This article was originally published in 2009. Sister Mary Celine continues to teach at Mary Carrico School in Knottsville, Ky. This is her 14th year at the school.
“I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.” John, 15:11
The first noticeable trait of Ursuline Sister Mary Celine Weidenbenner is how easily she smiles.
“People will say to me, ‘What are you so happy about?’” she said. “Being joyful just comes naturally to me.”
Add in her inherent creativity, which she uses in both her craft work and in her classroom, and it’s no wonder people describe Sister Mary Celine as a joy to have around.
“I’ve been involved in schooling for 48 years, two-thirds of that as a principal, and she is truly exceptional as a teacher,” said Mike Clark, the principal at Mary Carrico Memorial School in Knottsville, Ky., where Sister Mary Celine has taught since fall 2007. “She has an incredible energy, and a passion for teaching and the students’ learning.”
Clark calls Sister Mary Celine “a powerful presence in the school and in the community” of St. William and St. Lawrence parishes. “The students are very fond of her and very responsive to her,” he said. “We’re very blessed by her presence.”
Within the first few minutes of her fifth-grade social studies class, it’s apparent there will be no boring recitation of facts. After a brief discussion of the Revolutionary War, Sister Mary Celine announces it’s time to shoot hoops. A plastic basketball goal, about 6 or 7 feet high, is set up and students on competing teams line up for a couple of shots with a small basketball. If they miss, their teammates tell them it’s OK. This is part of Learnball.
Learnball is an international classroom management program to improve student attendance, discipline, and schoolwork. “It involves consensus decision-making techniques and win-win point scoring—to create a novel learning environment,” according to its Web site. Sister Mary Celine began using Learnball in all her classes after taking a sabbatical in 1989.
“All the kids love it, they love shooting hoops,” she said.
She teaches social studies to fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, with no more than 11 students in a class. She teaches combined religion courses, with no more than 19 students, and also teaches art and square dancing. She had some students display their square dancing talents at the Mount last year.
“I learned from the old 78s from Sister Ruth Helen Flaherty at the Mount,” Sister Mary Celine says, as she pulls one of the 78-rpm records from a cabinet in her classroom. “The student council got me a new record player. Now we’re doing some line dancing.”
Any way she can be creative in the classroom, she’ll try. There are only 85 students in Mary Carrico, which appeals to Sister Mary Celine.
“It’s not so big I can’t do creative activities,” she said. “In lower grades, I did plays. In the third and fourth grades, I was bogged down in content. Now I can do content and let the children express it in their own way,” she said.
She has quick praise for the supportive staff at the school, which struggles each year to find the money to continue.
“I think she’s wonderful,” said Tamara Fulkerson, a teacher’s aide and a substitute teacher at Mary Carrico. She said the school is fortunate to have Sister Mary Celine.
“She’s somebody from a different vocation, and we get a different perspective,” Fulkerson said. “She’s so full of energy. Teaching these students is her No. 1 priority.
“It’s very important for our kids to see that, they don’t know what vowed life is,” Fulkerson said. “We’re struggling with having enough priests and sisters, they need to see their life.”
Students at Mary Carrico come in ready to learn, and seem to have a sense that they need to do their best to keep the school open, Sister Mary Celine said.
“I like the small school, you really get to know the kids, and know them outside the classroom,” she said. “I go to their ball games and different extracurricular activities. I helped clean up the side of the road for their class trip.”
Cotton patch kid
Born Theresia Marie Weidenbenner, she grew up in the Missouri boot heel of Glennonville, a place that has produced several Ursuline Sisters. Her parents were Isaac and Frances, who worked a small farm raising cotton, corn, beans, and alfalfa. “It was very tight knit. I grew up on a farm where church was central and school was central to our life,” she said. “We were very supportive of each other.”
She was taught by Ursuline Sisters, first in the public school, then in St. Teresa, and admired their life. “I was interested in a religious vocation, I just loved the sisters,” she said. “They were such a part of our life. If we brought in watermelons, we sat a box aside for the sisters.”
School started in July, and by mid-September the students would take a “cotton vacation” for six weeks to pick the crop. “We couldn’t wait for the sisters to come back,” she said. One of the sisters who had an impact on her in those days was Sister Frances Miriam Spalding, who is now retired at Maple Mount.
