In Remembrance of Sister Mary Lois Speaks, OSU
May 9, 2017
Sister Amelia Stenger, OSU Congregational Leader
Sister Mary Lois Speaks was a tall woman. She was big to many people. Is that true, Phyllis Troutman? She was tall in stature but she was even bigger in compassion, caring, spirituality and conviction. As we talk this evening about her life and her time here on this earth, we can see the great impact that she has had on so many lives.
Mary Lois Speaks was born on August 18, 1944 in Henderson, KY. Her parents were James Raymond Speaks and Elizabeth Catherine Fenwick Speaks. She was baptized on August 27, 1944 at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Henderson by Rev. A.J. Tompkins. She was confirmed on October 14, 1952 by Most Rev. Francis R. Cotton. She was the sixth of eight children: Rita Kathleen, Donald Raymond, Anna Louise, Joseph Patrick, Phyllis Irene, John Richard and William Francis. We offer our sympathy and prayers to you, Don, Phyllis, John and Billy. We thank you for being with your Sister especially during these last few days. She loved all of you and your attention to her is greatly appreciated.
Mary Lois attended elementary school at Holy Name in Henderson and was taught by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. When it was time to attend High School, she decided she wanted to come to the Mount. In her file, we found some notes about her decision. She said, “When Mom and Dad asked me how I’d feel about coming to MSJ to the Academy, I surprised myself by saying that I’d like to try it. My Dad game me two weeks and homesickness nearly won out, but it was fun writing them as I got ready to graduate from the Academy four years later.” She added that she enjoyed her teachers at the Academy and listed Sr. Mary Catherine Kuper, Sr. Charles Emaline Clements, Sr. Marie Bernadette Blanford and Sr. Miriam Medley as some of her favorites.
It was in high school that she met some of her good friends. It was the custom at the Academy for an upper classman to have a “little sister” in the freshman class and her little sister was Phyllis Troutman. They were friends and worked together on many projects over the years. Phyllis, we offer you our prayers as you say goodbye to your “big sister”.
When she finished high school in 1963, she decided she needed to try out the Ursuline Novitiate to see if that was where God wanted her. She said she persevered through home sickness those first years with the help of her Aunt, Sister Mary Boniface Speaks. Mary Lois entered with twenty-two young women. Today she has two classmates here who entered with her to celebrate her new life–Sister Mary Celine Weidenbenner and Sister Pat Rhoten. Sister Mary Ellen Backes and Sister Kathleen Dueber also joined her entrance group when our communities merged. We are praying with you as you say good bye to your classmate and friend.
Her teaching career began ahead of schedule. She was going to Brescia at the time, but was asked to go to St. Ignatius School in Louisville to teach 3rd grade for several months to substitute for Sr. Carmencita. She stayed there until Thanksgiving, but was then assigned to 3rd grade at Sr. Alphonsus for the rest of the year. The following school year she was asked to be 8th grade homeroom teacher and 5-8 Social studies teacher at Blessed Mother School in Owensboro. During that semester, she also took classes at Brescia at night. The second semester of that year she returned to Brescia full time and put a year and a half of classes into one semester. She was one bright lady.
After graduating from Brescia in 1968 with a Bachelor’s degree in Education, she received her first official assignment in Plattsmouth, NE at St. John School. She was 5-6 grade homeroom teacher, 5-8 Language arts teacher and Volleyball coach. When this was stated on her archives report, she said that she knew very little about volleyball and didn’t feel that she was ready for teaching. Chris, a student she had during her time there, wrote her a few years ago and said this, “I have so many wonderful memories of St John’s and you in particular. The students couldn’t wait to meet the new batch of nuns and a sweet young thing like you was a breath of fresh air. You enjoyed teaching and being with us. And you actually skated at our Friday night skating parties and one time you fell down and your hat fell off and you had hair. We were amazed. Even then you had that beautiful smile on your face.”
In 1970, the year she was supposed to make her final profession she was asked to be principal and 7th and 8th grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Russellville, KY. She said she wasn’t even sure about making vows much less being a principal of the school. It was a small school and after two years there, the Community decided to close out the Ursuline presence there so she had her first experience of closing a mission house. She did make her final vows on August 15, 1970.
In 1972, the Major Superior asked her to begin a pilot project where an Ursuline would not be working in a classroom. Her title was Parish Coordinator at St. Pius X Parish in Owensboro working with Father Paul Pike Powell. She had also worked with him in Russellville. She was also a teacher for the newly formed Religious Education Office of the Diocese of Owensboro with Fr. Ben Luther. They did parish visitation, fact-finding and assessing the needs of parishes. It was during this time that she also enrolled at St. Meinrad for summer classes where she received a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies for Pastoral Ministry in 1984. This was her second Master’s degree. She had already completed her first Master’s in 1978 at Western Kentucky University with a Master of Arts in Education with an emphasis in Psychology. Other areas where she worked in schools were St. Leonard’s in Louisville and St. Columba in Louisville.
