Sister Mary Matthias Ward, OSU: “ Prayerful, loyal, and down to earth ”

In 1983, the leadership of the Ursuline Sisters made the tough decision to close Mount Saint Joseph Academy. The buildings were quickly reborn as the Mount Saint Joseph Retreat Center, with Sister Mary Matthias as its director.

“The biggest challenge was putting it all together in three weeks,” said Sister Mary Matthias. The first retreat, the bishop’s staff, was scheduled for early August.

A dirty school was left behind, and the whole place needed repainting before it could open as a retreat center. “(Owensboro) Catholic High kids helped paint it. We had a lot of young sisters who were eager to help.”

Sister Mary Matthias unlocks the Hermitage, housing for a person who is making an individual retreat at Sacred Heart. The wrought iron on the windows came from the communion railing at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup.

She’s most proud that she developed many retreats and had good representation from different parishes. Although people say they feel busier today, it isn’t a dark time for retreat centers, Sister Mary Matthias said.

“I believe people today seek spirituality much more than they ever have,” she said. “It’s the way of the world, the busyness and complexity of life. Young people are seeking God today.”

A major step

In 1988, a sister asked Sister Mary Matthias if they could go to lunch, and said she’d heard she was going to be elected major superior. “It was the first I’d heard of it,” Sister Mary Matthias said. She was elected to two four-year terms as superior. “I felt humble. It’s a good feeling to know the sisters wanted me.”

Shortly after she was elected, she was driving home after an evening of prayer and apparently crossed over a yellow line, because she was pulled over by a police officer. The officer, realizing she was a sister, asked if she were OK. “No,” she said, “I’ve just been elected major superior.”

There were tough times during her tenure – Sister Dianna Ortiz was abducted and tortured in Guatemala, and several sisters left the community – but they were mostly good years, she said.

“Some of the sisters were at the motherhouse, but too young to retire. I urged them to be a presence at a parish,” she said. “We also got computers in my time.” She believes her greatest accomplishment was giving the community “a great love and knowledge” of Saint Angela Merici.

To be an effective leader of a religious order, a sister first needs to be a woman of prayer, Sister Mary Matthias said. “One who does go to God, who makes sure she spends time in prayer alone with God.”

She also needs to be “a practical woman who has her feet on the ground, and she needs to know administration, to be able to make decisions.”

“She was a mother to us when she was major superior,” Sister Lennora said. “What she said, she meant. She didn’t bat anyone down.”

Sister Mary Matthias stands in the prayer labyrinth she installed shortly after arriving in Gallup in 2003. Students from Henderson, Ky., began building it.

Sister Lennora believes Sister Mary Matthias’ greatest asset is that she sees the best in those she meets. “When everyone else would give up on things, she wouldn’t give up.”

While making her retreat in Gallup in 1994, she heard someone say the retreat center director was ill and they were looking for a replacement. She could not take the job with two years left in her term, and another person was hired. But when she was out of office in 1996, she wrote a letter to Gallup Bishop Pelotte saying whenever the job came open again, she wanted to be considered.

On to college

Sister Mary Matthias instead took her talents to Murray State University, a small college in far western Kentucky, where she was campus minister at the Newman Center and also administrator of St. Leo Catholic Church. It was not difficult leaving leadership for another ministry, she said.

“Leadership is service to people,” she said. “When you go back into ministry, you’re being of service to other people.”

She worked with Fr. Ray Goetz in Murray, and grew the Newman Center so much a new facility had to be built. “I cooked for as many as 75 kids. I’m in contact with those kids a lot,” she said. In 2004, a year after she arrived in Gallup, Murray students built some steps to the hermitage property at the retreat center.

“She brought in the busy person’s retreat, scheduled around the students, and it was tremendous,” Fr. Goetz said.

When Sister Margaret Joseph Aull was ministering in Madisonville, Ky., she traveled to Murray to visit and was impressed by the meals Sister Mary Matthias made for the students. “She’d whip up a meal for these kids in college, and I’d help her clean house,” Sister Margaret said. “She does so much.”

There were two amazing efforts he and Sister Mary Matthias were involved in at St. Leo’s, Fr. Goetz said.

“There was a lot of debt, confusion, people going different directions when we arrived,” he said. “They had a lot of turnover in pastors, they were hurting.” The two put together a novena for reconciliation and healing and took turns giving talks, integrating some of Fr. Chuck Gallagher’s Parish Renewal Experience.

The second “amazing” action was a 2000 jubilee revival. Over four nights, a Catholic biblical scholar, and ministers in the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Church of Christ faiths gave talks about jubilee from their perspectives, Fr. Goetz said. “No one had ever heard of a Church of Christ minister preaching in a Catholic church,” he said.

Sister Mary Matthias got the church out of debt before departing in 2003 for Gallup, Fr. Goetz said.

He credits Sister Mary Matthias’ success with her deep spirituality, her tremendous administrative skills, and her sense of humor. “A lot of time, people who are good with the spiritual side aren’t all that practical,” Fr. Goetz said. “But she had both sides, and she radiated that. It was a joy being with her.”

Perhaps Sister Marie Montgomery sums up Sister Mary Matthias the best.

“She’s a lovely person, everyone reveres her.”

By Dan Heckel