 2004, Sister Marie Goretti traveled down Highway 56 to serve as director of faith formation at St. Mary Magdalene Church. She left there in 2007, and attempted some other ministries, but she officially retired in November 2009.
“I enjoy the spiritual atmosphere at the Mount, the opportunities for prayer together as a community, and the opportunity to be with many of our sisters,” she said.
Being an Ursuline Sister is not something the woman born Mary Isabel Browning ever expected. She grew up in the central Kentucky town of Calvary in a deeply Catholic family. She was taught by the Ursulines in Calvary, with Sister Charles Marie Coyle having the biggest impact on her.
“I fought being a sister,” she said. “I had two brothers who were priests, and a sister who was an Ursuline (Sister Clarita). I didn’t want people to think that’s what I was going to do.”
Her parents could not afford to send both her and Sister Clarita to Mount Saint Joseph Academy at the same time, so she attended St. Augustine High School in Lebanon. Sister Clarita is three years older.
“When one of my best friends, who was my cousin, Laura Abell (Smith), said she was going to attend the Academy her senior year,” Sister Marie Goretti said. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do too.”
She was influenced by being at the Mount immediately. “I felt like God enveloped me,” she said. Her brother, a Passionist priest, had taught her about Maria Goretti, who his community was promoting for sainthood in the late 1940s. She was a young girl who was murdered at the turn of the century, but who forgave her killer before her death. When Mary Isabel was struggling to know what to do during her senior year, she prayed to Maria Goretti.
“I knew what I was supposed to do,” she said. By February 1950, during her senior year, she entered the community, the same year Maria Goretti was canonized.
These days, Sister Marie Goretti spends her time in prayer, reading, especially books on spiritual topics, and keeping up with what is going on in the world. She has always considered herself blessed to be a sister.
“I don’t regret a day of it,” she said.