Sister Mary Clement Greenwell, OSU

Wake Reflection: Sister Mary Clement Greenwell, OSU

At a little after 3:00 in the early morning of September 23, 2009, Sister Mary Clement Greenwell got her wish to go home—at the age of 101, five months, and one day, in the 82nd year of her religious life. She died only a few miles from where she was born in Curdsville, Kentucky, on April 22, 1908. Baptized at Saint Elizabeth Church, she was given the name Mary Magdalen by her mother, Elizabeth Sauer Byrne Greenwell and her father, Matthew. Her mother’s first marriage was to Augusta Byrne, who died leaving her with three sons (Leo, Michael, and Wallace) and a daughter (Anna Marie) from that marriage. A year later Elizabeth married Matthew Greenwell, later adding seven Greenwells to the family: Mary, Emma, Rose, Homer, Lester, Clement, and Julius.

Mary’s mother was from Stanley, and her father had been raised in Whitesville, but he had been among the early Kentucky colonists of the San Juan River Valley at Waterflow. According to the book, Candles of the Lord, he found the mesas of New Mexico less appealing than “his own Green River Hills, so he returned to Curdsville Kentucky, reared a large family…and became one of Daviess Country’s prosperous and leading citizens” on his farm in Curdsville.

The family was deeply religious. Matthew attended daily Mass and gathered the family together for morning and evening prayer. Even when teen-aged Mary and her sisters were entertaining their dates, they were called into the family room to say the Rosary with the rest of the family. Although her mother was not Catholic, she helped raise the children in that faith, and joined the church herself after Sister Mary Clement was in the convent. One of Sister’s most vivid memories was of her first communion day, a bitter January day in 1917. She awoke early and went to the window, filled with excitement. She ran her finger down the frosted pane and put a bit of ice in her mouth…then began to cry, “I broke my fast!” Her mother sent an older sister to tell the priest what happened. He didn’t think that would count as breaking the fast, and the day was saved.

Sister Mary Clement was devoted to her family, enjoying every one of the visits with nieces and nephews, and visiting her sister Emma every weekend at Curdsville until Emma died in 1994, leaving Sister Mary Clement as the last living member of the family of eleven children. In the name of all the Ursuline Sisters, I extend our special love and sympathy to you, her family.

Mary attended St. Elizabeth School from grades 1-11. Some of the sisters she remembered teaching her were Sisters Andrew, Patricia, Angela Marie, and Carmelita. She finished high school at the Mount, after entering the novitiate on January 21, 1927. Sisters who entered with her were Sisters Joseph Lawrence, Mary Ephrem, Agnes Jean, and Severia, “all wonderful people, lively but sincere,” she said—and she liked her Novice Director (Sister Leo) too—“strict but kind.” They attended classes in the Academy, worked in the laundry, scrubbed floors, washed dishes, and served tables. Around Christmas in 1928, Mother Agnes came to the novitiate and gave them a talk, saying “I can do all things with God who strengthens me”…and a week or so later Mary found herself substitute teaching for a week in grades 1-2 at Stanley, then to New Haven for a month in grades 11-12, and finally to Chicago (Kentucky) for the rest of the year in grades 7-8. “Such experience!” she exclaimed. “Was I so glad and ready to come home to MSJ!” And she added, “Evidently I didn’t do any harm, as several of those girls entered the convent after graduation.” Evidently the community thought she had done all right, too, for she made her first vows the following August 15, 1929.

After teaching for a year in the high school at St. Joseph in Owensboro, she was in the first group of Ursulines to go to Glennonville, Missouri, where she taught 68 children in grades 1-4, “during the Depression years.” There was not enough room for all the children in her classes, so the 4th graders had to go to the higher grades’ classroom to study, and return just to recite their lessons. She liked it in Glennonville; the people were good to them, bringing them canned goods and big jars of sauerkraut, and she especially liked the cotton vacations—that’s when she learned to crochet. She later taught in Affton Missouri, and in Farmington, New Mexico. Teaching experiences in Kentucky took her to Flaherty, Fredericktown, Holy Cross, Saint Charles, New Haven, Raywick, Clementsville, Peonia, Blessed Mother and Immaculate in Owensboro, and Saint Margaret Mary in Louisville.

