Sister Martha Keller: Sharing the spirit with a smile

She taught at Owensboro Catholic for three years, but found it difficult teaching high school religion, because the students only took the class as a requirement. “It was not fulfilling,” she said.

In 1993, she got a call from a longtime acquaintance that changed her life.

Parish life

Growing up in Whitesville, she was best friends with Brenda Whistle, whose brother Brad became a priest in 1983. In 1993, he was the pastor at St. Romuald in Hardinsburg, Ky., and asked her if she was ready to try parish ministry.

“I had known Martha for many years, and I liked her style of ministry,” Father Whistle said. “She’s a delegator and a collaborator, not a one-person team.” Sister Martha built a strong RCIA and religious education program at St. Romuald, he said.

“Adults are so enthused when they know why we do things,” Sister Martha said.

Hardinsburg is not too far from where Sister Martha grew up, which was helpful because her father was in poor health during those years. Bernie Keller died in 1995, at age 83.

In May, Sister Martha and members of the social justice committee at St. Francis de Sales traveled to Mandeville, Jamaica, to build a house for a family. Here, Sister Martha takes a break from painting to visit with the family who was receiving the house.

“He had lived a good life. He loved farming,” Sister Martha said. “He told us his family at St. Martin brought burgoo to Daviess County.”

Her brothers carried on the farm for awhile and now two of them live on the property, she said.

She began her first stint in vocation ministry in 1999, while Father Whistle was the director of vocations for the Diocese of Owensboro. He believes she will do a great job for the Ursulines.

“She’s the heart of the Ursuline order,” he said. “I think she understands the mission of the Ursulines and she will look for strong candidates who fit that profile.”

Her first tour as director of vocations was rocky, so she moved to a new ministry in 2000, as pastoral associate for three small churches on the Daviess-McLean county border, St. Sebastian, St. Charles, and St. Anthony.

“I met myself coming and going,” Sister Martha said. “I like to engage with people, I didn’t have time to do that. I couldn’t get to know people.”

In 2001, she decided to look elsewhere. Sister Martha had never ministered outside the Diocese of Owensboro, so she interviewed for a parish ministry position in Bardstown, Ky., in the Archdiocese of Louisville, where the pastor was Father Bill Medley. Earlier this year, Father Medley became bishop of the Diocese of Owensboro.

“I was so impressed with Father Medley and his questions,” Sister Martha said. He wanted her just to focus on adult education in Bardstown, but she gave into her fear of not having much experience with adult education, and instead took a job as pastoral associate and director of faith formation at St. Joseph Parish in Bowling Green, Ky., instead.

“It was a bilingual parish,” she said. “There was resistance from both sides.”

After two years in Bowling Green, Sister Martha returned to Owensboro to be pastoral associate and director of faith formation at St. Stephen Cathedral. “There was a difference ministering at St. Stephen because it’s a cathedral,” she said. “Father John Vaughan wanted me to know the difference, he has a real grasp of it. It’s supposed to be a model for the other parishes.”

The two helped institute a program to honor parishes on their feast day, and the restoration and renewal project for the building began while she was there.

After five years at St. Stephen, Sister Martha was exhausted. In 2008, she made her first trip with several Ursuline Sisters to Mandeville, Jamaica, an impoverished area that the diocese adopted. During that trip, she began thinking it might be time for a change, which led to her interview at St. Francis de Sales.

Jamaica continues to play a part in her spiritual journey. “Social justice is at my heart. I’m always for the underdog,” she said. “I wanted to put some reality to serving the poor. I was excited about a possible ministry there.”

During the first visit in 2008, the sisters visited schools and facilities, but didn’t get their hands dirty, she said. “When I went back (in May), we got to build a house, it was really rewarding. Everyone worked together.”

Life at home

In her free time, Sister Martha loves to read novels, especially the suspense writing of James Patterson. She also loves to watch any kind of movie other than horror. “I like to let go of everything else and get into the story,” she said. “I don’t understand how anyone can fall asleep during a movie.”

True to her rural roots, she loves being outside. “I would love to raise a flower garden,” she said. When she needs some relief, she stops by to visit Ursuline Sister Mary Jude Cecil, who serves as a religious presence in Paducah.

As she begins her newest mission of seeking those called to carry on the ministries of the Ursuline Sisters, she knows it all starts with an invitation.

“If Sister Loretta Rueth hadn’t invited me to a weekend, I might not be here,” she said. “You encounter people, you can tell that some have the gifts, or are attracted to our way of life, but you have to extend the invitation. We have to talk about and radiate with joyfulness what a wonderful life it is.”

By Dan Heckel