Sister Martha Keller: Sharing the spirit with a smile

Sister Martha works closely with staff members Patti Sanders, left, and Susan Myrick, center.

In August 2011, Sister Martha Keller left her position at St. Francis de Sales Parish. After 10 years in parish ministry at St. Jerome Church in Fancy Farm, Ky., Sister Martha began serving as the elected assistant congregational leader of the Ursuline Sisters on July 17, 2022.

Ask anyone who knows Sister Martha Keller, and they will eventually tell you that she:

  • Works very hard
  • Always has a smile on her face
  • Models spirituality for others.

What they don’t say is that she’s the type of person who enjoys having her day interrupted.

“I never taught anything the same way, it gets boring. I enjoy parish ministry for that,” Sister Martha said. “You think you have your day planned, then one phone call changes everything. I like that, it’s energizing.”

Sister Martha has been in parish or vocation ministry for the past 17 years. For the next year, she will do both, continuing her efforts as pastoral associate at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Paducah, Ky., and beginning as director of vocations for the Ursuline Sisters.

She served as director of vocations for the first time in 1998, then coordinated a team in 2006 until a full-time director was selected. Her call was stirred this time during a trip to Mandeville, Jamaica, in May with the St. Francis de Sales social justice committee. She returned knowing vocation ministry was where she was being led. “I believe it’s a pivotal moment for the community,” she said.

The Ursuline Sisters are embarking on a year of conversation and study on how to attract new members. “It’s going to take the whole community,” she said. Sister Martha is putting together a 10-member advisory team for vocations that will involve sisters, associates, and lay people.

One goal of Sister Martha’s is to bring women discerning potential religious life to where sisters are ministering, not just to the Motherhouse in Maple Mount.

Sister Martha regularly stops in the church to say a prayer for someone in need, and light a votive candle.

Gauging success in vocation ministry can be difficult if the only measure is how many new sisters are added. “People do give feedback,” Sister Martha said. “You just know if you’re doing a good job. You’re one on one with people, you’re helping them discern their gifts. When a person leaves your presence you know if you’ve done a good job,” she said. “I have a good intuition.”

There is little doubt what sort of success Sister Martha has had in just two years at St. Francis de Sales, according to the people who work with her.

“She’s created a lot of unity in the church,” said Susan Myrick, the administrative assistant at St. Francis de Sales. “Just her attitude, her disposition has brought a lot of life here.”

“She brings a wonderful wealth of spirituality to the whole community,” said Patti Sanders, the business administrator at St. Francis. “She’s always available to anyone who wants to talk to her. She’s just a happy person, always has a smile on her face.”

Sister Martha is responsible for adult education, and she has started several of the programs at the parish. There were 16 adults who came to her first Wednesday night bible study on Aug. 18, and 10 more who came the next morning. “I believe every Catholic church should have a bible study,” Sister Martha said.

She and the pastor run Third Thursday Theology, this year focused on the new Rite of Mass coming out, and RCIA, which currently has eight people inquiring about the Catholic faith. She takes Communion to parishioners in the hospital, oversees the 50-plus Guild, which has an activity at least every month, and serves as the staff liaison for the parish education committee.

“Education and social justice are the passions of my heart,” she said.

The parish offers a six-week program called Homecoming for people who have left the church but may want to return. Both she and the pastor, Father Brian Roby, come only at invitation, since some people who’ve left may have bad feelings about a priest or a sister, she said. Sister Martha also gathers with Ursuline Associates in western Kentucky, and sings in the church choir.