Ursuline Sister Michele Ann Intravia thought she would be a teacher all her professional life. Even in her job as manager of operations for the Sister Visitor Center in Louisville, Ky., she’s still teaching.
“I try to talk to as many people as possible. Our clients lack education,” Sister Michele said. The Sister Visitor Center provides emergency help with food, clothing, medication, rent and utilities in one of the poorest sections of Louisville.
“I try to get them to understand a budget, maybe we can get them out of poverty,” Sister Michele said. “We have people who are proud that they came here as a little girl with their grandmother, and now they’re here as an adult. Our hope is to help them to be self-sustainable.”
After 19 years in education, and a short time ministering at the Motherhouse and then in Chile, South America, Sister Michele came to the Sister Visitor Center as a case manager in November 2005. When the former manager of operations retired, Sister Michele was promoted in May 2011.
“I didn’t give the higher-ups a choice, I said ‘this is the woman we need,’” said Lucio Caruso, director of case management and family support services for Catholic Charities of Louisville, the umbrella agency that oversees Sister Visitor.
“She has personal skills, a way of being with people,” Caruso said. “People like being around her. She’s very welcoming and affirming of people. She values everybody and shows gratitude.” Caruso said Sister Michele is attentive to detail, and nothing gets past her. “She brings the Ursuline spirit. That faith rootedness is important to me,” he said.
One of the first changes Sister Michele – who most everyone calls “Shellie” – encouraged among Catholic Charities was an increase in spirituality in the workplace. “When we gathered as Catholic Charities, it’s like we lost the concept of God,” she said. “I said, ‘We never pray.’ (Lucio) said, ‘We’re going to change that.’ At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we asked other people to do the blessing in their native tongues. It brought us together. It’s important not to lose that.”
There are three other Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph ministering at the Sister Visitor Center – Sisters Grace Simpson, Maureen O’Neill and Margaret Marie Greenwell. As a case manager, Sister Michele knew that at times her peers felt they were out of the loop on what was happening, so she has worked to change that. An experience she had as a teacher taught her what unfairness could do to morale.
“Sister Maureen and I were teachers and there was no air conditioning in the classrooms,” she said. “But it always worked in the principal’s office.”
Her fellow Ursulines recognize a divergence of skills that make Sister Michele so good in her role.
“Sister Shellie’s skills are in public relations, she has very good social skills,” Sister Grace said. She has been a case manager for 28 years at Sister Visitor. “She has the poor at heart, you wouldn’t work here without the poor at heart.”
“Shellie’s greatest gift is outreach,” said Sister Margaret Marie, the receptionist. “She’s a hard worker, and will learn whatever she can for the good of Sister Visitor. Shellie really supports my job and connects with me. She’s doing a great job.”
This is the third place Sister Michele and Sister Maureen have ministered and lived together. They taught across the hall from each other in Paducah, Ky., and were educators in Mayfield, Ky., as well. “I was principal in Mayfield, she worked under me,” Sister Maureen said. “Now that has changed,” she said with a laugh. “She brings a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm. She’s been one of us, she knows better what we’re going through. She knows what we’re talking about.”
Workers at the Sister Visitor Center see 35-40 people a day. “One story gets heavier than the next. It’s not an easy job,” Sister Michele said. “The volunteers say they don’t know how we do it every day.
“In our encounters with clients, we ask how they are doing. They say, ‘I am very blessed, I was able to breathe today,’” Sister Michele said. “We’re not supposed to proselytize, but people feel free to share with us because they know we are sisters. It brings out a freedom to share their faith.”
Sister Visitor is aided by the Ursuline Associates who live and serve in Louisville. “Each meeting they bring what they’ve purchased to donate,” Sister Michele said. “It’s just a wonderful blessing.”
Sister Michele took over Sister Visitor on May 27th, 2011. “In early June, I had to give a presentation to the Metro Council for funding. I was a nervous wreck,” she said. “I had no training on grants we apply for, I was just told ‘these are the agencies you need to work with.’ I go to more meetings than I knew existed.” She gives talks to schools and parishes about Sister Visitor and is impressed with what the community knows about the agency. “I’ll know no one at a meeting, but they’ll know Sister Visitor.”
After a 3,000-square foot addition to the Sister Visitor building was completed in 2010, Sister Michele’s efforts have been on adding programs and increasing the center’s profile. In October 2011, the first patients were seen in the indigent care clinic. “The clinic hasn’t caught on the way we thought it might,” Sister Michele said. “We need to publicize it more. The director says it happened the same way in a previous clinic he worked in.”
