In Remembrance of Sister Mary Irene Cecil, OSU
December 27, 2018
Sister Amelia Stenger, OSU
Gratitude is a daily practice. One may define gratitude as “the quality of being thankful.” We can also think of it as an attitude, emotion, personal trait or behavioral practice. It is a word that we can surely use to describe Sister Mary Irene. While she was in the hospital and not responding to anything or anyone, she sneezed and one of the nurses said, “God bless you,” and Sister Mary Irene said, “Thank you.” She showed her gratitude even in her last hours. Hers was a life filled with gratitude.
Mary Leona Cecil grew up just two miles from the Mount on Cecil Road. She was the daughter of Arthur Cecil and Irene Hite Cecil. She was born on April 11, 1927 and was the fourth of seven children. Her brothers and sisters were Marion Cecil, Martin Cecil, Thomas Cecil, then Mary Leona (Sister Mary Irene), Winifred Cecil Riney, Hubert Joseph who died as an infant and Mary Irene who also died as an infant.) Tommy, we offer you and all your family and friends our prayers and sympathy. You have been so faithful to Sister Mary Irene over the years.
Mary Leona was baptized on April 17, 1927 at St. Alphonsus Church by Fr. Joseph Diemert. In May of 1934 she was confirmed by Bishop John A. Floersh at St. Alphonsus Church.
She started school at St. Alphonsus across the highway from the Mount in the first grade. At that time the Catholic children were not allowed to ride the public-school buses so she and her two brothers rode a horse to school. She was always the one who rode in the middle. Due to a lack of classroom space at St. Alphonsus, she attended classes at the Mount in second, third and fourth grades. The Sisters who were in training to teach were able to do their student teaching with her classes. Some of those sisters who taught her were Sister Aloysius Wathen, Sr. Rose Alice Morgan and Sister Agnes Marie Smith.
Her high school years were spent at Mount Saint Joseph Academy as a day student. Some of her teachers were some strong women of the community: Sister Joan Brown, Sr. Johanna Lechner, Sister Lucita Greenwell, Sister Joseph Marie Williams and Sister Mary Ephrem Clements. (Sister Joseph Marie was still at the Mount in the 60’s when I was in the Academy.) It was during her senior year that she knew she wanted to enter the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.
On September 7, 1945, Mary Leona entered the community. On August 14, 1946, she began her novitiate year with six other young women and became Sister Mary Irene Cecil which was the name of her little sister who had died. The others in her class were Sister James Alice Goode, Sister Marita Greenwell, Sister Jeanne Mary Hardesty, Sister Agnes Mary Johnson, Sister Rita Klarer and Sister Mary Carl Sherron. She made her first vows on August 15, 1948 and her final vows on August 15, 1951.
Her first teaching assignment was in the year she made her first vows, 1948. It was at Immaculate Conception School in Earlington, KY, where she taught grades one through four. When I was principal there many years later, I heard a story about a child with cerebral palsy named Garth Gamblin, who started school there. He couldn’t walk up and down the steps, so the sisters carried him. He became a wonderful reporter for the Madisonville newspaper. In one story, he wrote that he would not have had an education if the Ursuline Sisters hadn’t accepted him in the school and helped him so much. He never gave the Sister’s name, but the years correspond to the time that Sister Mary Irene taught there.
After two years, she moved to St. Brigid in Vine Grove, KY where she taught first and second grades. She said that first graders were always her favorite because they were so open and eager to learn. During the following years she taught at Holy Cross in Loretto, Ky, then, moved to Good Shepherd School in Hillsboro, Mo. In 1961 she taught at St. Joseph School in Leitchfield, KY. She returned to Earlington, Ky where she taught Kindergarten and finished her teaching Career at Seven Holy Founders School in Affton, MO. There, she taught one of the first-grade classes because the school was so large. There was a small piece of paper in her file that was written by Sister Mary Anselm about Sister Mary Irene when they were at Seven Holy Founders. The paper said, “The thing I remember most about Sister Mary Irene is the way in which she showed her usual gentleness, kindliness, thoughtfulness. My Sister was housekeeper at Seven Holy Founders when Sister Mary Irene was teaching there. Each afternoon when school was out “Little Irene” would drop in the kitchen to joke and spend a few pleasant moments. Sister Mary Concepta loved her for it. In her estimation, “Little Irene” was ready for canonization any day.”
