Sister Mary McDermott shares her life of hospitality

Sister Mary McDermott is at her post in the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center, ready to answer the phone or greet guests who arrive.

(This article was written in 2012. Sister Mary now serves as Motherhouse information receptionist, an assistant in Mission Advancement, and in the Powerhouse of Prayer.)

Ursuline Sister Mary McDermott wasn’t supposed to be here.

When her mother was pregnant, her doctor told her it was a choice between saving her life or the life of her child. “She started a novena to Mary. By the grace of God, I’m here,” Sister Mary said. “That’s why my mom named me Mary.”

That wasn’t Sister Mary’s only close call. “At 18 months old, I was paralyzed from the neck down,” she said. “It was probably polio. I was sent home to die. It was the second time I wasn’t supposed to be here,” Sister Mary said. “I think God has a plan for me.”

At first she thought that plan was to be a teacher, like the Ursuline Sisters who inspired her growing up in St. Louis. But after continuing health issues led her to realize she had to leave the classroom, she discovered a talent that continues to serve her and others well.

“I share joy, the gift of hospitality,” Sister Mary said. “I can do that well here.”

For the past five years, Sister Mary has ministered in hospitality at the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center. She is often the first person people meet when they arrive or talk to on the phone.

“I probably greet 1,000 people a year,” she said. “Meeting the people is my favorite part. We had someone from Delaware for the first time at our Centering Prayer retreat. I like to see the reaction to our home.”

“I see the peacefulness in people the minute they come in,” Sister Mary said. “I like that. I like being a true retreat place for them.”

Sister Mary McDermott, left, visits with Sister Mary Sheila Higdon, who was her first-grade teacher at Seven Holy Founders School in Affton, Mo.

“Mary has an exceptional gift of hospitality,” said Sister Alicia Coomes, who has known her for more than 30 years since the two were novices together. “It makes her a good Ursuline Sister and excellent at what she does at the Center. She’s as generous as she can be.”

Sister Mary is at the front desk of the Center from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week, and sometimes on weekends when a group is in. She also helps Sheila Blandford with the gift shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She answers the phone, meets guests, shows them to their room and orders for the gift shop.

Sister Ann McGrew, director of the Retreat Center, said Sister Mary is very good at hospitality. “Her personality is just right for the job she does,” Sister Ann said. “She’s very interested in people and wants to get people what they need.”

Both she and Sister Mary believe it’s important that visitors are greeted by a sister.

“People expect the sisters to be here,” Sister Mary said. “There’s something different when the sisters do it.” She likes when visitors find out the sisters are just regular people like them. “It’s nice to find out ‘I’m OK.’ It’s very affirming,” she said.

Prior to coming to the Center, she was an administrative assistant at Brescia University in Owensboro, in which she worked wherever needed – switchboard receptionist, Education department, admissions, etc. “Each day I was somewhere else,” she said. “That was OK for a while, but I really wanted one spot. I really wanted this spot when it came open.”

Hospitality is a staple of the Ursuline charism, and Sister Mary feels like a part of that in her ministry.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to run an orphanage,” she said. “I drew up blueprints, and what I drew matched the Center. It told me this is where I’m supposed to be.”

Growing up in the shadow of the Arch

Sister Mary grew up in St. Louis, where her father, John, was a computer operator for National Lead Co., which made paint, and her mother, Betty, was a volunteer teacher, librarian and eventually director of religious education at her parish. Sister Mary has one older brother.

Her paralysis that began at 18 months lasted until age 5. “When I started school (at Seven Holy Founders in suburban Affton, Mo.), I still had trouble with my legs. I was small and slow and kids would pick on me,” she said. Fortunately for her, her first grade teacher was Ursuline Sister Mary Sheila Higdon. “She helped me, she was my greatest protector,” Sister Mary said. “She was at my right side all the time, even on the playground.”

Sister Mary Sheila has ministered just one building over from Sister Mary the past year in Mission Advancement. “What I remember about Mary in a class of 55 first-graders is that she was very small for her age and not very strong,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “She was a darling beginner, who, as I picture her sitting in the first desk of a long row of precious little ones, her face all lit up with smiles and eagerness to learn — the opposite of her brother, John, the year before her. He wasn’t quite as excited. One morning his mom brought him to school, but he would not get out of the car. She became exasperated, so I went out to the car and picked him up, and carried him in still screaming. I sat him down on the floor and just let him get it out of his system and sure enough, he soon quieted down. We never had any more trouble with John coming to school.

