Wake Reflection for Sister Mary Jovita Milner, OSU
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. Early in the morning of August 24th, the feast of Saint Bartholomew and after 27 years in ministry at Saint Bartholomew, Sister Mary Jovita Milner, with the help of Saint Bartholomew, felt the grip of her Lord strengthen about her as she was drawn completely into Jesus’ loving embrace and fully home at last.
This life, shared so fully with her dear Lord, began August 15, 1921, in Platteville, Colorado, when Mary Teresa Milner, “the second living child,” was born to Mary Edith Collard and James Sylvester Milner. Teresa joined her older sister Rita, and was followed by three brothers – James, Stanley, Joseph – and her “baby sister,” Marcella Ann, for whom she had the honor “and obligation” to sponsor at her baptism. Marcella, and their adopted brother, Reverend Peter Hsu, remain – and to you, Marcella, and Father Peter, we Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph extend our condolences and prayers.
Teresa was baptized at Saint Nicholas Church in Platteville, and immediately impressed her community with her open and loving heart, when – at the age of 15 months – she placed third out of 63 contestants, winning the bronze medal in the Better Baby Contest of Boulder County, Colorado. Her mother seemed certain she could have taken the top prize if she hadn’t been “just a little underweight.” The people of Boulder County certainly knew quality when they saw it.
The Milner family soon returned to Kentucky and Teresa completed grade school in Clarkson, Kentucky, and encountered her first Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph – Sisters Teresa Thomas and Ursula Jenkins – as a freshman and sophomore at the high school in Peonia, Kentucky. Teresa finished her high school years at Bethlehem Academy with the Sisters of Loretto.
In 1940, just a year after her graduation from high school with the Sisters of Loretto, Teresa became a postulant with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. She said, “teaching is the reason for choosing the Ursuline Sisters . . . in this position I get to stay close to those I love – the Children.” And indeed, that love must have been so clear, for while still in the novitiate, Mother Ambrose “put a black veil” on Sister Mary Jovita and sent her to teach at Saint Elizabeth’s in Curdsville.
On August 14, 1941, Teresa celebrated her entrance into the novitiate and accepted the name, Sister Mary Jovita, noting that she has been given the name “Mary” at both her Baptism and Confirmation, and now had received “Mother Mary’s name three times when I got my name as a Sister.” Celebrating that strong connection with Mother Mary was significant throughout her life.
Sister Mary Jovita’s family surrounded her with love in her decisions to enter religious life; letters from her mother to Mother Teresita refer to “our dear little Teresa” and hoped that “ ‘Sr.’ Teresa would not be too large a burden to the community.” We can assure Sister Mary Jovita’s mother that she most certainly was not a burden.
Sister Mary Jovita joined a vigorous and active class within her novitiate – Sisters Consolata Stallings, Mary Corda Carrico, Dorothy Marie Willett, Jean Gertrude Mudd, Mary Evelyn Duvall, Ruth Ann Essex, and Mary Pauletta McCarty, together with Sisters Maureen Brown and Mary Anacletus Mouser who later left. Sisters Jean Gertrude, Mary Evelyn, and Pauletta are still with us today; to you – Sister Mary Jovita’s classmates – we, your sisters, offer our prayers and sympathy.
Even before taking her first vows on her 22nd birthday – August 15, 1943 – Sister Mary Jovita had already been teaching a year at St. Elizabeth’s in Curdsville. For more than the next 56 years, she stepped forth in the love of God, teaching the primary grades at nine different missions. For the first 22 years, she taught in Kentucky at St. Elizabeth’s (Curdsville), St. Joseph (soon to be Saints Joe and Paul in Owensboro), St. Catherine’s (New Haven), St. Anthony’s (Peonia), and St. Andrew’s (Harrodsburg). For 12 years in New Mexico she taught at Sacred Heart in Farmington and at St. Charles’ in Albuquerque. In 1976, Sister Mary Jovita returned to Kentucky, to St. Denis’ in Louisville, and in 1983, she found her last home at St. Bartholomew’s – teaching until 1998, serving in parish outreach ministry and part-time tutoring until 2006, and engaging in telephone outreach even through this year.
