Wake Service Reflection: Sister Mary David Thomas, OSU
Father Dan Hirtz, Sister Mary David’s pastor in the Missouri Ozarks, said “Sister, I love you because you love to serve…I admire your ability to cut yourself free from all that was familiar, to seek new things. I marvel at your daring to try new and difficult adventures.”
Early the morning of October 3, 2007 (just about the time one would set out for a serious fishing expedition) Sister Mary David Thomas set out on her last great adventure, through the gates of death into the arms of the Great Fisherman.
Her first adventure began on June 20, 1910 in Saint Louis, Missouri, when she was born to William Thomas (Pat) Thomas and Susan Elizabeth Wathen, both of Lebanon, Kentucky. She was baptized Josephine Elizabeth Thomas at Saint Thomas Aquinas Church in Saint Louis. However, she left several sets of strict instructions that we were to refer to her as “Elizabeth”—and so it shall be. Elizabeth joined elder brother Lawrence David; younger sister Mary Prudence was born soon after, and would be known to us as Sister Mary DeSales. Family was very important to Sister Mary David—several places in her files I found references to nieces and nephews Patrick, Donald, Susan, Ann, Geneva Mae and Rita. We Ursuline sisters extend our special sympathy to you, her family members.
Her father Pat had been working as a streetcar conductor in St. Louis, but decided that the city was no place to raise children. He and his brother-in-law George bought a big farm in Marion County Kentucky, and the two families moved into the big house together. Shortly after the move, Pat died of typhoid fever, leaving Susan with three small children, three months to five years old. They lived with the Wathen family for many years, but eventually moved to “Little Saint Joe” near Raywick, Kentucky, where they lived right over the hill from the Ursuline sisters, and she enjoyed running errands for them.
Elizabeth had attended a one-room public school through third grade, but went to Little Saint Joseph from fourth through tenth grades, where she was taught by Sisters Patricia and Mary Edna. Her last two years of high school were at Mount Saint Joseph.
She loved her teachers, and she and several of her friends had many long conversations about entering the convent. They would laugh over the names they enjoyed picking out for each other, but the very next week would pick out the names they were going to give their children. Finally Elizabeth and her cousin Catherine decided to enter together, but Catherine’s mother got sick and so Elizabeth just decided to go to the Mount with the sisters when they returned home for the summer.
She entered by herself on June 25, 1927, and was joined later by Catherine and the rest of her classmates. Since she had entered first, she was considered the “mother” of the class and commented that “in those days they really took that sort of thing seriously!” On March 19, 1928, the Feast of Saint Joseph, the class entered the novitiate. Elizabeth received the name Mary David, and Catherine Wathen became George Marie. Their other classmates included Sisters Mary Celeste McCue, Mary Wilfrid Hayden, Rose Beatrice Murphy, Rose Francis Mahoney, Michaeline Brumlow, Rose Ann Boone, Mary Oda Mudd, Jean Mark Buckler, Mary Damien Abell, Martin Gertrude Mattingly, Joseph Ursula Barker, and Mary Edith Coomes.
Sister Mary David made an Angela Retreat during which she was asked to write her autobiography, which she updated at age 84. Her story is so rich in detail and reveals such a wonderful sense of humor that it was hard to pick and choose. She told some good stories about her novitiate: my favorite was about Sister Leo, her beloved Novice Director, and how the group cracked up when Sister Leo said “Let us pray for our potatoes: Eternal rest grant unto them oh Lord…”
Her first teaching mission was grades 1-2 at Flaherty. Other teaching assignments in her forty-nine years as an Ursuline educator took her to Waverly, Louisville (St. Paul School), St. Raphael, Sorgho, Vine Grove, Fredericktown, Knottsville, Holy Cross, Owensboro (Sts. Joseph and Paul), Clementsville, Calhoun, St. Alphonsus, Raywick (St. Joseph), Lebanon, Leitchfield, and St. Francis in Kentucky and Glennonville, Missouri. The only mission she and Mary DeSales were on together was at St. Paul’s, Louisville—and they were there for the ’37 flood. A boat came to pick them up off their porch, taking them to a waiting cattle truck that delivered them to Saint James. They waited out the flood in Marion County, and Sister Mary David still remembered the names of the books she enjoyed during their “flood vacation.”
She loved her teaching career, and her former students attest that she was a wonderful teacher. I got the idea from reading her story that she really enjoyed teaching the boys, who loved her for her sense of fun and adventurous spirit. At Clementsville, for example, the convent was perched on a steep hill, and it was a challenge to walk down it when it snowed. One morning a group of her boys met her at the front door and offered to take her down to the school on a sled. Of course she agreed, books and papers and all. The hill was a little steeper than the boys had bargained for, so they bailed out on the way down, leaving Mary David to land upside-down at the bottom of the hill, and the books and papers scattered all over the hillside.
Her preparation for teaching included a B.S. in Education from Catherine Spalding, (with major coursework in English and social studies). In 1965, Marion County Superintendent Hugh Spalding asked for a volunteer to be trained to teach special education. She asked Mother Joseph Marian, who told her “go for it,” so she took courses for six years at the University of Kentucky to acquire an M.S. in Education with an emphasis in Special Education. She taught Special Education at several schools over the next 12 years. As you can imagine, she became a fierce advocate for her students.
In 1970 she wrote a letter to Superintendent Spalding, complaining about the treatment the Special Education children were getting. She observed that no one in his office had any formal training in the area, and she listed several examples showing their lack of understanding of the children’s needs. One of his staff members had commented that “Special Education children don’t need books,” and then grudgingly sent 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade books for her high school students, so that they could “enjoy the pictures!” Sister Mary David’s comment on that? “Only a 16 or 17 year old idiot would enjoy such pictures, and these kids are certainly not idiots.” She went on to recommend a book for Mr. Spalding to read, and mentioned several people he could bring in as consultants.
When she retired from the Marion County schools at the mandatory age of 65, she accepted a job at Grayson County Junior High. She was the only Catholic on a faculty of 30 teachers—and loved it. She said she had never received such support and friendship. When she left there, the faculty presented her with a complete outfit of fishing equipment. At that point she went to Sister Annalita and asked what she should do then. It turns out a young priest from Missouri had been there the day before, asking for a retired sister to be a “Catholic presence” in Van Buren and Piedmont. She later said that was the most interesting time of her life: she officiated at a funeral, took several float trips down the Current River, and went on many short “pilgrimages” with Father Dan. They still ask about her in Van Buren and Piedmont, and always sent her their love when we visited there.
In 1981, her health began to deteriorate. She had to have a kidney removed, and later had a hip replacement. She came home to the Mount and began an entirely new career, 14 years of “foot ministry.” At one time she had 82 sister-clients for foot care, plus a few mission sisters who would drop by now and then. She commented that many of her patients died, but not of foot problems!
Sister Mary David retired for the last time in 1997, but continued to minister compassionately to the infirm sisters. She loved caring for others more than she liked being cared for—but she would want me to thank the Villa staff, pastoral care sisters, and each Ursuline sister here for the loving care she received over the past few years.
Mary David, you were fearless and funny, a dearly-loved teacher and a loving minister to your sisters. You were your own person, yet a loyal member of the community. What a woman! The scripture quote that kept coming to my mind as I prepared this reflection was from the last chapter of Proverbs: “She is girt about with strength, and sturdy are her arms. She enjoys the success of her dealings; at night her lamp is undimmed. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come. Give her a reward of her labors, and let her works praise her…” We love and praise you, Dave!
Michele Morek, OSU
October 4, 2007