“I think a major impact of her work there has been to be inclusive of many groups of people within the diocese — clergy, religious, lay, business and staffs – to come see the importance of nourishing the spiritual life by getting away and coming to Sacred Heart Retreat,” Deacon Lujan said.
Sister Mary Matthias is also Delegate to the Bishop for Women Religious, a job typically handled full-time by another person in most dioceses. “It’s like being superior again,” she said.
There are 134 sisters in the Gallup Diocese representing 38 religious communities. All of them work under the supervision of the diocese. “You can’t just roam around this diocese,” she said. She stays in touch with all those sisters, and if there are concerns, she reports them to the bishop. Gallup is currently under Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix while a replacement is sought for Bishop Donald Pelotte, who retired due to health reasons.
“Sister is very concerned about all the sisters in the diocese,” Deacon Lujan said. “One of the comments that Bishop Olmsted made when he first came to Gallup was how absolutely impressed he was that … women religious make community with members of any community, not just their own religious order.This is key in a diocese such as this where so much of the ministry is lonely,” Deacon Lujan said.“Sister Mary Matthias helps the religious remember that they are called to consecrated life and that they should do all they can to nourish that.”
Full of potential
She was born Villa Margaret Ward, the eighth of 11 children to Herman and Ora Ward in Clementsville, Ky. Her father was a farmer and her mother was a teacher at a public school. Sister Mary Matthias went to St. Bernard School, a public school where all the teachers were Ursulines.
She always knew she wanted to be a teacher like her mother. In the seventh grade, she decided she wanted to become a sister. “I decided I wanted to be holy,” she said. “I’d sneak into church and read the prayer books.” She credits Sister Sylvester Marie Allen, who died in 1982, for the influence to become a sister. Her only teacher still living is Sister Lennora Carrico, who taught her as a freshman and sophomore at St. Bernard, and the two remain friends.
“I could tell she wanted to be the best. She’s grown up to be one of our best sisters,” Sister Lennora said. “She was one of those kids who hadn’t had a whole lot. I made sure we were going to give them as much as a great big school.”
Sister Lennora was relieved when Sister Mary Matthias joined the Ursuline Sisters in 1953, right out of high school. “I thought we’d miss out if we didn’t have her. I saw the potential,” Sister Lennora said. “She was a good student, and always ready to help. She still is.”
Most sisters in that day took a parent’s name as her religious name, but Sister Mary Matthias wanted the apostle Matthias. “I’d read a story that Saint Matthias was often confused for Saint Matthew,” she said. “I prayed to him and told him I would take his name and make it known, if he’d take care of me. The novice director told me to come back with three more choices, but I got the one I wanted.”
In the classroom
Her first teaching assignment was in 1956 at St. Peter of Alcantara in Stanley, Ky., not far from Maple Mount. She taught from 36 to 40 fifth- and sixth-graders. At age 23, she was named principal at St. Romuald School in Hardinsburg, Ky., in 1958. “I enjoyed being principal and teacher at the same time, rather than just principal,” she said. One of her St. Romuald students lives in Gallup and teaches at the University of New Mexico.
Ursulines taught at rural schools in the Louisville Archdiocese, as part of the arrangement when they split from the Louisville Ursulines in 1912. From 1963-71, she was principal at St. Paul School in Leitchfield, Ky.
“We played volleyball with the kids after school, or we’d visit the caves, but the kids had to pray with us if they came,” she said. “Most of the kids didn’t have a TV, and a lot hadn’t been past the end of the road.”
The parish priest wanted the sisters to give the students some experiences on the weekends. She took them to the grocery, the bank, to a Coca-Cola plant, and the state capital in Frankfort. “They were such good kids. I still hear from some of them.”
She hears from students she’s reached wherever she’s been. “It’s a good feeling that people remember you,” she said.
In 1971, she went to St. Denis School in Louisville as principal, and there were a lot of students entering because the city was implementing forced busing to desegregate the public schools. “Parents had to be affiliated with the parish, they couldn’t just bring their kids there. We interviewed every one of them,” she said.
Retreat, but no surrender
St. Denis, which produced current Ursuline Sisters Joan Riedley and Kathleen Kaelin, was the last school for Sister Mary Matthias. The priest she’d been working with 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.
“It was great,” she said. “A lot of offices for the diocese were there and we had real community life. I really knew what a Christian community was all about. We all prayed together to begin the day, did liturgical things together, and all got along.”