(Sister Melissa Tipmore stepped down as transportation coordinator in 2016 after 18 years in the ministry. She continues to provide transportation for the sisters and serves as the librarian at the Motherhouse.)
When Sister Melissa Tipmore was in her first mission at St. Francis of Assisi School in Loretto, Ky., only one of the sisters she lived with was allowed to drive.
Times have changed for the Ursuline Sisters. For the past 13 years, it has been Sister Melissa’s ministry to be director of transportation for the sisters, overseeing a fleet of 15 vehicles and making sure that the sisters at the remote location in Maple Mount get to their doctor appointments and occasional shopping trips in Owensboro.
“It’s a good second career for me, because it’s different from teaching,” Sister Melissa said, now in her 48th year as a sister. “I’m a very organized person and that quality is much needed in this position.”
She also runs errands for the business office into Owensboro each day, about 25 minutes away, takes care of licensing the community’s vehicles, takes deposits to the bank and sometimes drives a sister to an appointment that comes up at the last second. She takes care of buying over-the-counter medication for the sisters who live in Paul Volk Hall and St. Ursula Hall.
“I like running errands and getting things done, it suits me,” Sister Melissa said. “Even when I was teaching school, I liked making a list and marking it off.”
She schedules medical appointments for the sisters in those two residence halls, and assigns the five sisters who serve as drivers. “Having five sisters makes it nice, they are very dependable. We have to take sisters every day, we probably average three to four a day,” she said. There are about 40 sisters in the two residence halls that she serves.
Sister Marie Carol Cecil has been driving the sisters for 12 years, and thinks Sister Melissa does a fine job of running the office. “She’s very organized, and has her hands in quite a few things. She keeps us scheduled well.”
Sister Mary Matthias Ward, director of local community life at the Motherhouse, also mentioned Sister Melissa’s organizational skills, and said her sense of humor serves her well in her ministry. “Sisters can be demanding and she usually takes it with a smile and a grain of salt and moves on to get the job done,” Sister Mary Matthias said. “She has organized a spring and a fall outing for the sisters. It gives them an opportunity to visit a park, walk around, eat a picnic lunch and come back home. These have been lovely outings for those who have taken the opportunity to attend,” she said. “I really think Melissa would try to do most things for any of us who need her help. She is a special lady with whom I enjoy working.”
For two former employees at the Mount, Sister Melissa’s greatest skill is her ability to listen.
Sarah Dant worked at the Mount for 33 years before retiring in 2009, and for many of those years, her office as director of housekeeping was two doors down from Sister Melissa.
“She’s a real kind, patient lady,” Dant said. “She would always listen to me if I needed to express myself. She’s got patience with the employees and the sisters. She’s just a lovable person.”
Patsy Love, who retired from the Mount in 2007, shares Sister Melissa’s love of books and movies, and the two became good friends when Sister Melissa came to the Mount in 1998. “She was someone I could confide in,” Love said. “She’s easy to talk to, it just comes naturally to her. She’s been a very good friend to me.”
Love and Dant still occasionally join Sister Melissa on trips to their favorite restaurant, Pizza Hut. “She’s always in my thoughts and prayers,” Dant said.
Taught by the Ursulines
Sister Melissa grew up in Owensboro, Ky., born Barbara Joan Tipmore, the youngest of seven children to J.W. and Georgia Tipmore, who everyone called “Shorty.” “Everyone in my family is short except me,” she said. She’s 5 feet 7.
She loved books and movies as a child, and they remain an important part of her life. She recalls weekends of going to see a movie or going skating for a quarter.
Her father refinished furniture for a living and spent the rest of his free time playing golf. Her mother was a homemaker who volunteered at the local soup kitchen and made and sold Barbie clothes. “She helped everyone in her family and everyone in the neighborhood,” Sister Melissa said.
From the second grade on, Sister Melissa knew what she was going to do with her life.
“I was educated by Ursulines all through school, I dearly loved them. I liked to help them after school,” she said. She attended Sts. Joseph and Paul School, where every teacher she had was an Ursuline. “In the second grade, we were flower girls for the first communicants. I knew I would be a sister then,” she said.
“I always felt close to the sisters, they included us in their lives,” Sister Melissa said. “Your parents wanted you to get outside, but the sisters would let us help in the classroom.” During the summer, a bus brought the sisters from Maple Mount to Brescia College so the sisters could work on their degrees, and the sisters lived in Sister Melissa’s church. “We played volleyball with them. They shared their lives with us,” she said. The two sisters who had the biggest impact on her were Sister Rosita Willett, who is deceased, and Sister Peter Claver Abell, who left the community in 1975 and is now Laura Smith.
