Sister Martha Keller: Sharing the spirit with a smile

When Sister Martha was 16, following her sophomore year of high school, tragedy struck the family when her mother, who friends called Beth or Lizzie, was diagnosed with liver cancer. Her mother died three weeks later.

“It was a traumatic loss for Margaret and me,” Sister Martha said. “Dad called the shots, but Mom was the heart. After she died, the Ursulines were there for us, nurturing and motherly for me.”

Sister Martha routinely visits with Donna Luchesi, a St. Francis parishioner who can’t get out much to attend church.

The sister who nurtured Sister Martha the most was Sister Loretta. “I believe God places people in our life at very significant moments when we need them. Sister Loretta was there for me,” Sister Martha said. “Her attentiveness and acknowledgement of my loss and pain opened for me a door of seeing a woman dedicated to God as an agent of God’s love and compassion.”

During Sister Martha’s senior year, Sister Loretta invited her to attend an open house weekend at the Ursuline Motherhouse. “I never even considered where that experience might lead me,” Sister Martha said. “I was very willing and eager to learn more about her vocation as a sister.

This is what Sister Martha wrote about her vocation story:

“From that weekend until I made the decision to give it a try, the thought of living my life as a sister would not leave me. It was almost haunting. It would arise in my thoughts at the strangest times — like just before falling asleep, in the midst of enjoying a basketball game, at Mass, on a date, or eating with my family around the supper table. My experience with the young sisters at the Mount changed my stereotyped image of sisters always praying, dressing alike, and correcting papers. I experienced these women as genuinely joyful, fun-loving, highly intelligent women, drawn to prayer yet very competitive in volleyball. Actually they were really down to earth. Suddenly the image of a sister became someone I desired to be and the possibility of being a sister became very attractive and not so strange or foreign.

“However, the hardest person to share my decision with was my father. But when I got up enough courage to tell him, his response was one that guided me then and continues to guide me in my times of decision-making. My dad said, ‘Keep praying Martha, and follow your heart!’ Follow your heart — I think this is great advice — for if we are willing to listen to God who dwells in our heart we usually discover what we need to do to be fulfilled, peaceful, and happy.

Whenever she needs to relax, Sister Martha visits with Sister Mary Jude Cecil, a religious presence in Paducah.

“I grew up in a home where both of my parents were very appreciative of the priests and sisters who served in our parish and schools, and readily showed it. As I look back, the way they interacted with them, always speaking respectfully of them in front of us and inviting them into our home, was saying they were open to a religious vocation. But I never dreamed I would be the one of 13 in my family to have a call to consecrated life. On the day of my final profession my oldest sister told me that Mom always wanted one of us to be a sister or priest. I never knew that!”

It was Sister Marie Goretti Browning, the director of novices, who told Sister Martha that she should come and see what religious life was like.

“She was a very sensitive person, very caring,” Sister Marie Goretti said. “She had a thirst for God and wanted to have a relationship with God. She’s very generous, and has been generous with herself in community, and been positive. She inspires me.”

Sister Martha didn’t learn until after she entered the Ursulines that Sister Loretta left the community. “It didn’t shake me,” she said. Sister Martha entered in 1975 after graduating from high school, and became a novice in 1976, making this her 34th year as a sister.

Sister Jacinta Powers made her temporary profession the year Sister Martha entered, the beginning of a friendship that continues today.