(Sister Mary Matthias retired as director of the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center in 2019. She now serves in faith formation with Ursuline Associates.)
In 1994, Ursuline Sister Mary Matthias Ward came to the Sacred Heart Retreat & Conference Center in Gallup, N.M., for a day of prayer. The following morning, she was praying and distinctly heard a voice say, “Someday you will return here.”
Since May 2003, that’s where she’s been, serving as director of the retreat center and resurrecting it from a near demise. It’s just one of her jobs, but people who know her say her most important role is being a shining example of what it means to be an Ursuline Sister.
“She’s a wise woman,” said Sister Emma Anne Munsterman, who served as secretary to the Leadership Council when Sister Mary Matthias was major superior. “She’s prayerful, loyal, and down to earth. She’s there when you need her. She honestly loves God and loves people.”
Sister Ann McGrew got to know Sister Mary Matthias when she taught under her at St. Denis School in Louisville, Ky.
“She’s a dedicated person, and has a deep desire for a deeper spiritual life,” Sister Ann said. “That has increased our friendship. She’s a great person.”
Sister Mary Matthias has ministered as a teacher and principal, as a director at three retreat centers, as a parish administrator and Newman center director, and for eight years as the congregational leader of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.
Despite her success, she says — with her trademark sense of humor — that her greatest accomplishment in the sisters’ eyes was purchasing the automatic sliding door at the entrance to Paul Volk Hall in Maple Mount.
In 1936, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli visited the Southwest United States by air. He saw the vast expanse west of Santa Fe, N.M., and wondered how the seven scattered Native American tribes in the area would be adequately served. When he became Pope Pius XII, one of his first acts was to create the Diocese of Gallup, which today is the poorest diocese in America, and the only one that includes two states, crossing the Arizona border to encompass more Native Americans.
Gallup is a city of 20,000 to 24,000 people just 24 miles from the Arizona border, populated by many Native Americans selling homemade jewelry and crafts. Gallup’s claim to fame was its use as a location for several Western movies, including “Streets of Laredo.” The El Rancho Hotel has dozens of autographed photos on the walls of movie stars who stayed there.
At 7,250 feet in the air on 15 acres of rocky land sits the Sacred Heart Retreat and Conference Center, built in 1978 by the diocese. Surrounded by scrub pines, pinon trees, and a Navajo reservation, there are 12 buildings containing 57 beds, Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, and a hermitage for priests and others making individual retreat.
Sister Mary Matthias is the first Ursuline Sister to operate the retreat center.
“When I arrived, it was like I’d never had another experience in my life,” she said. “I came totally into the job. The place had not been utilized to its capacity in 10 years. I ran it the way I thought it should be, the bishop was happy. It stays pretty busy.”
Shortly after she arrived in 2003, a youth group from Henderson, Ky., helped build a prayer labyrinth with 160 tons of red rock.
“I tell people to think about things you want to let go of,” as they enter the labyrinth, Sister Mary Matthias said. “When you reach the center, stop and reflect on life. When you walk back out, think about things you’re grateful for,” she said.
She leads many of the retreats, and has programs scheduled throughout the year focusing on prayer and spirituality. She has a staff of three people who handle housekeeping and maintenance. Many days she can be found folding dozens of sheets she has recently laundered.
“She brought Sacred Heart Center alive,” said Sister Marie Montgomery, who spent 41 years ministering in New Mexico. “It was about dead when she arrived.”
Deacon Timoteo Lujan, chancellor and administrative assistant to the bishop of the Gallup Diocese, said Sister Mary Matthias had an uphill battle when she arrived.“The nature of the struggle was not only with the lack of activity associated with the retreat center, but also she faced a significant battle in dealing with the poor physical condition of the facility,” he said. “Our retreat center now is symbolically a center for spirituality in our diocese.I think that every level of ministry in the diocese has found support by the programs offered at the retreat center, many by Sister herself.