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

“I used to take her papers and put them on the board to show all the other children how beautiful her handwriting was,” Sister Jean Madeline said. “She was the kind of pupil that everyone would like to teach. She was a beautiful little person.”

The influence of her Ursuline teachers had Dorothy Marie considering becoming a sister in the second grade.

“The sisters were so caring. They so impressed me, they were such inspirations to me,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “When I got in high school, Sister Mary Damian (Abell) took me under her wing, and increased my desire for a vocation. I worked with her after school.”

When she graduated from high school and decided to become an Ursuline Sister at age 18, it was difficult for her to go because her mother relied on her so much.

In this 2006 photo, Sister Mary Sheila points out something along the Current River to Donna Walmsley, wife of the former director of development in the Diocese of Springfield, Mo.

“I had taken over all the housework. It bothered me quite a bit,” Sister Mary Sheila said. Her mother was happy about her decision to enter the convent.

She graduated in June 1947, and entered that September. “My grandparents took care of Fr. Higdon at St. Alphonsus, they lived there,” just across the highway from Maple Mount, she said. “We’d go visit there, I wondered about that place across the road and thought, ‘I wish I went there.’”

“My mother was able to come to my investment, when I entered the novitiate in 1948,” she said. When she prepared to make her final vows, she again worried about her mother, but she knew she had enough brothers and sisters to take care of her.

There were 12 women to make vows in her novice class, and nine of them are still sisters, an unusually high percentage. “We’re all just ordinary people, pretty stable,” she said. “No one was ever elected, no one wrote a book.” Those remaining sisters are: Sisters Luisa Bickett, Clarita Browning, Jane Irvin Hancock, Mary Eileen Howard, Rose Theresa Johnson, Jamesetta Knott, Mary Louise Knott, and Renee Monaghan.

When it came time for Dorothy Marie to choose her religious name, she submitted three choices. Her first was Marie Bernard, after her parents; the second was Catherine Marie for her sister. As she was looking through a Catholic newspaper, she saw the name “Mary Sheila” and thought it was pretty, so she put it down as her third choice.

“I didn’t find out it was my new name until Bishop (Francis) Cotton announced it,” she said. “I found out later that ‘Sheila’ is Irish for ‘Cecilia,” which was my confirmation name.”

She recalls her days in the novitiate as happy ones. “We couldn’t visit home, I worried about my mother a lot,” she said. “We worked all the time, and hardly had time to study. But I enjoyed them all. We’d pin up our skirts and play volleyball in the evenings.”

On a mission

Her first ministry, in 1950, was at St. Charles School in Bardwell, Ky., where she taught the first four grades. “I only had a little teacher training. I just loved those years,” she said. “Every Christmas, a fellow I taught in fourth grade, Gerald Hayden, sent me a Christmas card. He just recently died.”

Sister Mary Sheila at the lectern in St. Catherine Church, Piedmont. One of her roles as pastoral associate is to train lectors.

St. Charles was a two-room school, and she lived upstairs. “We had to go to a well to get water,” she said. “It was so cold in the house that one time the water froze inside the house. We had to carry coal up the stairs.”

In 1952, she moved to St. Bartholomew School in the Louisville suburb of Buechel, where she spent seven years teaching first grade.

“I loved that place,” she said. “Nine sisters all went at once to the school. I liked the children an awful lot.” One of her students wrote to her recently to say he is now principal of a charter school.

One of the sisters with her those years was Sister Pauletta McCarty, who is retired to the Motherhouse, and the two have remained good friends. “She’s a very precise, very congenial person,” Sister Pauletta said. “She’s a real Ursuline, evangelizing. She’s spreading the good news. That’s what it’s all about.”

There were no lay teachers at St. Bartholomew, and one year Sister Mary Sheila had 78 first graders, without a teacher’s aide.