(Sister Marie William Blyth went home to Jesus on March 10, 2019. This article was written in 2012.)
If it weren’t for a high school scrapbook project, Sister Marie William Blyth might not be an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph today.
Raised in Denver, Sister Marie William was taught by the Sisters of Charity. “I admired them, I wanted to be a teacher like them,” she said. “In the third grade, I decided I would join them.”
During her freshman year of high school, she had a yearlong assignment to create a scrapbook on what she would do for the rest of her life. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be a Sister of Charity and a teacher. That won’t fill a scrapbook,’” she said. She found a brochure in the Holy Ghost Church that listed other religious communities, so she decided to write to them to get more information.
One of the communities she wrote to was the Ursuline Sisters of Paola, Kan. “All this literature came. I got a letter from Paola and my mother said I was waving the letter saying, ‘This is where I’m going to go.’ It was just the Holy Spirit,” Sister Marie William said. “God directs us to where He wants us to go.”
Born Helen Blyth, the first Ursuline Sister she met was the superior, Mother Cecilia Koehler. A Paola sister was in the hospital in Denver, and Mother Cecilia came to visit her. She stayed in the Sisters of Charity convent, and became friends with the high school principal, whose name was Sister Marie William. The first train ride of Helen Blyth’s life – the first time she’d ever left Denver – was Sept. 8, 1949, when she entered the Paola convent. She had never visited before entering. She became a novice in 1950, making this her 62nd year as an Ursuline Sister.
Being an Ursuline Sister has been a good life, and she would urge women considering religious life to give it a try. “You want to grow closer to God. When you’re in the whole wide world, you have so many opportunities to grow,” she said. “You can use them or ignore them. For the most part, I’ve used them.”
Like all the Ursulines of her time, she began as a teacher in 1952, serving 31 years in the classroom or as principal. She taught from first to eighth grade at five schools in Kansas and one in Oklahoma. “Fourth and fifth grades were my favorite,” she said. “They seemed to be more acceptable to learning.”
Her favorite part of teaching was “having the kids light up when they finally get the idea of what you’re trying to get across,” she said. “I was big on creative writing. Students would come back years later and tell me how they appreciated that, it helped them in college.”
While attending summer workshops, she decided that adults needed education too. In 1984, she began a new ministry as director of religious education at Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park, Kan., and then in 1995, at Queen of the Holy Rosary Wea Parish.
“People are so eager to have someone give them more information than they have. I fell in love with the RCIA process,” Sister Marie William said. “The people had such a spirit, you can’t describe it until you’re right in the middle of it. I learned more from them than they learned from me.”
It was while ministering at the small church in Wea, Kan., that she met Carol O’Keefe, who had left a higher paying job to become the secretary at Queen of the Holy Rosary. Sister Marie William brought the mail to the office each day, always making time to talk.
“One day she asked me why I had given up my former job,” O’Keefe said. “I told her I had a strong desire to enhance my spiritual life.”
After that, Sister Marie William introduced her to the Ursuline Associate experience. “She filled me in a little more, and then invited me to an overnight retreat in Paola. It was wonderful,” O’Keefe said. “I was just in awe of the presentation on Saint Angela. Sister Marie William and I had a lot more to talk about after that. I knew I would become an associate.”
Sister Marie William remained in parish ministry until 2005, but in 2000 she took over as a leader of the Ursuline Associates in Paola, aided by O’Keefe. While still a teacher, Sister Marie William attended a summer workshop with another religious community that had associates, and she saw the need for that in Paola. She presented that to the leadership in 1980, and the associates were begun in 1982.
“I was always on the committee to develop the program, but I didn’t become the facilitator until 2000,” she said. “Associates are an enthusiastic group. They are looking for an in-depth approach to spirituality. I feel their enthusiasm, it makes me want to do more if I can.”
O’Keefe’s friendship with Sister Marie William grew during their time working with associates. “I’ve had so many ‘aha’ moments in conversation with Sister Marie William,” O’Keefe said. “Since my mother died, I told her she had become my proxy mother. I asked her what her birth name was and when she said ‘Helen,’ I about dropped my teeth. That was my mother’s name.”
When the Ursulines of Paola faced dwindling numbers of sisters, they merged with the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph in 2008. “When we visited here, I could see the same spirit,” Sister Marie William said. “This is a very welcoming community and we fit in. If you don’t get out of your rut, you’ll never learn anything.”
One of Sister Marie William’s roles now at the Mount is writing the monthly Reflective Moments with Angela for the website. “I don’t know where they come from, they just happen,” she said. “I think of poems I’ve written that might have some meaning for people, or look for quotes I’ve written down from retreats. I say a prayer to the Holy Spirit and then it just comes out.”
Another role she assumes is being the consummate joke teller at the Mount. “I’ve always done it,” she said. “I say a prayer that I’m able to recognize a need in people, to help them in any way they need. Maybe a joke will breathe some fresh air into their life.”
In her free time she enjoys working crossword puzzles, reading light mysteries and books on spirituality, and listening to opera or anyone play the violin or flute.
Sister Marie William is noticeable at the Motherhouse as the only sister who wears a blue veil. There’s no significance to it other than she likes blue. “I’m blue in color but not in spirit.”
By Dan Heckel
Sister Marie William writes many of the Reflective Moments for our website each month. To see these writings, click here.