During all those years of teaching, she was taking classes to get her degree. It was so interesting to know that she taught in the lower grades all those years, but she received a bachelor’s degree in French and a minor in English in 1966. She received her master’s degree in Education from the University of Kentucky in 1973. Her initial classes were taken at Mount Saint Joseph Junior College which by the time she graduated in 1966 was Brescia College (now University) in Owensboro.
In 1969, she was asked to take the position as one of the supervisors of teachers in the Archdiocese of Louisville. Her job was to visit schools to observe teachers and help with curriculum if needed. She said they called them “snoopervisors’ because they watched the people teach and gave them suggestions on their teaching methods.
There were many challenges for her in this position. The first was the fact that she didn’t drive. In those days, the rules said that sisters who lived together on a mission only needed one driver so Sister Mary Irene had never learned. At age 42, she spent the summer before she moved to Louisville, learning how to drive. One school she visited after she got her license was on a one-way street that switched its direction of travel in the afternoon. She was only planning to be in the school for an hour but stayed longer. When she came out, her car had been towed. When you are towed in Louisville it is hard to get your car back.
One summer while working on her master’s degree at the University of Kentucky, her car wouldn’t start. She needed to get back to Louisville, so a man showed her how to start a car by lifting the hood and using a nail in a well-placed spot. So, she became educated on how to hot-wire a car. She served in the Archdiocese of Louisville from 1969 to 1976. We are not sure how many times she had to use her hot-wiring skills.
Her life changed again when she was elected to the Council in 1974 to fill an unexpired term. She came back to the Mount monthly for meetings for the next year and then was elected to a four-year term on the council in 1976. She served as a member of the Council until she was elected superior in 1980. One of the biggest decisions that was made during her time in office was the closing of Mount Saint Joseph Academy. It was a very difficult one for all the sisters, students and alumnae. The Academy had offered education for girls for 109 years. She and many of the Sisters had attended the Academy. The decision was made, and she handled the difficulties with grace and patience. She worked with the Sisters to open the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center in 1983.
The year before in 1982, a new Bishop arrived in the Diocese of Owensboro. Bishop McRaith met with Sister Mary Irene and the Council and was filled with gratitude for what the Ursulines had done for the diocese. Our Sisters had taught in most of the small parishes in rural areas in the Owensboro diocese and in the Louisville Archdiocese. He wanted to show his support of the Sisters and the new retreat center so his first planning meeting with his new staff was held at the Conference and Retreat Center and he said it would become the Spiritual Life Office for the Diocese. It remains that today. When asked why he was hiring so many Ursulines, he said that they were the best trained for the jobs that needed to be done.
Some of the words used to describe Sister Mary Irene during her years of leadership were intelligent, perceptive, compassionate, caring and trusting. She served quietly but powerfully as a servant leader.
After completing her term as superior she took a sabbatical. When she returned, Bishop McRaith asked her to come to the Catholic Pastoral Center to become the Director of Adult Formation and later the Director of Lay Ministry and the Coordinator of the staff. She was instrumental in having each parish name a layperson to the deanery meetings that had previously been only for priests in the diocese. She also helped train people for parish council work going by herself many times in the evenings to give the training.
It was during this time that the Catholic Pastoral Center moved from the location by Lourdes parish to the place where it is today next to the Cathedral. She was involved in organizing the move and when it came time to travel down the street, she climbed into the back of the truck and sat in Bishop Soenneker’s Bishop chair between two fig trees that formed the most wonderful picture. Several of us were sitting on the floor of the truck waving to everyone while she was waving from the Bishop’s chair. People were honking, and we were all laughing like crazy. It was such a great day and a good year. She brought a wonderful spirit of servant leadership to the staff at the Catholic Pastoral Center.
She brought that same spirit to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Owensboro, when she became the minister to the sick in 1996 and later to the Mount when she became the co-director of Pastoral Care in the Villa. She looked after the spiritual needs of the Sisters for seven years along with Sister Clarita. They were kind and always trying to find ways to take care of the Sisters. Sister Mary Irene said she’d like people to know that, “Ursuline Sisters are here to be of service to others, and to show God’s love by the way we give that service. We are here for service.”
At the beginning of this remembrance, I spoke about gratitude and how Sister Mary Irene was so filled with gratitude for all that was given to her. Tonight, we are filled with gratitude for the life of this special woman of Faith.
Thank you, Sister Mary Irene, for blessing us with your presence and for the service you gave to our Ursuline Community.