Sister Mary Irene Cecil, OSU: Spiritual quiet fires still burns

Sisters in Ministry Update:

In 2009, Sister Mary Irene Cecil left her ministry as co-director of pastoral care and spent the next nine years as a seamstress for the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph at the Motherhouse. She went to heaven on Dec. 22, 2018.

Sister Mary Irene and Sister Clarita Browning, sitting, serve the spiritual needs of the sisters in Saint Joseph Villa as co-directors of pastoral care.

Sister Mary Irene Cecil began her years as an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph shaping the youngest of students and sending them on their way. Now after 62 years as a sister, she’s helping guide other sisters on their final spiritual journey.

Sister Mary Irene has touched many lives over the years, but no matter who one asks, the same words are used to describe her: Gentle, compassionate, sensitive to others, and most of all, deeply spiritual.

“I’ve always found Sister Mary Irene good to work with, she’s very generous, and very compassionate,” said Sister Clarita Browning, who, along with Sister Mary Irene, is co-director of pastoral care in Saint Joseph Villa, the long-term care facility at Maple Mount.

The two are responsible for making sure the spiritual needs of the sisters in the Villa are met. “We make sure they get the sacraments, religious exercises, intercessions, anointing of the sick,” Sister Mary Irene said. “When they are near death, we make sure someone is sitting with them and praying with them at all times.”

Sister Rose Emma Monaghan is a resident of Saint Joseph Villa and on the receiving end of Sister Mary Irene’s ministry. “She’s so very thoughtful, cheerful, and so spiritual,” Sister Rose Emma said. “I’ve known her since she was in grade school.

“She’s always been a very sensitive person to the feelings of others,” Sister Rose Emma said. “She was our superior for eight years, you really have to have talent for that. It’s amazing how young she was when she was elected superior (53). It showed they had confidence in her.”

Her current role allows Sister Mary Irene to develop relationships with sisters that perhaps she hadn’t had before. It’s very rewarding, but it’s a ministry that is at times very difficult.

“We get very close to the sisters,” she said. “We see the gradual decline, it’s so hard to see that happen.”

Sister Agnes Catherine Williams, who died in 2007, was Sister Mary Irene’s first-grade teacher. “It helps me to think about my own end,” she said.

Sister Clarita said having Sister Mary Irene to talk with is important. “We are aware of things that the nurses or aides may not be aware of,” Sister Clarita said. “If I were alone, I would find it very difficult, because one person’s opinion doesn’t carry as much weight.”

A Mount girl

Mary Leona Cecil grew up two miles from the Mount on Cecil Road, the daughter of Arthur and Irene Cecil. Her father farmed and her mother was a seamstress. She had four aunts who were Ursuline Sisters, so she knew a lot about the Mount.

When she was in the first grade at St. Alphonsus School, across the highway from the Mount, Catholic students were not allowed to ride the public school bus, so she and two of her brothers rode a horse to school. She was always in the middle. “I can still hear my mother saying to my brother, ‘Don’t fall off the back end.’”

Sister Elizabeth Ann Ray checks out the nametag worn by Sister Mary Irene as they visit in the hallway at Saint Joseph Villa.

Due to a lack of classroom space, Sister Mary Irene attended St. Alphonsus classes at the Mount in second, third and fourth grades. “It was good for the college students, they could do their student teaching here,” she said.

Sister Mary Irene came to Mount Saint Joseph Academy for high school as a day student, and got along well with the boarding students. It was during her senior retreat when she knew she wanted to enter the Ursuline Sisters, but it wasn’t decided until after she graduated in 1945. She entered that fall, and the following year entered the novitiate and took her mother’s name as Sister Mary Irene.

Sister Rita Klarer, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., was one of six members of Sister Mary Irene’s novice class, as was Sister Marita Greenwell. “When it came time for the group to stage one of their uniquelymarvelous presentations, they had to find a name for the group. They became JELL-O — the Six Delicious Flavors,” Sister Rita said. “Irene became Orange, a name that fit her perfectly.Oranges are delicious, wholesome, bright and very good for you.That’s Irene!”

Sister Rita recalled an important role Sister Mary Irene played for the other postulants. “As investment day approached, the postulantsrealized that they had absolutely no candy to get them through retreat,” she said.“So, Irene and the others found a basket, topped it with a plaintive sign as totheir candy-poverty, placed it in the dining room, and waited. Just a few hours later, there was all the candy anyone could wish for.”


Sister Mary Irene was a teacher for the first 21 years of her ministry, with the first stop at Immaculate Conception School in Earlington, Ky. She had 30 students, but it was grades 1-4 in one classroom. “It was hard, but we got through it,” she said.

After two years, she moved to St. Brigid in Vine Grove, Ky., near Fort Knox, where she taught first and second grades. First-graders were always her favorite, because they are so open and eager to learn.