It has also been slow going for an Empowerment Fund created in 2011 to help raise money for the working poor. Sister Visitor is limited to paying $50 of a rent or utility bill a year, but a poor person who may have missed a day of work for illness will often need more than that to make ends meet. “It’s getting some backing for funding. It seems like more people are catching on,” Sister Michele said.
The latest endeavor is a proposed partnership with Bellarmine University to have doctoral students educate clients on better financial understanding, Sister Michele said.
“Shellie is a very generous person who would do anything for another and she is not afraid to work in order to get things done,” said Sister Monica Seaton, who has been friends with Sister Michele for about 10 years. “Shellie is a teacher at heart and she reaches out to others to help them find their potential. Her special education background has led her to be like Saint Angela and empower others regardless of their ability.”
Caruso said Sister Michele wanted to take the next step in service. “We try to move people out of the cycle of dependency and poverty,” he said. “She includes everyone in decision-making policy. Everybody is empowered.”
Caruso said he and Sister Michele have a common vision, so he knew they would work well together. There is also one other factor that helps, he said. “Being Italian together doesn’t hurt.”
A child of the Gateway city
Sister Michele grew up in St. Louis, Mo., as the youngest of three girls born to Michael and Rose Intravia. Her sisters are 8 and 12 years older than her. “I was very spoiled, which means I’m very loved,” she said. “I was a tomboy. I was always playing ball or riding my bike.”
Her mother stayed home to raise the girls, while her father tended her uncle’s bar. “He managed a liquor store, but I never saw him take a drink,” she said.
Michael Intravia died in 1971 at age 55, when Sister Michele was only 14. Her sisters were already married by that time. “He had a massive heart attack. He was a big, gentle giant. I loved my daddy,” she said. “He had the biggest spiritual influence on me. My dad and I went to 9:30 Mass every Sunday. He was there for everything. He was a first generation American, he had to drop out of school to support his family. We grew up so poor, but I didn’t know that. I had everything I wanted.”
Despite their poverty, all the children attended Catholic school from elementary school to college. Sister Michele attended St. Aloysius Gonzaga Elementary School, Bishop DuBourg High School and Fontbonne College (now University) in St. Louis.
“I had School Sisters of Notre Dame in elementary school,” Sister Michele said. “In second grade, I fell in love with those sisters.” Becoming a sister was always in the back of her mind. “If I didn’t try it, my life wouldn’t be complete,” she said.
Throughout her life, family has played a central role. Sister Michele still talks to her niece, Associate Stephanie George, every night in St. Louis.
“She is a really great aunt,” George said. “When my two cousins, my sister and I were young, we knew when her payday was and would call to beg her to buy us new shoes. She is the reason we all have a love of shoes today and own quite a few pairs.”
Sister Michele has always been a giver and a helper, George said. “I remember one Christmas in particular. My parents led us to believe that Santa brought everything (tree included) on Christmas Eve, so that when we woke up we would know it was Christmas,” she said. “Well, my daddy cut his hand trying to trim the tree and we woke up to Aunt Shellie that Christmas morning and found out there was no Santa. So she was always there to lend a helping hand.”
The two have grown closer since George became an adult, she said. “I helped her take care of my grandma and we spent a lot of time together. It was this time that I really began to be aware of what the Ursulines were all about,” George said. “I knew she was a nun but didn’t really understand what they did or why. This is when I became aware of her passion for helping the poor and suffering. I was also very disenchanted with church and she helped me get back to it and learn to love it all over again,” she said. “She has always been there for me in my times of need. She is a great listener and always has good insight to what the problem may be and helps to make the situation seem better.”
Growing up near the Intravias was a boy named Jimmy, who had Down syndrome. “I honestly didn’t know there was anything different with him, until I got older,” Sister Michele said. “He didn’t go to school with me, and my mom explained why. He didn’t learn the same way I did.”
When the family moved into a new house, a neighbor had a special needs child. “Everyone was afraid of him. My mom would try to teach him numbers and ABCs, and she got me involved,” Sister Michele said. “Those experiences had a lot to do with me wanting to get into special ed. My mom was never afraid. She probably had no idea how influential she was.”
Sister Michele was at Fontbonne for 1 ½ years, and was a candidate for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, similar to the contact program the Ursulines have. “My sophomore year, the School Sisters needed a teacher at St. Mary’s Special School in St. Louis. They wanted to know if I would quit school to teach.” Sister Michele said. She worked at St. Mary’s for 2 ½ years as a candidate.
“Two Ursulines (former sisters Martha “Marty” Blandford and Kathy Gallo) came to work at the school. One of the novices, Amy Williams, came and we became friends right away,” Sister Michele said. “Marty and Kathy wanted to go to Kentucky and they needed a ride. I said, ‘I’ll take you.’ When I got to the Mount, I went to the lake and I just got my call. It was just God. The simplicity of the sisters, their spirituality was different. When I went back to St. Louis, I had to tell the Notre Dame Sisters that I was joining the Ursulines. I decided all this in just a weekend.”
She made a “come and see” weekend with the Ursuline Sisters and entered in July 1979. “My mom woke up crying for two solid weeks,” she said. “We couldn’t stop at a restaurant because everyone was crying. Ever since the second grade I wanted to be a nun. She was happy about that, she just didn’t like the distance to Kentucky.”
Amy Williams, who left the community in 1982 and is now Associate Amy Payne, said she and Sister Michele remain close friends. “Shellie is Italian by nature. There’s just a warmth about her, it attracts people like a magnet,” Payne said. “She’s very welcoming and puts people at ease.”
Sister Michele’s mother and sisters became family for Payne and her children through the years, and just about every year Sister Michele travels with the Paynes to their condo in Destin, Fla. “She loves to swim in the ocean and see the dolphins,” Payne said. The Payne family has a friend with special needs, Shawn, and Sister Michele volunteered to be his teacher when she was at the Mount, Payne said.
Sister Michele’s gifts allow her to work with many groups of people in need, Payne said. “She has such a gift of working with older people. She was so wonderful working with her mom in her last years, that was good for my kids to see,” Payne said. “She has a real heart for people in need. Her job now suits her well.”
A mission in the classroom
Sister Michele completed her degree from Brescia College in Owensboro, Ky., in 1983 in K-12 special education and K-8 elementary education.
Her first ministry was at St. Mary High School in Paducah, Ky., from 1983-85. “I started the special ed program at St. Mary. It was scary,” Sister Michele said. “There was no funding. They knew about kids with disabilities, but there was nothing for them. I got a program I’d used while student teaching at Daviess County High School (in Owensboro). A lot of the teachers were upset because the biggest class size I had was six. But if one of those kids was in their class, they couldn’t handle him.
“The biology teacher that year had six students in advanced biology, I had six special ed boys,” Sister Michele said. “I said my boys would never get to take biology, never get to do an experiment, could we pair them up for a dissection project? She did and it was so exciting for them. Two of my students scored higher on the final exam than her students. They grew to have such a bond.”
In 1985, she moved to St. Joseph School in Mayfield, Ky., to teach first grade, and second grade religion. “It was six wonderful years. I loved the little ones,” Sister Michele said. “People were very dedicated to the school, they were so grateful they still had sisters. They were so good to us.” Sister Maureen and Sister Michele were the last Ursulines there when they left in 1991. The school closed for good in May this year.
In 1991, with Sister Michele’s mother in failing health, she moved to Florissant, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, to work at the St. Christopher Learning Center so she could be close to her mom. “I was playing volleyball for St. Aloysius when the pastor told me he needed someone to teach second grade,” Sister Michele said. In 1992 she returned to her former grade school. “It was very interesting to teach students of people I went to school with,” she said. “I loved it.”
She taught for four years — the second grade, then fifth — before coming principal at St. Aloysius in 1996. “It wasn’t hard being back, I was very welcomed. St. Al’s hadn’t had a nun for years before I got there,” she said. “I played Catholic Youth Council volleyball and coed softball with the parents.”
In 1999, Sister Michele’s mother died at age 83. “She worked at a clothing factory, she cut patterns for men’s jackets. She enjoyed it, but her life was lonely,” Sister Michele said. “Fortunately my sisters were still in St. Louis with grandchildren.”
Her mother’s lessons still resonate with her today. “We never threw aluminum foil away, we always washed it,” she said. “My mom would never let you put more than three ice cubes in a glass. Mom always sat on the front porch, it didn’t matter if it was 105 degrees, there was always a cool breeze on the porch.”
Like many Catholic schools across the country in those days, enrollment at St. Aloysius was declining, and eventually the decision to close was made in 2002. “It was so sad,” Sister Michele said. “It was the hardest day of my life. Eventually the church closed too and was torn down.”