“That was unlike Mary, she came in smiling as if to say, ‘Here I am, I want to learn to read,’” Sister Mary Sheila said. “When I see her walking around here, I feel so honored to have been her first-grade teacher. It made me feel good when she entered, like maybe I had something to do with planting that seed.”

Sister Mary poses outside the Conference and Retreat Center with Sister Rose Marita O’Bryan. Sister Rose Marita was Sister Mary’s seventh-grade teacher at Seven Holy Founders School in Affton, Mo., and the sister who had the biggest impact on her.

Most of Sister Mary’s teachers at Seven Holy Founders were Ursulines. The most influential sister was her seventh-grade teacher, Sister Rose Marita O’Bryan. “She was happy, that made a big difference in my life, to see somebody happy every day,” Sister Mary said.

Sister Rose Marita, who is now coordinator of Mission Effectiveness and leads the Contemporary Woman Program at Brescia University in Owensboro, said, “Mary, even as an adult woman, still has much of that innocence and transparency, not naiveté, that I observed in her as an adolescent sitting in my seventh-grade homeroom classroom in Affton, Mo. Mary always had a compassion toward some of the students that found it difficult to learn or to ‘fit in’ and their appreciation of her openness to them was evident in their interactions with her,” Sister Rose Marita said. “The stumbling blocks that Sister Mary has experienced in her life are transformed oftentimes into stepping stones. Her journaling and prayer imagery, which she takes very seriously, have kept her honest in her relationship to self, to God and to others. Mary exhibits a loyalty to her friends and co-workers that is life-giving.”

Sister Mary attended high school at Ursuline Academy in Kirkwood, Mo., and during her senior retreat she first got the idea to become a sister.

“The girls were upset with me about something, I was there by myself,” she said. “I was hungry and a little sad, so I started praying. I heard, ‘Come with me, and you’ll never be hungry.’ I’ve been trying to follow that ever since.”

Despite that revelation, Sister Mary did not enter the convent after high school. She got a job as a waitress working the graveyard shift at a Perkins Pancake House in St. Louis. “A waiter and I had a contest to see who could work the most in a two-week period,” she said. “I worked 98 hours and he worked 100. I don’t mind working or doing different things.”

After two years, the voice in the back of her mind would not go away. “I tried to fight it, but you don’t run away from the Lord too long,” she said. She was 20 years old when she entered in 1978, joining Sister Rebecca White and Sister Larraine Lauter. A few months later, Sister Alicia joined the class. All four of them remain Ursuline Sisters.

“When I met Mary she was very shy, but you knew when Mary said something, it would be profound,” Sister Alicia said. The two became friends right away. “She’s very prayerful and invites a spirit of prayer around her,” Sister Alicia said. “She’s deeply in love with God and her community.”

In 2008, this group of Ursuline Sisters represented those who were under 50 years old at the time. They are seen here “pointing to the future.” From left are Sisters Nancy Liddy, Carol Shively, Rebecca White, Dianna Ortiz, Larraine Lauter, Monica Seaton, Martha Keller, Mary McDermott, Alicia Coomes and Michele Ann Intravia. Sisters Rebecca, Larraine and Alicia were classmates in the novitiate with Sister Mary.

A mission to teach

Sister Mary got her degree in elementary education from Brescia in 1985. “I wanted to be a sister, the desire to teach came later,” she said. “My final semester at Brescia I just had one class, so I worked in the infirmary (at Maple Mount) in the morning. I loved it,” Sister Mary said. “Sister Alicia tried to get me to become a nurse, but I knew I couldn’t. I don’t like blood.”

After observing in some classrooms, she was a teacher’s aide and substitute teacher at Immaculate Conception School in Hawesville, Ky., for a year before moving to Lourdes Elementary School in Nebraska City, Neb., in 1987 to teach the fifth grade.

“I loved Nebraska City, I hated to leave,” she said. Although her training was in early grades, she loved the fifth-graders. “They are very open to learning,” she said. “I was excited about teaching.”

Sister Mary has struggled for years with an ongoing illness, which most affected her during her fourth year in Nebraska City. “I was having a great year, getting my master’s in elementary education. Then in the last year, I bottomed out,” she said. “I was not able to go back, it really broke my heart. I could not get my master’s, it was really a thorn in my side.”