In those days each parish where the Ursulines taught offered one scholarship to Mount Saint Joseph Academy, and Sister Melissa received the one from Sts. Joseph and Paul. She stayed at the Academy her freshman year as a boarding student. In the spring of the year, students needed to let the school know if they would return, and Sister Melissa was so homesick, she decided to attend Owensboro Catholic High School her sophomore and junior years.
She knew she planned to enter the Ursulines upon graduation and talked with Father Aloysius Powers about her vocation. He told her she would acclimate to the convent better if she spent her senior year at the Academy, so she returned for her final year, graduating in 1963.
The strong pull to religious life never left Sister Melissa and still hasn’t. “I think the good Lord is still calling, but people aren’t listening,” she said. “Having sisters around all the time made a difference. They treated us like people.”
A new Ursuline
Barbara Joan Tipmore entered the Ursuline Sisters as a postulant with 20 other young women on Sept. 8, 1963, and entered the novitiate in 1964. Six of those classmates remain – Sisters Diane Marie Payne, Joan Riedley, Karla Kaelin, Laurita Spalding, Lisa Marie Cecil and Mary Timothy Bland. Sister Melissa is looking forward to their 50th jubilee in 2014.
She took the name Melissa to honor her great grandmother, Mary Melissa Steele. When the sisters were allowed to return to their baptismal names if they chose, Sister Melissa decided to keep her religious name, because she’d had it 18 years, the same number that she had Barbara.
Her parents took the news of her entering the Ursulines well. “My dad was not a Catholic, he was always proud that I was a school teacher,” she said. “My mom never said she was proud of my decision, but she acted like she was. My mom was the strong force in my family.”
Sister Melissa’s zeal to become a sister did not mean she was expecting to become a teacher, the primary ministry of the Ursulines in the 1960s. “I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. I didn’t think about education,” she said.
Her first mission at St. Francis of Assisi in Marion County, Ky., lasted four years, teaching second-graders and getting them ready for their first Communion. “I remembered mine so well and what it meant to me, I enjoyed doing it for the children,” she said.
Teaching second grade was a challenge at the time, because the Catholic schools did not offer first grade. “All the first-graders had been in seven different public schools, and for second grade they all came to my classroom,” Sister Melissa said. Trying to gauge each student’s readiness for second grade was difficult.
“Sometimes I would cry,” she said. “But I thought, ‘I can’t do this every day, I’ve got to do something.’ I got into the storage closet and got out first-grade books to get them all up to second-grade level.”
During her time at St. Francis she became friends with the first lay person to work with the sisters as a teacher’s aide, Dorothy Medley. “She did whatever we needed her to do. We’d just chitty-chat a lot and befriended each other,” Sister Melissa said. “We didn’t go to people’s houses back then, but we enjoyed each other’s company.”
In December 2009, Sister Melissa was thrilled to learn that Dorothy Medley’s son “Billy,” who had become a priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville, would soon have a new title – the Most Rev. William Medley, bishop of the Diocese of Owensboro. “I thought, ‘Gosh, I know that kid,’” Sister Melissa said. She was invited to the ordination as a special guest of Dorothy Medley’s.
“I went to see her in August (2011),” Sister Melissa said. “I got a note from Bishop Medley saying, ‘You really made Mom’s day.’”
Dorothy Medley, who still lives in Marion County, said she was attracted to Sister Melissa’s outgoing nature. “She was just a great person, I just loved her.” The two stayed in touch through the years through cards and phone calls, but her son’s ordination rekindled their friendship.
“She’s an outgoing, lovely person to be around,” Medley said. “She seems to love everybody. I thought the world of her, and I still do.”
In 1972, Sister Melissa went to St. Teresa School in Glennonville, Mo., but when a sister was needed halfway through the school year at St. Alphonsus School, across the highway from Maple Mount, Sister Melissa volunteered to go. She finished out the year there, then moved to Mary Carrico School in Knottsville, Ky., in 1973. She taught there for three years, and served as principal her last year. When Ursuline Sister Rosanne Spalding asked for help at St. Peter of Alcantara in Stanley, Ky., Sister Melissa volunteered to finish the year there.
In 1977, she returned to Marion County where she began her ministry, this time at Holy Name of Mary School in Calvary. It was a public school, but it was fully staffed by Ursulines. She enjoyed her time back in Marion County. “I guess it was my first love,” she said.