Parents and colleagues referred to her as a teacher who believed that the most unlikely learner could become a good teacher, capable of pursuing, with proper motivation and support, a college degree. She took great delight in putting on seasonal programs with her students. One of her original plays, The First Thanksgiving, was published in the Catholic School Journal in 1965, when she was teaching at Peonia.

After teaching for 50 years, she entered a very rich and fulfilling stage of her life, living with other retired sisters at Saint Boniface, an old inner-city parish in Louisville where she did outreach ministry for 11 years. She worked at University Hospital, at a nearby cancer center, in nursing homes, and at the Red Cross Blood Donor Center. She taught English to refugees, Bible classes for African- American children, and religion classes for adult converts. Many certificates of appreciation in her personal files attest to those hundreds and hundreds of hours of good works. She was active in the anti-abortion movement, demonstrating on street corners and writing letters to the editor. In her spare time she served meals to guests in the Saint Boniface Soup Kitchen. She had some fun, too, joining a senior citizen’s choral group that serenaded rest homes, nutrition centers, and even City Hall. She said she taped one of their performances and as she played it back later, she could better understand the hard-to-conceal frowns on their young director’s brow! “But,” she said. “The residents seemed to enjoy and appreciate it.”

And she did not enter those new ministries unprepared: to her schooling from Mount Saint Joseph Junior College, Saint Louis University, Catholic Teacher’s College in Albuquerque, Brescia, and Western Kentucky, she added training programs for ministry to the sick and aged, tutoring, literacy and adult learning, ministry to cancer victims, and many others.

In 1989 she retired to the motherhouse, saying that she hoped to help her “aged and sick sisters with the strength the Lord continues to give me…” And she was a strong woman, which may help to explain those 101 years. Retirement surely did not slow her down very much! She had written her philosophy of life down: it read, “Do all the good you can, to all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as you can.” She helped with the sick sisters, made quilts, crocheted baby blankets for Birthright and lap robes for the elderly in nursing homes, embroidered pillow cases for the picnic, and even continued her outreach activities by going to the Curdsville Senior Citizens gathering each Monday for lunch and visiting, for which she received the Green River Aging Service Award. The Rosary had always been an important part of her life since childhood, so she would lead a daily Rosary in chapel, in addition to her holy hour. And of course she continued with one of her chief joys in life—playing cards. She considered a day without cards as a day without sunshine. And she was good at those card games. She would resort to Solitaire when she couldn’t find three other people to play with, but liked the competition and the companionship.

Sister Mary Clement aged with peace, grace and beauty. I never saw her out of sorts or not wearing her pleasant smile. I never knew her to be anything but appreciative of the good care she received in the Villa, and want to thank Randy Shelby, all the nursing staff, and our sisters in pastoral ministry for the loving service you gave our sister. In 1996 (13 years ago!) Sister Mary Clement said God was “waiting, for some reason, to call me Home.” Though we thought God was actually knocking on her door at least three times in the last few years, we would come back the next day to find her sitting up in bed eating a hearty breakfast. Well, dear Clem, you finally made it. We send you forth with our blessing and our thanks for all those years of being a good Ursuline woman.

As Sister Annalita said in her Celebrating Our Sisters article on Sister Mary Clement, “If the Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines in heaven are not playing cards when Sister Mary Clement arrives, she will convince them that it is a heavenly practice.” But my favorite mental picture of Sister Mary Clement will always be of her sitting peacefully outdoors, just outside the Villa, smiling into the warmth of the sun on her face. We believe now she is sitting in the light of eternity, smiling into the warmth that God reserves for those who love tenderly and do justice…and we rejoice with her.

Sr. Michele Morek, OSU
Congregational Leader
September 24, 2009