Sister Mary Bertha Wethington, OSU

Wake Reflection: Sister Mary Bertha Wethington

In Psalm 90 we read: “Our life is a mere seventy years, eighty with good health, and all it gives us is toil and distress; then the thread breaks and we are gone.” The Psalmist got part of it right—the idea of eighty being the limit for most folks. But S. Mary Bertha Wethington was still going strong at eighty, and then continued for 23 more years! It seems that she knew more about living than the Psalmist. He also missed it on the next part,for her life was definitely not a long succession of toil and distress. A lot of toil no doubt, but since she loved what she was doing, distress was not a constant companion.Now, the Psalmist offers the final touch: the thread is broken and she is gone! Yes, S. Mary Bertha left us the morning of December 2, 2009 in the 103rd year of her life and in the 83rd year of her religious life, but our lives have been enriched by knowing her.In the course of her 103 years, just imagine how many of us there are!

The first to know her, of course, were her parents, Albert Clarence Wethington and Mary Bertha Clements, and her nine brothers and two sisters: brothers Carl, Aloysius, Louis, William, David, Albert, Frank, John, and James; and sisters Mary Louise and Betty Jane. Her only surviving sibling, Mary Louise O’Rourke, still lives near Saint Louis, Missouri. S. Mary Bertha, then Zelda Catherine, was born into this loving home on April 24, 1906 in the little town of Clementsville, Kentucky. The family did not stay in Casey County, because it is said that Papa Wethington did not want his children intermarrying with other Wethingtons (distant cousins) so he moved his family to Illinois. There, Catherine attended elementary and part of her secondary school in the public schools of Ashland, Illinois.

Sister Mary B. was always very close to her family, especially Snooks (her sister Mary Louise). S. Mary Bertha would go to visit her, and Snooks would come to visit her.Mary Louise was not able to come to the Mount, but we extend to her and all the family our sympathy, even as we celebrate with S. Mary Bertha, who has fought the good fight, and now rejoices in her eternal reward.

I know very little of her early life, but one very important thing I know for sure. She was a prayerful young woman, who eventually heard her God-within, calling her to serve him in a very special way. She responded then, as she did all the rest of her long life, by simply saying “Ad sum!” When asked how it felt to be 100, she replied, “I take that like I take everything else—that’s God’s will.” With that assurance, in 1925 she knocked on the door of the Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph. Seeing her sincerity and obvious desire to serve God, the Community opened their doors to her.

It may seem hard for us to believe now, in 2009, but she was far from alone as she entered that door.In fact, the applicants must have put a dent in the door. Her classmates were: Sisters Ann Vincentia Abell, Monica Aud, Karl Melanie Brill, Joan Brown, Mary Francis Brumlow, Anne Rita Cash, Dolores Gatton, Francesca Hazel, Francis Xavier Miles, Mary Jane Payne, Mary Fides Thompson and the former Sister John Robert Drury.

What a crowd! Enough for a softball team with coaches. I knew all but a few of them, and as you old-timers know, they were a talented, dynamic group of women. Listing their accomplishments would take several pages. Now, can’t you just picture all of them waiting at the Pearly Gates when S. Mary Bertha arrived on December 2? Probably one of them said: “What took you so long to get here? You have a lot of catching up to do here in heaven! But then you have an eternity to do it all.” Chances are she wanted to be in heaven for some very special days. Her feast day is December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, always a special day for her. Followed by that, December 12, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas. Both of them during Advent, the Season of Waiting, the time to say YES!S. Mary Bertha had been waiting for a long time. Now she can truly rejoice in the fulfillment of waiting, of expectation, as she joins the heavenly host in welcoming the Christ Child—Emmanuel!

Who else was there to welcome her? Her family, her close friends and some of the multitude of children and adults she helped to grow into splendid men and women. Among these are all the members of my family at St. Columba in Louisville. I believe she taught every one of my family—except me!St. Columba had two classes for each grade, divided alphabetically. The year I was in the fifth grade, I was in the OTHER class, where she wasn’t.She spent many years at St. Columba, and remembered so many of the people there. One story she loved to tell, to anyone who would listen, was about my brother Rudy. His nickname, the one we all used, was Sheikie. Rudolph Valentino, very popular, was in the film The Sheik of Araby. Ergo, Rudy = Sheik. This is how Mary Bertha told the story:

“Every morning when Sheikie came to school, he was spick and span, spotlessly clean and neat. But by the time to go home, after doing the things little boys do all day—he was pretty much disheveled, not at all like he was at 8:00 a.m. So, one day she asked him: ‘Sheikie, I wonder, the way you look at the end of the day, does your mother even recognize you?’ Solemnly he replied, ‘I think so! When I get home she always says ‘Hi, Sheikie.'”

