Sister Mary Lois Speaks died May 6, 2017
As she passed a water fountain in the hallway of Marion County High School in Lebanon, Ky., Sister Mary Lois Speaks stopped and made sure the handle was pushed to the “off” position.
“We have 89 percent of the world without clean drinking water, and we waste it,” she said.
Sister Mary Lois has been seeing needs and trying to fill them for 45 years as an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph. These days, her ministry is working with teenagers who’ve run afoul of the rules at the high school where she’s worked for more than 10 years.
Her title is in-school detention aide at the school in scenic central Kentucky. Sister Mary Lois does some counseling, guidance or whatever needs to be done to help students get back in a regular classroom. Most of her day is spent in one room, working with a mixture of middle or high school students making sure they are completing work assigned by their regular teachers.
“Due to health reasons, I can’t stand for long periods, so this keeps me in the classroom,” Sister Mary Lois said. “Education has been my life.”
How this Henderson, Ky., native ended up as the only Ursuline Sister in heavily Catholic Marion County started with her days as a sophomore at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Maple Mount, Ky.
Her freshman year at the academy, Sister Mary Lois said there was no one to show her classmates the ropes. So as sophomores, her class decided to adopt “little sisters” among the freshmen. Her little sister that year was Phyllis Troutman.
After graduation, the two went their separate ways, but their friendship remained. It was Sister Mary Lois’ aunt, Sister Mary Boniface Speaks, who brought the two back together.
“Sister Mary Boniface was my mentor,” Phyllis said. “She gave me my start in business. Math, typing, shorthand, she taught me all those.”
Sister Mary Lois was director of the Ursuline Associates from 1991-96, and during that time, Sister Mary Boniface grew ill. Phyllis came to the Mount often to visit her, and her friendship with Sister Mary Lois was rekindled.
Sister Mary Lois started visiting associates where they lived, and Phyllis, an associate since 1993, asked her to hold meetings on faith-building, adult education, and women’s support near her home in the tiny Marion County town of Raywick.
“There’s still a lot of bondage in marriage in (Marion County),” Sister Mary Lois said. “I did a lot of Angela (Merici) teaching with them on self-esteem and individualization, to help them see they were equal in the relationship.”
After leaving the associate program in 1996, Sister Mary Lois went to Loyola University in Chicago to attend the Institute for Spiritual Leadership.
“I’d always done a lot of active listening, spiritual direction, and pastoral counseling, but I wanted a supervisor to determine if the skill was there,” she said.
While in Chicago, Phyllis told her over the phone that she needed to replace the people renting her former home next door, and Sister Mary Lois joked, “save it for me.” When none of the opportunities for ministry appealed to her when she returned to Kentucky, she asked Phyllis if there were any openings in Marion County.
“I wanted a calmer pace than a parish coordinator, and I didn’t want to be in a city,” Sister Mary Lois said. “These rolling, green knobs suit me.”
After a short stint at the Marion County Adjustment Center in late 1997, she was hired at the high school in December of that year, and became Phyllis’s next-door neighbor.
“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,” she said. “Mr. (Robert) Barr, the principal, was the only one who understood my gifts.”
After Barr left in 2000, Sister Mary Lois was asked to fill the role with in-school detention. She sees many teens who come from a home filled with drugs and abuse.
“Any one of them deserves a purple heart just for showing up,” she said.
Brenda McIlvoy, the director of in-school detention for three years, said trying to do her job without Sister Mary Lois’ help would be difficult.
“Sister Mary Lois is very organized and very conscientious about her work,” McIlvoy said.
Being an Ursuline Sister in a public school is certainly different than in a Catholic school, Sister Mary Lois said. “Those with social skills will ask me questions about what it means to be a sister,” she said. “One student asked if he decided to become a Catholic, would I help him? I can talk about it if they bring it up. If I brought it up, they’d throw me out on my ear.”