“I taught her in the first grade. She says I was instrumental in her entering the convent,” Sister Frances Miriam said. The first-grader thought sisters just prayed all the time and never got to play, but that changed when she met Sister Frances Miriam.
“I went out at recess and played with them – jump rope, cat and mouse, drop the handkerchief,” Sister Frances Miriam said. “When she found out she could pray and play, that’s what she wanted to do. She still has a playful heart,” Sister Frances Miriam said.
The two have been friends since Sister Mary Celine joined the Ursulines. They celebrate birthdays, go shopping, play cards, or just talk about their life in community.
“She has a deep spirituality. She loves God very much,” Sister Frances Miriam said. “She still has a youthful spirit in her heart.”
Sister Mary Celine had many cousins who were sisters in various religious orders, so the thought of a vowed life wasn’t uncommon. When the public high school closed in Glennonville in the 1950s, some students went to St. Louis for a Catholic education, while others – like Sister Mary Celine – came to Mount Saint Joseph Academy.
Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to the Academy until her sophomore year, but there were seven or eight other girls from Glennonville coming that year also. Still, leaving home at such a young age was difficult.
She first considered religious life as a seventh-grader, because of her high regard for the sisters. “The sisters in the lower grades would play with us during recess,” she said. “I knew they were for us to do our best. I felt this was my way to best worship God.”
As a senior in high school, she considered a cloistered community, but concedes her outgoing personality wouldn’t have fit there. One day, while walking the grounds at the Mount, she stopped at a stump that had a quote from Daniel (12:3), “They that instruct others into justice shall shine as stars for all eternity.” Sister Angeline Mattingly told Sister Mary Celine that was the Ursuline motto. “That’s when I started thinking seriously about the Ursulines,” she said.
The fall after she graduated in 1962, she joined as a postulant, and entered the novitiate in 1963, making this her 46th year as a sister. There was already a Theresa Marie in the community, so she took the name “Celine” because she was the sister of Saint Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower” who was her namesake. She and Sister Frances Miriam both have a devotion to Saint Therese – and the St. Louis Cardinals – two more reasons they remain close.
“She was carefree, and a very deep person,” said Sister Rose Marita O’Bryan, who was in the novitiate with Sister Mary Celine. “There was never anything surface about her. Her thinking, her articulation, they had a depth to them.”
Sister Mary Celine is someone who naturally thinks outside the box, Sister Rose Marita said. “There’s a uniqueness about everything she says.
“She’s a marvelous teacher. She’s so caring about the individual, that’s the face of Angela I see in Mary Celine,” Sister Rose Marita said. “Everything she says and does comes from a sincere place.”
A life in the classroom
Sister Mary Celine’s first ministry was from 1967-71 as a teacher at St. Peter of Alcantara in Stanley, Ky., not far from Maple Mount. “I didn’t think I’d like teaching, but I did really like the kids,” she said.
She taught third and fourth grades, with 42 to 47 students at a time over the years. “I went out and played ball with them at recess, or threw snow balls,” she said. “They remember those things.”
Ursuline Sister Laurita Spalding was also on her first mission at St. Peter, and the two have remained friends ever since.
“Sister Mary Celine was a dynamic teacher as a young sister, as she is today,” said Sister Laurita, who teaches in Henderson, Ky.“Her enthusiasm exudes from every pore of her being and her face lights up when she speaks of her experiences with her students. She is not hesitant to try the latest techniques and she is not afraid to put herself fully into the task at hand.”
While at St. Peter, Sister Mary Celine excitedly announced that she was going to try finger painting with more than 30 third-graders, Sister Laurita recalled. “Much to her surprise, she found out that the paint not only got on the paper provided, but somehow found its way to the back wall,” Sister Laurita said.“That particular room always had Sister’s mark on it.”
They spent four years together in Stanley. “Back in those days, we didn’t have a regular janitor, so Sister and I would find ourselves cleaning and waxing the floors most weekends,” Sister Laurita said.“Stanley is on top of a sand dune, so the sand would eat the wax away pretty quickly at the beginning of the week.”
In their free time they were usually engaged in one of Sister Mary Celine’s passions, jigsaw puzzles. “When you go to visit Sister these days, you can be sure to find a puzzle in progress and coming to its completion,” Sister Laurita said.