A gift of hospitality

She came home to the Mount in 1991, serving in hospitality at the Retreat Center for a year and then director of the Center Gift Shop for a year.

“I never saw myself at the Center, I thought I’d be a teacher. I didn’t know I could be as welcoming as I am,” she said. “I had to learn it, I’m very shy. At first, being around a lot of people was nerve-wracking. Being around a lot of kids when I couldn’t teach them was heartbreaking.”

Sister Mary does what she does best, welcomes people to the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center and shows them where they are going. This was an employee Coffee Break Retreat in June. From right are Sister Mary, Sister Rose Marita O’Bryan, Trena Goetz, Tiffany Orth and Frances Gaddis.

She taught herself to be hospitable the only way she knew how. “I’d take a deep breath every day and learn through Jesus,” she said. “I saw Jesus as hospitable to his disciples and to other people. I prayed for the gift and the gift came.”

The desire to get back in the classroom continued to gnaw at Sister Mary, so she knew she had to try. “I longed and yearned to teach during those two years at the Mount,” she said. “I knew Nebraska was the place for me to try. It was my second home.”

In 1993, she began teaching English as a second language at Sacred Heart School in Lincoln, Neb. “I taught kids from Poland, Russia, Vietnam, kids from all over the world,” she said. “Their parents were at the (University of Nebraska) to get their degrees.” She taught all eight grades and substituted for the classroom teachers.

Nebraska and St. Louis were places with an Ursuline presence for much of the history of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, but the last sister to teach in St. Louis left in 2002 and the last in Nebraska left in 2004. That fact disappoints Sister Mary. “It gives you a different viewpoint of people,” she said.

In 1996, Sister Mary’s friend, Sister Pat Howell, asked her to come to Morganfield, Ky., with her to be the librarian at St. Ann School, so Sister Mary accepted. “I was following in my mother’s footsteps as a librarian,” Sister Mary said. But being librarian is different than being a classroom teacher, and Sister Mary said she didn’t have control of the students. “I thought I’d lost my touch, I was disappointed in myself.” (Sister Pat left the community in 1999.)

A few months after arriving at Morganfield, Sister Mary’s father died at age 66, after a third heart attack. Her father’s great gift he shared was peacefulness, she said. “He was a shy man, but very prayerful. We had a deep faith,” she said.

In 1997, she came back to the Mount in her specialty inherited from her mother, a Jacqueline of All Trades — information receptionist on weekends for the Motherhouse, hospitality in the chapel, running errands for the business office, acting as a medical courier, and serving as an English as a second language tutor in Owensboro.

Sister Mary poses with Kathy Hancock, food services manager at Maple Mount. Hancock credits Sister Mary with taking her under her wing when she arrived in 1999 and becoming a good friend.

“I love being back at the Mount, it’s good to be back with the sisters,” she said. “I’ve been graced to sit with sisters who were dying, including my good friend Sister Lennora (Carrico, who died May 4.) Sister Lennora prayed me through Brescia. She took an interest in me. I’m glad I was here for her.”

Sister Mary returned to Brescia in 2005 as an assistant, but came back to the Mount to stay in January 2007.

This past December, her mother died at age 81. Sister Mary was long bothered by not completing her master’s degree, but her mother taught her she could be successful with just a high school diploma. “She was a very smart woman,” Sister Mary said. “She said ‘Don’t let a degree stop you from doing what you need to do.’ The Lord has put me in places where I didn’t need a master’s.”

Writing and the Cardinals

In the early 1990s, when she was longing for Nebraska, Sister Mary started writing poetry. “I wanted to express myself. I was writing it like crazy,” she said. These days, she writes in her journal more so than poetry.

Her great passion in her free time is the reigning world champion St. Louis Cardinals. She sometimes watches the baseball games with fellow Cardinal fans Sister Frances Miriam Spalding and Sister Catherine Kaufman. When it’s not baseball season, she watches other sports, including the St. Louis Blues hockey team.

“If you want to know anything about sports, ask Mary,” Sister Alicia said.

As for what comes next, Sister Mary said she doesn’t think about the future. “I let the Lord take care of the future,” she said. “I can’t figure out what He’s going to do anyway.”

By Dan Heckel