Ursuline Sisters began serving in the St. Louis suburb of Affton in 1928 at Seven Holy Founders School, and later at St. Angela Merici in Florissant, but Sister Michele was the last Ursuline to serve in St. Louis when she left in 2002. “I wish we could still have sisters there. I’m sure Seven Holy Founders would love it.”
Becoming a missionary
Sister Michele’s next stop was to come to Maple Mount as assistant local community life coordinator. “I loved working with the sisters in (Saint Joseph) Villa,” she said. “I never minded doing anything at the Mount.”
“She has a great love for the Ursuline community,” Sister Monica said. “Any time she comes home to the Mount she visits with the sisters and tries to stay in touch with as many as possible.”
For some time, Sister Michele was interested in becoming a missionary, and she had talked about it with her mom. “She made me promise I would not leave the country while she was alive, so I put it on the back burner,” Sister Michele said. In 2001, Sister Marie Goretti Browning had to back out of a trip to the Ursuline ministry Casa Ursulina in Chillan, Chile. Sister Michele got to take her place and travel for two weeks with Sister Marietta Wethington, who was on the leadership Council. Sister Mimi Ballard was ministering at Casa Ursulina alone at the time.
“I loved it,” Sister Michele said. “The kids at school raised $800 in two weeks so we could buy baby formula for Sister Mimi. When I came back, I asked the Mother’s Club if they would buy a refrigerator for Mimi. They made the donation after I left.”
The impression led Sister Michele to prepare to minister in Chile. “My intention was to help Mimi in the Casa,” Sister Michele said. “My speaking Spanish was not great. I taught English at an elementary school, which I enjoyed, but I wanted to help Mimi. I ran the nursery and also did art lessons and English lessons with the after-school kids. I loved it, but I missed the women,” she said. “I could understand the language, but I couldn’t communicate back fast enough. I could make people laugh, we had so much fun. The camaraderie of the women was special. I left a piece of my heart there.”
Her inability to speak the language well enough made her think she didn’t utilize her talents to the best of her ability. “I came back depressed” on Sept. 29, 2005, she said. She didn’t have long to wait before her next ministry began.
“I was in contact with someone in New Mexico to be a principal, but that didn’t work out,” she said. “Sister Rebecca Miles (the director of Sister Visitor) asked me to help during Christmas. I knew there were Ursulines here, they suggested I could help.
“I called Sister Maureen in Louisville asking her for a place to stay temporarily,” Sister Michele said. “The next day, Sister Rebecca called to offer me a full-time job. A case manager had resigned.” She started on Nov. 28th.
“I think the Lord had this in mind. I love this job,” she said. “I feel very fulfilled here. Trying to help people in need is something I’m called to do. The way the Center is changing, it’s living out (Saint) Angela’s dream of moving with the signs of the times. That’s very important.”
Time away from work
The busy schedule at Sister Visitor doesn’t leave Sister Michele much leisure time. But another of her passions is her involvement in the Gennesaret Retreat for the chronically ill and dying, held twice a year at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky.
“I’m the hospitality coordinator in the fall,” she said. There are 15 guests for the retreat, and Sister Michele’s job is to get 15 volunteers, so each retreatant has someone to walk with him or her that weekend. “It’s a wonderful experience. This is my second year, I shadowed the first year,” Sister Michele said. “Sister Rebecca Miles is a friend of the hospitality director, she said she needed someone. I feel very blessed to be a part of it.”
Another of Sister Michele’s talents is her sense of humor, and Sister Monica can relay many stories they have recounted over the years.
“One night, when I was a novice, after it had snowed, Shellie and I went to the 5th floor balcony of Saint Ursula to view the scene from above,” Sister Monica said. “While up there we got the idea to make snowballs and throw them at the raised garden in the courtyard of Saint Joseph Villa. Well, every time Shellie would throw one – boom! – it hit the target. I would throw one and it wouldn’t be anywhere near the raised garden (or past the roof for that matter). After my numerous attempts, Shellie looked at me and said, “Good grief, you throw like a girl.” to which I replied, “Well, that’s what I am!” We laughed so hard and still get tickled about that endeavor.”
Sister Michele has also done some work with vocation ministry, and recently participated in a “nun run” in Louisville, in which interested women gain an understanding of various religious communities. “There were six women, it gave me so much hope. There are women interested in religious life,” she said. “It gives me so much life. We have got to grow, even by ones and twos.”
Her desire to gain new sisters isn’t just about increasing the membership. “I have a passion for the community,” she said. “I want other people to be touched by the Ursulines.”
By Dan Heckel