(This article was written in 2013. Sister Rose Jean is now the sacristan at the Motherhouse Chapel at Maple Mount, and helps in the Mount Saint Joseph Gift Shop.)
Ursuline Sister Marian Powers was a student at Mount Saint Joseph Academy when she received a letter from her mother telling her about her elementary school sister Rose Jean.
“My mother wrote to say that several of the children in the family had the mumps, and Rose Jean was running herself to death taking care of them, going to get them glasses of water,” Sister Marian said. “She’s always been one to help other people.”
For 51 years, Ursuline Sister Rose Jean Powers has been going out of her way to serve others. Whether it was as a history professor or head of residential life at Brescia College/University in Owensboro, Ky., as local superior to her sisters at the Motherhouse, as a bookstore assistant offering a listening ear or to the sisters with whom she lives, Sister Rose Jean has the heart of a social worker in whatever she does.
“We think the reason we’re here is to do some big work,” Sister Rose Jean said. “It may be we’re here for one other individual. I know I’m not here for the big work. Hopefully there will be some individuals who I will help along the way.”
Sister Marian, who is 10 years older, said there are countless people Sister Rose Jean helps.
“Our neighbor growing up (in Cloverport, Ky.) has cancer. Sister Rose Jean emails her daily and sends her a card once a week,” Sister Marian said. “When the woman comes to Owensboro for her chemotherapy, Rose Jean spends a half an hour with her while she gets her treatment.”
These days, Sister Rose Jean serves as an assistant in the Brescia Bookstore with the director, Beverly McCandless, spending much of her time on the phone or computer helping students order their books. People who come into the store are typically looking for Brescia-related gifts, but Sister Rose Jean lets it be known that if students just need a place to drop by to talk, there’s usually a pot of coffee ready.
“We have fun, and sometimes we work, but when we do that, we have fun too,” Sister Rose Jean said.
Sister Rose Jean grew up in the mist of the Ohio River, the ninth of 10 children.
“I was born at home (like all my siblings) in a home that, along with three other houses on the block, had front yards that faced the river,” she said. “We did not have a road running in front of our house until I was about 7 years old. That space was one big playground for the kids from all over the neighborhood. I remember when the bulldozers came around to remove the ground for the road. My brother (Randy), who was two years older than I, stood on our porch and threw rocks at the workmen because they were tearing up his ball diamond. Of course he got scolded by Mom and Dad, but everyone felt the same way he did.”
Life growing up centered on family, church, school, the neighborhood and cousin playmates, hometown festivals, local ball teams, the movie theater, the grocery, the beauty shop — anyplace where two or three could gather, she said.
Sister Rose Jean’s mother, Eva Mae, was a homemaker, and her father, Everett, was a carpenter, mostly for construction jobs.
“We had a family that encouraged prayer and service, and service to the Church,” she said. “Mom prayed all the time. Dad prayed, but Mom’s was more obvious.”
The lessons her parents taught her include a love for God, neighbor, learning, nature and listening to music on the radio.
“I would walk to early Mass with my father and then after breakfast, after the others had gone to the late Mass, I would wash the breakfast dishes and while doing so would listen to the symphony orchestra on the radio,” she said. “I was in my own little world then and loved listening to the music. I still work best when I have music playing in the background.”
The family’s belief in service to the Church resulted in vocations for her oldest sister, Ann Roberta, a Sister of Charity serving in India, her late brother Clyde (later known as Fr. Ben Powers) and Sister Marian. Two of Everett Powers’ sisters were also Sisters of Charity.
The age differences were so great between the oldest and youngest children in the Powers family that having the entire family gathered together was a rarity.
“If we ever had all 10 children home at one time it was right before my sister left to go to India,” when Rose Jean was about 4-5 years old, she said. “However, the picture we have of that time does not include my youngest sister, Gussie, who was in bed asleep when a ‘family photo’ was snapped by some relatives who were visiting that day.” Her sister did not make her first visit back from India until Sister Rose Jean was a senior in high school.
“You might say I met her for the first time in the Madonna Room (at Mount Saint Joseph Academy) even though we had kept in touch via letters,” she said.
Like her siblings, Sister Rose Jean attended St. Rose of Lima School. “The railroad ran right by the school … so waving at the conductor and the people on the caboose was also a pastime during recess,” she said.
All of her teachers were Ursuline Sisters, including Sister Mary Paula Hundley, Sister Benedict Thomas (who got sick and was briefly replaced by Sister Clarentia Hutchins) and Sister Mary Vincent Thompson.
By the time Sister Rose Jean was ready for high school, St. Romuald was open in Hardinsburg, and Bishop Francis Cotton expected students from St. Rose Parish to attend high school there. The bishop didn’t recognize that there were 12 miles between the towns and St. Rose had no school bus. Students from St. Rose rode to Hardinsburg via two taxi cabs each morning and afternoon.
“My dad was not happy when my brother traveled that way, and definitely did not want me doing it,” Sister Rose Jean said. “He was happy when I received a work scholarship to Mount Saint Joseph Academy.”
She believes God must have had plans for her to go to the Mount. The children never went to the movies during the week, but her aunt and uncle from Colorado were visiting and treated Rose Jean and her sister Gussie to a showing of “Boy’s Town” at the local theater when she was 13 years old. It was “Lucky Draw” night and Rose Jean won the prize of $500. It paid for her uniforms, books and part of her tuition her freshman year.
“I can still remember my little sister Gussie slapping me on the back and saying ‘Jeannie, that’s you!’ when they drew my name out of the barrel that night.”
At the Academy, she worked on The Mount newspaper and cleaned the auditorium all four years and also worked one day a week in the laundry helping to fold sheets when they came off the mangle.
“The thing that shaped me the most were the friendships with individual students and teachers,” she said. “We had some opportunities that were special to the Academy. While the public schools had music programs, we had people being taught private voice and piano lessons. The Vienna Boys Choir came to give a concert. It made you feel special.”
When she was a senior, the 10-12 boarding students were all talking of entering the convent. When one classmate told Sister Rose Jean “everyone knows you are entering,” Sister Rose Jean said she was not. That night, she had an argument with God.
“I kept saying ‘No, I’m not,’ and He kept saying, ‘Oh yes you are.’ I got my papers to enter that night,” she said. Only three boarding students in that class entered the community and only Sister Rose Jean remains.
“I came to the Ursulines because I was comfortable with them,” Sister Rose Jean said. “I loved Mount Saint Joseph, it was a really inspirational place. You really feel this is holy land. There is a whole prayer atmosphere.”
She entered on Sept. 7, 1961, and one of the people she met that day was her classmate Sister Michele Morek.
“She was the ‘mother’ of our class,” Sister Michele said. “That person was always a ‘Mount Girl’ who had graduated from the Academy, and was chosen (I presume) for her knowledge of the way things worked, and her maturity, level-headedness and good sense. Those traits describe Rose Jean pretty well — we can always depend on her to be practical and calm in a crisis.”
A mission in the classroom
“If I had had my druthers in higher education I would have gone into social work … but at the time I was attending Brescia, we did not have such a program,” Sister Rose Jean said. “I had been told to study history,” in which her ACT scores showed the most promise.
“I remember going over to the education office” headed by Sister Lucita and telling her that I would like to study anything rather than history and she told me to try it for a year… if I didn’t do well, I could switch. Well, darn it, I made my best grades in history and I was certified to teach it in the secondary schools.”
Her first mission instead was to teach first grade at St. Mary School in Nebraska City, Neb., in 1966. “They needed someone to fill in. I felt sorry for the kids I had,” she said. “There were 42 students, only 12 of them girls.”
Sisters in those days found out their assignments for the following year on a slip of paper. After her first year in Nebraska, Sister Rose Jean’s slip said simply “study.” It didn’t say where or what. The “where” was later determined to be Marquette University and the “what “turned out to be more history.
Sister Rose Jean expected to be a high school teacher, but instead she was being groomed to replace Sister Mary Antonia Wathen in the history department at Brescia.
The same year she went to Marquette, Sister Michele sought her doctorate at Notre Dame.
“I went up to spend the first Easter with them,” Sister Michele said. “Since it was Easter, and since the sun was shining, we were determined to have a picnic by Lake Michigan. The wind was blowing so hard that we could literally lean into it without falling. As we sat at a picnic table by the lake — veils and long habits flying, and potato chip bags held down by rocks — we must have been an entertaining sight. But we were determined to have fun.”
Sister Rose Jean returned to Brescia and began teaching one class in Western Civilization before finishing her comprehensive exams and before she finished her master’s thesis, she said.
“I took my comprehensive exam in what is now the assistant academic dean’s office at Brescia on the day they had the Thanksgiving parade in Owensboro and all the floats and bands were processing down the street,” she said. “Sister Mary Antonia presided with me while I took the exam and then the answer booklets were mailed to Marquette for scoring. I guess I did OK on them, they let me graduate.”
In 1975, she qualified for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study at Northwestern University for a summer seminar in American history, which helped her gradually move into teaching that subject.
She was a history instructor at Brescia from 1968-84 and from 1989-92. In 1971 she began working with residence halls as well, and did so until 1984, then was director of residential life from 1993-2008.
“Very soon after I came to Brescia, Sister Joseph Angela Boone, who was serving as Dean of Women and living in Merici Hall as supervisor of that residence hall, was asked to come to the Mount as finance officer,” Sister Rose Jean said. “They needed someone to stay in Merici Hall with the students.”
She took the second floor and over time, and gradually began staying more and more until the position became permanent. Residential life at Brescia evolved during her years there.
“The first people we had were here for specialized degrees. Later, when we added sports to boost enrollment, their time was divided between sports and academics,” she said. “They didn’t have the time to invest in clubs and activities.”
Her job was to get the students situated in housing (facilities instruction, health forms, room assignments) and then keep the lines of communication open to meet their needs.
“Some I knew well, others I never knew,” she said. “I tried to say, ‘I’m here for whatever the need might be. I’ll get you to the person who can take care of it.’ Caring can be interpreted as interfering. So you say, ‘I’m available.’ When I started working in residence halls, they had curfews. Now they are in apartments.”
Sister Michele, who was teaching at Brescia, said the sisters called Sister Rose Jean “Aerial Ears” because she always knew what was going on. “It was uncanny sometimes. She would just look smug and say that she did not listen at keyholes, she just paid attention and read the bulletin boards (and the police reports).”
Sister Rose Jean’s years of sharing community with other Ursuline Sisters are some of her fondest memories from her years at Brescia.
“We worked together, we prayed together, we ate together, we celebrated together and we cried together,” she said. “In other words, we had a pretty dog-gone good community.”
Some of her sisters formed the Cockroach Club – sisters who would stay up late to watch TV shows like “Cell Block H” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which would later be replaced by “Northern Exposure” and “E.R.”
Sister Michele was a member of the Cockroach Club. “Rose Jean was always up for some mischief and/or fun, whether a walk in the autumn leaves or designing a skit for Campus Capers, preferably one spoofing the students,” Sister Michele said.
Celebrating community life has long been important to Sister Rose Jean. “We celebrated feast days and jubilees and you name it … and we had some traditions like ‘oyster soup and chicken salad sandwiches’ on Christmas Eve. It was just a lot of fun.”
While watching ‘Downton Abbey’ with others recently, she thought “This could be a club. Things that appeal to me are getting together as a group, I don’t see that as much now. I’m not sure how students communicate today.” She lives on campus with Sister Helena Fischer and Sister Vivian Bowles.
During her years at Brescia she pursued her interest in social work by serving as a charter member of the Homeless Council of the Ohio Valley, as a member of an AIDS ministry program and on the first neighborhood association for the area. “We knew everybody who lived in the neighborhood,” she said.
Back to the Mount
In 1984, she was asked to come to Maple Mount as local superior, who oversees the Motherhouse community.
“I loved being at the Mount, accompanying the sick sisters when they were in the hospital, etc.,” she said. “The local superior mainly helped with the follow through for whatever direction the local staff determined was needed for boosting the morale of the sisters living at the Mount. It might be nothing more that helping set up for a bingo afternoon, or it might be sitting up several nights as a sister got closer and closer to her eternal reward. Whatever or wherever the job was not the important thing, it was just doing the best you could to make life a little better for others.”
“One experience I will never forget from the Mount was that of making fruit cakes for Christmas,” she said. “Sisters Joseph Cecilia and Anna Francis were the other two involved in this project. They were ‘well soaked’ fruit cakes by the time Christmas rolled around. But it was really a lot of fun working with those two.”
After five years, she returned to Brescia as campus minister and part-time teacher, which allowed her to again work in some social outreach programs in Owensboro. In 1993, she became director of residential life, and did both that role and campus minister until 1997, when she left the ministry position. She has been sacristan of the Brescia chapel since 1992.
In 2007 she battled cancer, and her subsequent treatment no longer left her the energy to get up in the middle of the night for fire alarms, so she resigned from the residence hall role. The bookstore position came open in 2008, which gave her the chance to work with McCandless, who she describes as “one of the most amazing people I have ever met.”
Looking back, she knows what God was trying to tell her that night she argued with Him.
“Sister Marie Julie (Fecher) sent me a little bookmark one day and it contained the following message: “Life’s Little Reminders – The journey has always been about laughing together, loving each other, seeking adventure, believing in our dreams and sometimes even making a difference…”
“That was the point of God’s argument,” she said. “He wanted me in a walk of life where He could put me exactly where He wanted me at particular times in my life and the life of others. Some of us won’t be ‘movers and shakers,’ but we might be there when a particular person needs us at a particular time. I can recall times it happened in Nebraska, in Milwaukee while I was in school, at Brescia. If, at those particular times, I can make that little difference on the journey … hopefully that is what God wants.”
By Dan Heckel