Sister Mary Celine’s skill as a teacher stems from her genuine concern for each child she meets, Sister Laurita said.
“She sees them as unique and loving children of God. In her teaching, she takes each child where she/he is and works to bring out the best in that child,” Sister Laurita said. “The children in return respond to Sister’s genuine goodness. When she is out in public, and her former students see her, they will run to greet her and do not hesitate to start talking about the good experiences they had with her as their former teacher.”
After St. Peter’s, Sister Mary Celine next taught fifth grade in a public school in Holy Cross, Ky., two difficult years in an area prone to violence and vandalism. Next she taught third grade at a public school in Calvary, Ky.
“I lived with four other sisters, we had a good time,” she said. Three of those sisters taught in a different nearby school. “I got into science curriculum development and outdoor classrooms. We taught faith formation one evening a week.”
In 1976, she became principal for the first time and head teacher at St. Alphonsus School, across the highway from the Mount. “I was principal out of holy obedience, I didn’t want to be just the principal,” she said.
She loved working with the students, but credits God with giving her the skills to handle the administrative chores.
Helen Hermann was a teacher’s aide and secretary at St. Alphonsus during those years, and the two remain close friends.
“She plays the guitar, and she told the children if they had permission to stay after school, she would teach them the basic chords,” Hermann said. “It was unbelievable in a little country school to have someone donate that much of her time for those students.”
Sister Mary Celine’s methods in teaching religion also got the student’s attention, Hermann said. “You could tell she meant what she said.”
Hermann’s nickname for her is “Spring.” “She loves spring, it’s the most beautiful, joyful time of the year.”
After nine years at St. Alphonsus, she spent four years teaching at St. Joseph School in Mayfield, in far western Kentucky. She’d had a difficult situation at the end of her tenure at St. Alphonsus, and during her years in Mayfield her mother was in declining health, so the pressure on her grew. That led her to take a sabbatical to St. Paul, Minn., where she stayed with the Derham community, run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet.
“You take programs and look at your life. It was a great experience,” Sister Mary Celine said. “When I got there, I sensed the spirit. It’s a lovely community, with people you could share with. I found it renewing.”
She got back into teaching in 1991 at St. Mary Middle School in Paducah, Ky., but after 15 years there, she decided she needed a break from the classroom. She spent a year working in Owensboro at the Precious Blood Catholic Church day care program in 2006-07. “I loved them, but I wanted to go back to teaching,” she said. That’s when the opportunity opened at Mary Carrico.
Sister Mary Celine cannot recall a time when she wasn’t creative.
“On the farm, we’d watch each other put on plays,” she said. “I’ve done embroidery since the second grade. My mom taught me that,” she said. She would use the picture of a Dutch girl on a salt sack as the template to sew around.
She uses those embroidery skills today to make the beautiful tops for the quilts that are raffled off at Maple Mount. She works on her embroidery at home, a small place just a stone’s throw from the school in Knottsville. She usually takes three to four months to finish a piece, and then she starts on the next one.
Hanging on her wall is an intricate crewelwork piece called “Best Friends” that she made during her days at St. Alphonsus. She turned it in to the Mount to be sold, but Hermann and some others bought it and gave it back to her for a Christmas present.
“We decided as hard as she worked on it, she needed to have it for herself,” Hermann said.
She lives by herself, but makes it a point to come to the Mount once a month to spend the night, play cards, and enjoy the sisters. She walks in the woods behind her home for fun.
Aside from jigsaw puzzles and the guitar, Sister Mary Celine is also involved in clogging, and she once sang with the Paducah Symphony Choir. That offered her the opportunity to sing in the Czech Republic and in Austria.
She disputes the notion that some adults aren’t creative. “You don’t ever hear kids say they can’t do something because they aren’t creative.”
She hopes to teach at Mary Carrico at least another five years, but knows it’s a yearly struggle to keep the school open.
Looking back on her years in the Ursuline community, Sister Mary Celine knows that her religious life proved to be her best way to serve God — but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.
While most everyone brings up Sister Mary Celine’s joyfulness and creativity first, Sister Laurita is quick to point out that she is someone who loves God and puts prayer at the top of her list of priorities.
“With God at her side, Mary Celine faces each day full of joy,” Sister Laurita said.“She is a just a fun person to get to know and love.”
By Dan Heckel