Sister Martha Keller: Sharing the spirit with a smile

“What has continued to bind us is a nice blend of what happens when we are together: a common love of working with people, discussions of the divine, and lots of joy and laughter,” Sister Jacinta said. “Martha is an inspiration for her deep love of Saint Angela. More than a decade ago, Martha left for a retreat centered on Saint Angela, and returned with our foundress, as she described, ‘My best friend.’Just hearing that at the time was impressive, but seeing it as reality all these years has touched me greatly.”

A teacher is born

Sister Martha graduated from Brescia College in 1980, and began her first ministry that year as a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Immaculate Conception School in Hawesville, Ky., about 45 minutes from the Mount.

“I did not want to be a teacher, I didn’t know that I could teach,” Sister Martha said. “Brescia does train you to be a good teacher.”

Sister Martha leads her Thursday morning bible study group at St. Francis de Sales Parish on Aug. 19. The group is studying the Book of Revelation. At left is Ursuline Associate Mike Sullivan.

“I lived with Sister Laurita Spalding, the best teacher in the world,” Sister Martha said. “She taught first and second grade, she wanted to make sure they were taught right.”

The secretary at the school was Isabel Crenshaw, now an Ursuline Associate, and the two have remained friends for many years.

“She’s an easy person to be with, I love her spirituality,” Crenshaw said. The two traveled to Florida together one week during those years, and they regularly keep in contact now. Sister Martha is Crenshaw’s contact sister with the associates. “She took me under her wing,” Crenshaw said.

After Sister Laurita moved on in 1983, Sister Martha lived with Sister Dianna Ortiz for two years, a relationship that would have a profound affect on her in the years to come.

Sister Martha’s last year at Immaculate Conception, 1986-87, she was head teacher, but she did not like the administrative aspect. “I had no desire to be a principal,” she said.

She decided she wanted another teaching experience, so for the 1987-88 school year, she was director of religion at St. Pius School in Owensboro. Her principal was a former sister, and now Ursuline Associate, Mary Kennedy.

Sister Martha sits in her regular pew before the altar at St. Francis de Sales. The original church was built in 1848.

“It was a fun year,” Sister Martha said. “I did prayer days for K-8, and taught language arts for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.”

The following summer, Sister Martha learned that being willing to serve anywhere has its consequences.

“I’d filled out a questionnaire asking if I’d be willing to serve in internal ministry, and I said yes,” Sister Martha said. “Sister Mary Irene (Cecil) asked me to come to the Mount infirmary as a nurse’s assistant. I’d walk out in the afternoon and a school bus would go by, I’d just cry, I missed teaching so much.”

The year she was in the infirmary, 13 sisters died, but the experience drew her closer to the senior sisters, she said. “Sister Monica Aud, she was like ministering to Christ,” Sister Martha said. “I gave Sister Rudolph (Castile) viaticum, reception of Communion, right before she died. That was so powerful, bread for the journey.”

She went back to teaching in 1989, her first ministry in Paducah at St. Mary High School. That fall, Sister Dianna was kidnapped and tortured while ministering in Guatemala. It had a powerful impact on Sister Martha.

“I couldn’t focus,” she said. “I wasn’t sleeping, I was not myself.” She left Paducah in November and didn’t return to ministering until the following school year, teaching religion at Owensboro Catholic High School.

Sister Martha earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Boston College with a concentration in religious education. Father Larry Hostetter, now president of Brescia University, was head of the religion department at Owensboro Catholic, and gave her the opportunity to use her master’s degree to teach New Testament and social justice.