Sister Mary Sheila Higdon, OSU: Creating beauty wherever she serves

“I like to get people involved in the parish,” she said. “I train lectors, Eucharistic ministers, leaders of the various groups. I like to empower people, show people what they can do.”

At St. Catherine, she is in her third year of leading a Renew group, called “Why Catholic?” which covers all four pillars of the Catholic catechism. She also does Renew at St. George.

“I reach more people in parish ministry than in the classroom,” she said. “I taught in Catholic schools for 32 years, I loved my teaching, but you just reach students and their parents there. In parish ministry, I deal with all ages.”

The small group of women who meet at St. Catherine for Renew believe Sister Mary Sheila brings a special touch to the discussions.

“We don’t know the Bible that well, she can explain it so well,” said Genies Burch. “It’s altogether different from other groups I’ve been in. We love it, I hate to see it end. You find out so many new things about your faith.”

Sister Mary Sheila led two Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults classes at St. George.

She was ministering in Dexter, Mo., from 1996-99, but thought her gifts would be better utilized in a mission parish. “Right away, I thought it was the perfect place for me,” she said. “People are wonderful to work with here.”

Sister Mary Sheila ministers at tiny Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Williamsville, Mo., on weekends. The mission church has only nine parishioners, but is often full during tourist season.

One of her close friends is Sister Renee Monaghan, a novice classmate, who said Sister Mary Sheila was much the same in the novitiate as she is today – quiet and creative.

“If it has anything to do with art, she could do it,” Sister Renee said.

The two never ministered together, but they shared community with each other when Sister Renee served as a pastoral minister at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lebanon, Mo., until 2005. Lebanon and Van Buren are about 2 ½ hours away, so they would meet in the middle and have their gathering at a restaurant and gift shop called Hillbilly Junction, Sister Renee said.

“She’s a very even-tempered person, very helpful, and enjoys company,” Sister Renee said. These days Sister Mary Sheila tries to meet with her bonded group in Paducah, Ky., once a month — Sisters Mary Jude Cecil, Teresa Riley, and Cecelia Joseph Olinger — but it’s a two-hour drive.

“I’m a hospitable person, I like to have people in for dinner,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “I enjoy cooking. I enjoy planning music for liturgy, even though I’m not a musician.”

She saw the need to organize a team for RCIA at St. George. “I’ve been in large parishes,” she said, “but people have to pitch in at a small parish to accomplish anything.”

A big family

Sister Mary Sheila was born Dorothy Marie Higdon, the 10th of 11 children to Bernard Joseph and Mary Philomena Higdon. She had two sisters, but all her siblings near her age were boys. “I grew up a tomboy, all I had to play with were boys,” she said. “They all grew up to be wonderful men.” Just two of her siblings, both brothers, are still living.

Her father, Bernard, was a common laborer who often worked on the highways, and the family moved often around Owensboro to various rental properties, Sister Mary Sheila said. “I remember the excitement of moving to another place,” she said. Later in life, her father worked in a furniture store.

Everyone called her mother Maffie, she was a Strehl, whose parents came from Germany when they were 18.

“When I was 5, my mother became ill,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “It was never diagnosed, but it was like multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy. She was sick for 32 years,” she said. “My last memory of her walking normally was when she took my little brother and me to a Shirley Temple movie. She was either in bed, on crutches, or in a wheelchair the rest of her life.”

Dorothy Marie attended St. Joseph School in Owensboro all 12 years. Her third- and fourth-grade teacher was a young sister in her first ministry, Sister Jean Madeline Peake, who is now retired to the Motherhouse.