Sister Mary Matthias Ward was a nontraditional student at Brescia College before that term existed.
Today, what is now Brescia University expands its enrollment with online students and other opportunities outside the traditional semester norm. It is fitting then that Sister Mary Matthias will become the eighth Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph to receive the prestigious Distinguished Alumni Award from Brescia during its Homecoming ceremony Oct. 28.
She is being honored for her varied ministry career during her 62 years as an Ursuline Sister. She has been a teacher, principal, leader of the Ursuline community, retreat director, campus minister and a leader at the Motherhouse. In May 2016 she returned to one of her loves as director of the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center.
The Distinguished Alumni Award is the highest award the university bestows and is the only award that Brescia University bestows upon its alumni. The Ursuline Sisters began Brescia in 1950, and nine Ursuline Sisters continue to minister there. Sister Mary Matthias will be honored along with 1972 graduate Richard Brown and 1986 graduate Jamie Buskill.
The Distinguished Alumni Award honors those graduates who exemplify the elements that encompass The Brescia Difference: Respect for the Sacred, Devotion to Learning, Commitment to Growth in Virtue and Promotion of Servant Leadership. Because of the breadth and scope of their life’s work, the magnitude of their impact on the regional, national and often international scene and their examples of service and leadership, alumni who receive this esteemed honor have distinguished themselves among their peers and demonstrated that they are true stars of Brescia.
Ursuline Sister Larraine Lauter received the award in 2015. Previous Ursuline honorees were Sister Vivian Bowles, Sister Ruth Gehres, Sister Michele Morek, Sister Joseph Angela Boone, Sister Rose Marita O’Bryan and Sister Dianna Ortiz. Ursuline Associate Mary Danhauer also received the award.
Sister Mary Matthias is a 1966 Brescia graduate, but like all Ursuline Sisters of her day, she took a circuitous route to that degree.
Villa Margaret Ward graduated from tiny St. Bernard High School in Clementsville, Ky. – graduating class of five – in 1953, a public school in which all the teachers were Ursuline Sisters. She joined the Ursuline Sisters that fall as a postulant, and was considered a Brescia College student, even though all her classes were taught by the Ursuline Sisters at the Motherhouse in Maple Mount. When she became a novice in 1954, she was granted her top choice for a religious name, in honor of the apostle Saint Matthias.
“I’d read a story that Saint Matthias was often confused for Saint Matthew,” she said in a 2008 interview. “I prayed to him and told him I would take his name and make it known, if he’d take care of me.”
She continued as a Brescia student in 1955, although solely at Maple Mount, and didn’t step foot on the Brescia campus until the summer of 1956. That was the year she began teaching school, and she would continue attending Brescia on Saturdays or during the summer for the next 10 years, earning a bachelor’s degree in history in 1966. She never sat in a Brescia classroom during a fall or spring semester.
Sister Mary Matthias became a principal at 23 years old and served in that role for 20 years at three different schools. In 1978, the priest she’d been working with at St. Denis School in Louisville became the director of spiritual life for the Archdiocese of Louisville, and asked her to join him as associate director at the St. Thomas Center in Louisville, the diocesan retreat center.
That journey into retreat life led her to become the first director of the Mount Saint Joseph Retreat Center in 1983, a role she continued until 1988 when she was elected to the first of two four-year terms as major superior for the Ursuline Sisters.
In 1996, at the end of her terms in office, she became campus minister at the Newman Center at Murray State University in Murray, Ky., and also parish administrator at nearby St. Leo’s Parish. In 2003 she was led back into retreat life by becoming the director of the Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Gallup, N.M.
She served in Gallup for six years, until she was asked by Ursuline leadership in 2009 to return to Maple Mount as director of Local Community Life, looking after the needs of the sisters at the Motherhouse. When the position as the director of the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center came open earlier this year, Sister Mary Matthias returned to the role she began 33 years earlier.
Her talk she’ll give on Oct. 28 will begin with the Ursuline founder Saint Angela Merici, who was a very nontraditional woman in 16th century Italy. She will also talk about the ways Brescia helped shape her into the woman she’s become.
“By nature, I’m an introvert. Brescia helped me to learn to be an extrovert when it comes to my work life,” she said. “Brescia gave me a deeper sense of responsibility, begun by my parents. Brescia gave me courage to go where angels fear to tread.”
The reception for the Distinguished Alumni begins at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at Owensboro’s RiverPark Center, with the dinner and program beginning at 7. Guests can register online at www.brescia.edu/homecoming. The cost is $40.