Most of my memories are of our years together at St. Bartholomew’s. It was a very good school, one of the best. S. Mary Bertha was principal and the faculty was top-notch. We lived in our home across the road, which was a great place to live. We had wonderful times there—both spiritual and fun and laughter.Our dining room, right off the kitchen, was a converted coal bin.At first it was pretty drab, so Sr. Mary B. thought it needed a facelift. She asked our resident artist, S. Frances Ann, to paint it. She did, and it was lovely! That room was host to many celebrations.

And there is one unique story about it and our kitchen. We had a strange custom—I have no idea how it started—every Saturday, the kitchen floor was cleaned, and for some reason, we all decided to have Saturday night pickup suppers sitting on the floor. Well, one year, at the beginning of the school year, one of the new teachers came over to get the key to her classroom. This was Laura Murphy, whom most of you know.We were all talking and laughing as we ate, not thinking about the teacher upstairs.This was her first year of teaching, and she didn’t know exactly how to take us. It was at the end of the school year before she got up the nerve to approach us and ask if we remembered the night she came over for the key. Then she said, “Well, you all were having a good time downstairs, but I heard someone say something that I didn’t understand. Could you tell me now?” So we said sure, if we could.Then she explained “I heard someone say out loud:‘Get your foot out of my plate!’ And I couldn’t figure out if someone was walking on the table or sitting on the floor!”

That year was the beginning of a life-long friendship for the four of us: S. Mary Bertha, S. Laura Murphy (now Mrs. John Glaser), S. Frances Anne (Babs Ryan) and me. Being separated by so many miles, we could not get together very often, but some friendships last a lifetime, even when friends are separated geographically!Laura has said so often that she learned what it was to be a good teacher at St. Barth’s.

Besides Saint Columba and St. Bartholomew in Louisville, other places blessed by Mary B’s presence were St. Mary Magdalene in Sorgho, Sts. Joseph & Paul and Pius Tenth in Owensboro, St. Joseph in Leitchfield, St. Brigid in Vine Grove, St. Ignatius in Louisville, and Seven Holy Founders in Affton, MO. In 1972 she began a 13-year career as coordinator of St. Angela Educational Center Louisville, followed by 3 years of private tutoring (all ages, 6 to 60 plus). All together, she was an educator for 63 years, and principal and local superior at several places of ministry. Finally, she spent 13 wonderful years in semi-retirement at St. Angela’s in Louisville, where she and her quilting companions Sisters Jean Gertrude and Justina quilted furiously! She was a gifted seamstress. When she first started, it took her three years to complete a quilt, but she soon moved production up to about 8 a year! Besides allowing S. Mary Bertha a way to contribute to the community, quilting also furthered her spiritual life. She would pass the time by praying, saying the rosary, listening to classical music, or meditating on her favorite devotion to the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart of Mary. “I can say that I do a lot of meditating!” she said. Her quilts remain prized possessions of their owners, and she told Sister Rose Marita in 2001 that she felt that quilting is really what kept her going.

She retired to the motherhouse in 2001, admitting that (after all) maybe she did need a walker, and that her eyes would not let her quilt much more. But she still enjoyed good health and rejoiced in the acquisition of two new hearing aids, with which she heard “every word the Bishop said in his homily.”

There is no way to thank all the care-givers in the Villa for all you did so beautifully for S. Mary B—and also to thank all the sisters who came to visit her so regularly. I’ve heard that S. Amelia, who lived with S. Mary Bertha at St. Angela’s in Louisville, has been a very faithful visitor up to the very last. The fact that S. Mary B. was able to propel herself in her wheel chair just a week before she died says a lot for her care!In 2005 when she was enjoying her 99th year, she reported that “With my walker I still walk to the cemetery every day. I sleep good at night…I am able to get to the rosary in the main chapel every day and enjoy Bingo and Bunco in the Villa…” What a blessing!

The last time I saw her when she was able to really communicate was the time my brother Don and I visited her. She was up—in her wheelchair—and making potholders! I don’t know who enjoyed the visit more—Don or Sister! And of course, she gifted us with her hand-made potholders.

Sincere thanks to all of our elected leaders for all you did for Sr. Mary Bertha, and for each of us…and if I have forgotten anyone, it is not intentional.To each of you who were a part of her life, S. Mary Bertha and I say “thank you!”

I can think of no better way to close these remarks than with the words of our founder, Saint Angela Merici, as she is quoted in the Office for the Dead: “God’s light and the joyful splendor of truth will surround us at the moment of death, and deliver us from the hands of the enemy ” (Last Legacy)

Rejoice! Rejoice! Always Rejoice!

Written by: Sister Rita Klarer
Historical Details by: Sister Michele Morek
Delivered by: Sister Ann McGrew
December 5, 2009

A “patchwork quilt” that honors Mary B. in a way she would love!