In 1980, Sister Marian Powers needed help at St. Joseph School in Mayfield, Ky., in the far western part of the state, and Sister Melissa volunteered to go. Her willingness to pull up stakes and go where she’s needed has long been a staple for her.
“I don’t mind. I’m still that way now,” she said. “If you need help, I’ll help, but you have to let me know you need it.”
She taught third grade at St. Joseph, which is closing at the end of this school year. Sister Melissa plans to attend a final Mass with the bishop there this month.
In 1983, she spent a year at St. Romuald School in Hardinsburg, Ky., where the principal was Sister Pat Rhoten. Sister Pat was leaving the next year to be principal at Lourdes Elementary School in Nebraska City, Neb., and asked Sister Melissa if she wanted to come teach second grade. “I wondered if I could go out of state without getting too homesick,” Sister Melissa said. “I thought I would try.”
Nebraska City is a small town surrounded by even smaller towns, but Sister Melissa was impressed with how obedient the students were. “They really value education there,” she said.
Sister Melissa has always been meticulous in the details of whatever she does, Sister Pat said. “She has a sensitivity to those of us who are ill or aging. She’s got a good heart,” Sister Pat said.
Sister Melissa’s dry sense of humor makes her fun to be around, Sister Pat said. She offered this story as an example: One night in Nebraska, the sisters were returning from watching the movie “Rocky” only to find a group of high school seniors drunk on the convent property. As Sister Melissa nervously unlocked the convent, Sister Pat told the drunks to get off their property, and they dispersed. As Sister Pat came inside, Sister Melissa said, “Thank goodness the movie we saw wasn’t ‘Bambi.’”
In 1987, after four years in Nebraska, both of Sister Melissa’s parents were in the hospital in Owensboro, so she began trying to get a ministry closer to home. The Catholic Schools in Owensboro were consolidating, so the closest Sister Melissa could get was Immaculate Conception School in Hawesville, one county over. Her father died in April 1988.
Later that year she was assigned to St. Pius X School in Owensboro, and the next year Bishop Henry J. Soenneker School, which was even closer to her mom’s house, so she could help take care of her. Her desire to teach was starting to wane, but in 1993, Sister Darlene Denton, who had taught with her at St. Romuald, asked her to come to Sts. Simon and Jude School in Louisville to teach second grade and prepare the children for first Communion.
“There were a lot of advantages in Louisville that I didn’t have in other places,” Sister Melissa said. “I had two sisters in Louisville, so I got to see them every week.”
Last year, Sister Darlene was diagnosed with a rare liver disease, and came home to the Mount to spend her final months. She was only 63 when she died on Sept. 5, 2011.
“Darlene was a friend to everybody,” Sister Melissa said. “When she was here, I went to see her at 3 o’clock every day, and she always had our day planned out. ‘Today we’re going to clean out my purse. Today we’re going to go through my clothes.’ You get closer to someone when you go through that with them.”
In 1997, Sister Melissa took a sabbatical to the Blessing Place, a Carmelite institution in Lacombe, La. “There were people there from England, Ireland and Canada. I’d never been around people from another country,” she said. “We had classes on art and psychology, and we went on weekend trips to other places. I keep the pictures from that time, and I still keep in touch with one of the friends I made there who lives in Ireland. You learn a lot about yourself as you get older. You get a better outlook on things.”
In 1998 she returned to the Mount to help with driving the sisters, but when the need came up for a director of transportation a year later, Sister Melissa knew it was her time to take that ministry.
In 2006, her mother died at age 92, after living a truly full life, Sister Melissa said. “Mom loved life. She helped everybody,” she said. The last seven years of her life were spent in the Carmel Home, a retirement home in Owensboro run by the Carmelite Sisters. “She got to do the things she always wanted to do,” Sister Melissa said. “She got to be on the Christmas float, and crown the Blessed Mother. She entertained everybody on the trips they took.”
Because many of Sister Melissa’s sisters were so much older, she didn’t get to know them well until they were adults. Her family remains important to her, and she is particularly fond of the trips she took to Britain and Ireland in 1996 and to Europe in 1998 with two of her sisters.
In her free time, Sister Melissa still loves Hallmark movies, especially tear-jerkers, or what she calls “sad dog stories.” “When I was teaching, I’d read a story to the kids, and it was often about a dog that had run away,” she said. “One day the kids said, ‘Sister, we don’t want to hear any more of those sad dog stories.’”
She also loves to read Christian books by Karen Kingsbury and Beverly Lewis, who writes many Amish stories.
“She’s a wide, wide reader,” Sister Marie Carol said. “She keeps a book going. I think she’s read every book there is.”
By Dan Heckel