When asked if she could explain why her ministry was worthwhile, she gave an emphatic “YES,” citing the “immediate reward of seeing the joy and happiness on a child’s face when [that child] LEARNS . . . [and] to have a former pupil [return to] share heartaches [or] problems because they KNOW that I care.”
While living in New Mexico, Sister Mary Jovita had opportunities to maintain her birth connections with Colorado, teaching with Sister Jean Richard the summer catechism missions (vacation bible school) in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Sister Jean Richard recalls that Sister Mary Jovita once scolded the children (drawing on her “eastern” upbringing) for “acting like a bunch of Indians.” Well, of course they were Indians – she and Sister Jean Richard shared hearty laughter about that one. There in Colorado, Sister Mary Jovita also met Betty Ocano, who helped her and Sister Jean Richard find housing and who would become Sister Mary Jovita’s cherished and faithful friend and companion. To Betty, we Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph also offer our prayers and condolences.
After returning to Kentucky, Sister Mary Jovita’s health worsened, but, as we have already seen, poor health never stopped such a one as she. In those years, she cared for her mother and taught and ministered at Saint Bartholomew; but that was not enough for Sister Mary Jovita:
- She became a public voice – In 1984, her letter to the editor was published in the National Catholic Reporter
- She became a published author – In 1986, Today’s Catholic Teacher included Sister Mary Jovita’s “Build a Better World” in their “Project: Sharing” section
- She gained new skills – In 1988, at the age of 67, because she needed the skills so she “could be a help from time to time,” Sister Mary Jovita obtained her driver’s license
- She crocheted a few booties – From 1984, when she first became aware of the opening of the Pregnancy Center in Louisville to just this August, Sister Mary Jovita has crocheted hundreds – perhaps thousands – of baby booties for the Center. A box of booties is still waiting to be delivered.
Her health could not stop her ministry of service for, after all, she said, “if I have to sit, I might as well sit and do something.”
The sisters in her bonded community named Sister Mary Jovita as:
- An inspiration
- An outstanding Ursuline
- With great loyalty
- Always concerned about others.
Sister Mary Jovita drew her courage from her prayer, her certainty of being held in God’s arms, and the sustaining love of her Ursuline Community. She and her classmate, Sister Pauletta, connected by phone every week and Sister Mary Jovita was most faithful to her monthly Ursuline gatherings for prayer, conversation, and rousing (and most likely competitive) games of Tri-ominoes and Chicken Feet.
Spending these past twenty-seven years at Saint Bartholomew parish, Sister Mary Jovita’s first thoughts were so often for the people of Saint Bartholomew’s, reaching out these last years through her phone ministry of prayer and support. And the people reciprocated her care, supporting her through ice storms and power outages, checking frequently on her health and needs. And today, Saint Bartholomew’s Church was filled throughout the morning as “her” parish celebrated Sister Mary Jovita’s life.
Of course, Sister Mary Jovita had been preparing for August 24th through her whole life. In her 2007 Annals, she reflected, “my year has been spent accepting God’s plan for me,” a mission she embraced with her whole will. Teacher, friend, Sister, supporter, helper, innovator, courageous sufferer – Sister Mary Jovita Milner lived her 89 years as an open door to the love of God – for herself and those she encountered. Ten years ago, in a letter home to the Mount, Sister Mary Jovita wrote “. . . and we have 124 more days in 2001 to praise and thank God, then begins another year.” Well, dear Sister Mary Jovita, after 32,515 days practicing and perfecting your praising and thanking God, you have been called for the fourth time by name – Mary Jovita – to come home to join your Mother Mary and your loving God. We pray you, “God speed.”
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph