Wake Reflection for Sister Robert Ann Wheatley, OSU
December 6, 1920 – April 8, 2012
From John 20:15-16 – “Jesus said to [Mary], ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ She thought it was the gardener and said to him, ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’”
On Easter Sunday afternoon, April 8, 2012, Jesus called Sister Robert Ann Wheatley by name. We don’t know what name he pronounced – was it Esther? Was it Robert Ann? Was it a name known only to the two of them? Whatever it was, Sister Robert Ann was at last able to hear her name, and to answer, “Rabbouni!” and then to walk into the Easter garden with her Lord. I say “at last” because Sister Robert Ann noted in her 2003 annals, with perhaps some regret, that she “almost entered into eternity [Easter] 2003,” but that within three months, with the good care in the Villa, she was “up walking with a cane [and] eating dinner in the main dining hall.” So, we celebrate with you, Sister Robert Ann, that you are now delighting in the banquet hall of your loving Lord.
Sister Robert Ann began her life of pilgrim journeying as Mary Esther Virginia Wheatley, joining the family of Wheatley’s who arrived in Breckinridge County, Kentucky in 1791 – the first Catholics in the Breckinridge hills. Esther was the fifth child born to Robert E. and Mary Anna Beavin Wheatley, in Cloverport, Kentucky, on Monday, December 6, 1920. She joined her two brothers – Robert and Michael Allen – and sister, Helen Beatrice; Isadore had died in infancy. Over the next ten years, the family would grow to include three more brothers – Raymond Earl, Adrian Michael, and Wallace (her half brother) – one more sister, Cecilia Rose – and little Andrew, who also died in infancy. To her brother, Adrian, and all her beloved nieces, nephews, and cousins, we – the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph – offer our condolences and our prayers.
Esther joined the faith journey of her family three months later on the Feast of Saint Joseph, when Father J.S. Henry baptized her at Saint Rose of Lima Church on Saturday, March 19, 1921. As she grew, Esther matured in a family of faith where her “Dad and Mother had a scheduled time for us to receive the Sacraments,” and each child had special prayers they were to pray each day.
When she was six, Esther began her education pilgrimage at Hites Run School, the local public school. When she was thirteen, she advanced her faith journey, receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation on Thursday, May 17, 1934, at the same Saint Rose of Lima Church in Cloverport. She noted that Bishop Floersh presided because he was “still the only bishop in Kentucky.” By 1936, Esther completed her public education, graduating from the eighth grade at Hites Run.
For the next three and one-half years, Esther worked with her mother caring for the home and especially helping her mother quilt for the Eleanor Beard Hedgelands Studio of Hardinsburg, Kentucky. Now, these years – between 1936 and 1939 – were in the height of the Great Depression, and Esther’s quilting work with her mother made her part of a rather special group of women. You might find this interesting.
The Eleanor Beard Studio of Hardinsburg, was actually a place of some fame with hundreds of contributors. It was featured nationally in Good Housekeeping and Arts and Decoration magazines. Historians regarded the Studio as one of the “most successful of the Kentucky quilt cottage industries;” researchers credited it with “the survival of Hardinsburg and the surrounding towns during the Depression.” The quilters claimed that working for the studio “helped buy shoes for our children.” But, even more, the studio was so successful that its quilts “found their way into the homes of the rich, famous and influential [including] Henry Fonda, Princess Grace, the Duchess of Windsor as well as the Rockefeller’s, Eisenhower’s, and Roosevelt’s. . . .” Who knows? One of our own Sister Robert Ann’s quilts might even have rested in the White House!
But, in spite of all she was learning and sharing with her mother, her family, and the communities in Breckinridge County, Esther had been “considering becoming a Sister and the life of an Ursuline appealed” to her. She had never worked with the Ursulines, so introduced herself to Mother Teresita by letter; completed the application forms – in which she shared she wished to become a sister “to learn more about my religion;” and secured the required recommendation from Father Mills who wrote, “Esther Wheatley . . . is, I think, a very good girl, but I would hesitate to say she has a vocation. You can . . . give her a trial . . . .” Well, Father Mills, after more than seventy years later, we would say that Sister Robert Ann certainly passed that trial.
In the middle of the winter of 1940, on Thursday, February first, Esther began her postulancy at Mount Saint Joseph, and six months later she became Sister Robert Ann. With her classmates – Sisters Margaret Joseph Aull, Mildred Barr, Mary Jane Hicks, Francis Miriam Spalding, and Theresa Marie Wilkerson – she began her novitiate on Wednesday, August 14, 1940. To her last classmate, Sister Francis Miriam, we offer our love, our condolences and our prayers.