Her life took another change when she was asked to become the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Coordinator in Louisville. The charismatic renewal group was meeting at Saint Columba and one night the pastor didn’t show up. Sister Mary Lois was asked to answer some questions. The couple organizing the evening and the priest in charge were so impressed they asked Sister Mary Lois to become the theologian and coordinator. In a note from Theresa and Frank Fontinell from The Charismatic Renewal Office in New York, they wrote, “We want to thank you for the warmth and genuine openness of welcome you extended to us. We felt so much the presence of the Holy Spirit in your team and so ministered to by God throughout the conference. Your gift of the prophetic word will keep the conference alive in our hearts.” She ministered in that role from 1982-1989.
After she left Louisville, she took some time to refocus and rededicate herself to the community and spiritual life. That brought her back to Mount Saint Joseph where she became the Director of the Ursuline Associates. She started reaching out to the associates where they lived. She started an Advisory Board, created a prayer book for the associates and began the UPDATE newsletter which is still being sent today. Her five years as the Associate Director were very good ones. She introduced many people to the Associate program and some of you are here today. We are grateful for your dedication to her and to our community.
Wanting more information and training in spiritual direction, she went to Chicago to take part in the Institute for Spiritual Leadership at Loyola University. This enhanced her skill with spiritual direction and counselling which prepared her for the work that she would do for the next 22 years in Marion County. Her gift of compassion and a search for justice were very apparent during those years. She worked at Marion County High School with the students. “They needed an adult to be on the side of the kids,” Sister Mary Lois said. “For the first three years, I was the go-to person if anyone was upset (students or parents). That was my best time here.” During those years, she saw many teens who came from homes filled with drugs and abuse. She said, “Any one of them deserves a purple heart just for showing up.”
Margaret Moss, a teacher at Marion County High School, wrote Sister a note telling her how much she meant to the people at the school. She said, “I wanted to let you know how blessed I was by having you at Marion County High School. I was usually too busy to spend much time with you. I was comforted to know I could send a student to you and they would receive the help they needed. You were invaluable because of your love and compassion. Many times, I saw you giving encouragement and cheer to students and staff alike. I am thankful our sweet Lord sent you to us.” Another teacher, Suzie Smith, said, “At first, our administration did not really know what to do with such a knowledgeable, interested volunteer. Within a week, Sister found her own niche. Our principal assigned her to accompany students who needed to leave classrooms for an emergency trip to the bathroom or who needed to see a counselor. No one knew then the depth she would bring to this seemingly simple task. Suddenly, Sister was counselling our students who were on their way to In School Detention or who were called to administrators’ offices for “correction sessions.” Even more important, our hard-core discipline problems began to soften and lose more of the rough edges of their abrasive personalities when “tackled” by the patient, intuitive Sister Mary Lois. Here was an educator, we soon learned, who could and did work miracles.” The next year she was hired instead of being a volunteer.
Another friend wrote, “Sister Mary Lois had the rare ability to intuitively and immediately penetrate the hearts of other people. It was with her gentleness, her profound understanding of the unique individual person before her, her keen insight into human nature, her terrific sense of humor, her keen intelligence used, never to dominate, but always to gently guide and direct that unique, individual to a more peaceful way of life, that drew people to her.”
It was also during this time that she became very involved in social justice issues. She worked with other sisters and legislators to get a bill passed in the Kentucky legislature against human trafficking. She served on the board of UNANIMA at the United Nations, the non-governmental agency sponsored by twenty-two religious communities. She wrote letters to presidents, governors and any other group or person she felt needed more information about a justice issue. When looking through her files, we found letters from presidents, governors, and legislators to her.
One of the major things that Sister Mary Lois worked on five years ago was the celebration of the 100 years of presence of the Ursuline Sisters in Marion County. She and Phyllis worked with Judge Executive John Mattingly to prepare a wonderful celebration of the centennial in 2012. The week of April 23-29 was proclaimed “Week of Centennial Celebration of Ursuline Education and Ministry in Marion County, Acknowledging and Honoring the Lasting Contribution of the Sisters to Marion County.” The monument to the Ursuline Sisters is prominent near the Government Office Building there. It is a way to remember all the sisters who worked there for now 106 years and Sister Mary Lois will forever be a part of the Ursuline Legacy there.
Father Pike Powell worked with Sister Mary Lois several different times. He was here to visit with her before she died and wrote a few paragraphs about her that tell us more about her. He said, “She had a way of making people feel important and worthwhile, lifting up others self-esteem to the point they KNEW they were God’s special children. The last chapter in her living as a child of God is now written and will go on for Eternity.
Mary Lois, we close this reflection this evening with your own word that were written in 2013 as a meditation on your 50th jubilee. She said, “We all, in Baptism, are called to die with Christ in order to live for/in/with Him. And Scripture reminds us to die to self in order to live fully for God alone. At its core, community life is a tremendous grace. When we have challenges, there is a sister companion to support, listen, and understand. When my weakness shows, community strength prevails. When I falter, others uphold me. When we gather to celebrate and reflect, the liturgies and spirit shared among us are fleeting moments of heaven’s own joy. I have run the gamut of human emotion along life’s way but know without a doubt that being called to be a Sister is the greatest, on-going grace of my life.”
And Mary Lois, we are grateful for that life. Rest in Peace.