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

“I thought, ‘They’re here, I have to teach them.’ We didn’t have hyperactive kids back then,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “I had lots of energy and motivation in those days.”

One of her students was future Sister Maureen O’Neill.

“Mary Sheila taught me in first grade so she was the first Ursuline I ever met,” Sister Maureen said. “She was amazing to have handled all of us and given us such a good start in school.

“I’m sure I wasn’t thinking about being a sister yet, but she gave us a firm foundation in loving the Eucharist and making prayer an important part of the day,” said Sister Maureen, who ministers in Louisville. “I remember a calendar she ran off for each of us to mark during the summer time when we said our morning and evening prayers and when we went to Mass.

“She was always gentle and caring and made me feel special,” Sister Maureen said. “She still does that.”

Sister Mary Sheila’s next mission in 1959 was at Seven Holy Founders School in Affton, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.

Sister Mary Sheila stands in front of the stained glass window depicting Saint George, the patron saint of England, the namesake for the church in Van Buren, Mo. Legend says Saint George promised to kill a dragon terrorizing the land if people would believe in Jesus Christ. As his reward, he asked that the king maintain churches, honor priests, and show compassion to the poor.

“There were 22 sisters there and we had 1,400 students when I went,” she said. “We had three rooms of every grade.”

Despite the large school, Sister Mary Sheila made time for the students, remembers one of her first-graders, Sister Mary McDermott, who now ministers at the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center.

“I would not be where I am today without her,” Sister Mary said. From the time she was 18 months old until nearly the first grade, Sister Mary was paralyzed from the neck down, and thus, her development was slow.

“I didn’t learn to walk and talk until the first grade,” she said. “Sister Mary Sheila helped me with my lessons, and she made sure the kids weren’t bullying me. She spent so much time with me,” Sister Mary said. “She was very patient and loving. She had a good eye to look out for me. She was like my second mother.

“Her devotion to the Lord helped me to realize I could have a chance at life and with the Lord,” Sister Mary said. “No matter how slow I was, the Lord would be there and take care of me. She taught me speed isn’t important.”

While Sister Mary Sheila was in Affton in 1963, her mother’s health began to fail. She and Sister Carmencita Carrico left at midnight and got home before her mother died, at age 73.

After that, the principal, Sister George Marie Wathen, asked Sister Mary Sheila if she’d like to learn to drive.

“I told her I was scared,” she said. “She took me to Resurrection Cemetery and said, ‘You can’t kill anyone here.’ A parent in my class was a policeman, he gave me lessons. I love driving now.”

Sister Mary Sheila stayed in Affton 11 years. She left in 1970 because the community asked her to open the Saint Angela Education Center in Louisville, which helped students with remedial reading. “I had just finished my master’s in education at the University of Kentucky as a reading specialist.”

Her second year there she was the director and the teacher, and the workload became a bit much for her. In 1972, she moved to Plattsmouth, Neb., where she was principal and teacher at St. John School. “I taught double grades there,” she said. “My teaching years were always good, I felt successful,” she said.

After eight years in the school, in 1980 she became associate director of religious education for the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb. After a year, she left to return to St. John Parish as a pastoral minister and part-time teacher.

Out of the classroom

In 1982, it was time to return to Kentucky. She became the associate religious education coordinator at Holy Name Parish in Henderson, about 35 miles from Owensboro.