During her novitiate, Sister Robert Ann struggled with homesickness. One afternoon, when the homesickness just seemed like too much to bear, she was advised to sit with the Blessed Mother in prayer. She sat, crying, “I don’t know for how long, but that night I dreamed I was running home. All of a sudden the Blessed Mother appeared . . . and asked me where I was going . . . She told me to go back to the convent, that was where I belonged. That was the climax of my homesickness.” And perhaps, since Sister Robert Ann celebrated her 70th jubilee with us, that homesickness was indeed cured – or at least transformed.
Two years later, Sister Robert Ann made her first vows on Saturday, August 15, 1942, and began her first mission as housekeeper at Saint Anthony Convent in Peonia, Kentucky. In her letter of introduction and application to the Ursulines, she had written, “I am ready and willing to do any kind of work that may be assigned to me.” Perhaps those words were prophetic as we think of the many ministries and missions that Sister Robert Ann would experience over the next fifty years.
She began at Peonia as a housekeeper, with springs spent at Browns Valley, Fairfield, and Saint Paul’s in Louisville, and later at Holy Trinity in “the Burg.” She added substitute teaching there and was given her own classroom in 1947 at Saint Charles School in Bardwell, Kentucky, before she had even begun high school. Over the next seven summers, Sister Robert Ann completed high school, graduating from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in 1955; all the while teaching the primary grades at Saint Benedict in Wax, Saint Paul in Leitchfield, and Saint Catherine in New Haven. Over the next seventeen summers, Sister Robert Ann earned a baccalaureate degree in education from Brescia College, graduating in 1972. During those years, she continued to teach at nine different schools in Kentucky, New Mexico, and Nebraska. What a pilgrim spirit!
During these years as she continued her academic education and enhanced her teaching skills, Sister Robert Ann also attended the schools of suffering and ill health. Even in the midst of such varied and unanticipated learning, she remained open to new experiences – even working for a time at the Maple Mount post office.
Armed with a Brescia College diploma, while earning a Master of Arts from Western Kentucky University, Sister Robert Ann continued teaching for the next eight years at four more schools in Nebraska and Kentucky. After another health leave, she expanded the ways she would continue to live up to her early pledge, “I am ready and willing to do any kind of work . . . .” She became a tutor, a librarian, a secretary, an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher, and finally a pastoral care-giver. Thirty missions over fifty years – a gift and a burden – the gift to serve so many different people in so many different communities, and the burden to always stand ready to follow the pilgrim call. Thank you, Sister Robert Ann, for leaving your homesickness in the arms of the Blessed Mother, and carrying Angela’s charism to so many.
Sister Robert Ann came home to stay in 1993, and joined the Powerhouse of Prayer in 1996. During the next years, she had a chance to share time with her family, especially her sister – Master Sergeant Cecilia Wheatley – of whom she was most proud. She also shared her dry wit within her annals and other reports. She noted, as Annalist for “the Pilgrim Band,” her bonded group, that “being 70-plus years old, our cup overflows with fatigue, frustration, and forgetfulness. The ‘old grey mares ain’t what they USED to be. . . .” In 2002, she reported that her activity for the year was “growing older and wearing out like an old car. Always needing repair.”
And in 2000, she submitted what must surely have been one of the more unique maintenance reports that Sister Rita Scott ever received:
This afternoon Sister Mary and I lost control of the PVH (Paul Volk Hall) elevator at first floor. . . . The elevator was not equipped with the two (2) black boxes, seat belts, parachutes or oxygen. The Pilots got in contact with the ground control [crew] by yelping back and forth. . . . We were told by ground control that forced landing was necessary – at the basement floor. No parachutes to jump out. No seat belts to buckle up. The fan kept the oxygen floating in the air. We had a . . . slow bumpy ride . . . to the basement floor [and] the ground control crew was there to greet us.
Then, as those repairs became more frequent, Sister Robert Ann found support and love among those who shared the Villa with her. To the staff and residents of the Villa – Sister Robert Ann’s last-but-one pilgrim destination – we extend our thanks for your love and support, and our prayers and condolences for your loss.
At one time Sister Robert Ann had a chance to offer her own closing prayer for her time; she wrote: “Heavenly Father, help me follow the charism of Saint Angela with faith, courage and high hope in my final journey to my Resurrection.” Well, Sister Robert Ann, in 2012, on the most holy day of resurrection light, you completed that journey, that pilgrimage – faithful to all your promises and home at last.
Sister Sharon Sullivan
Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph