Update: Sister Ruth Gehres completed her ministry in Chile in 2013 and now lives at the Motherhouse, where she serves as a liaison with Casa Ursulina, an English tutor for Vietnamese sisters and offers transportation for the sisters.
In March 2006, Sister Ruth Gehres, an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, spent five weeks at the Dianna Ortiz Ursuline Center for Women in Chillán, Chile, South America. Known affectionately as Casa Ursulina (Ursuline House in Spanish), the center was founded and is directed by fellow Ursuline Sister Mary Elizabeth (Mimi) Ballard. For Sister Ruth, associate director of communications for the Ursuline Sisters, this trip was a working vacation. “I was writing a story about Casa Ursulina for our Ursulines Alive magazine, and I wanted to get to know the women personally,” she explains. “It also helped me with my Spanish. And I just needed some time off.”
Originally it may have been an innocent working vacation for Sister Ruth, but it turned into a major event in her life – one that has led to a late-life career change that is taking her 5,000 miles from Owensboro to her newest ministry with Casa Ursulina.
“When I got there last March, I found the spirit of Casa Ursulina so energizing,” says Sister Ruth. “The women are strong, determined, creative. Even though they are financially poor, they are rich in many other ways. Their poverty doesn’t keep them from being happy.”
After five weeks in Chillán, Sister Ruth wasn’t ready to leave. “I didn’t want to go, but I knew I had to,” she says. “The time went so fast, and I found out that I could manage with my rudimentary Spanish. The women were so encouraging! I found myself wishing I could stay, but I saw that as wishful thinking. I was too old (I thought), and I had too much responsibility here at the Mount.”
Returning home, she pushed away the thought of returning to Casa Ursulina, and for three months put her head into her work. But her heart kept returning to Chillán. Finally, a very good friend asked her why she was pushing those thoughts back, and encouraged her to follow her heart. After talking to Sister Mimi, Sister Michele Morek (Ursuline congregational leader) and other friends and family members, she did just that. “Nobody thought I was too old or too crazy!” On October 22, Sister Ruth will begin her newest ministry, working with the women of Casa Ursulina in Chillán.
Chillán, Chile, is a long way from Vanderburgh County, Indiana, where Janet Gehres (now Sister Ruth) was born to Fay Alvin Gehres, a radio engineer, and Floretta Snyder Gehres, who had been a teacher and a receptionist in a dentist’s office. She is the oldest of three siblings. Her sister Ruth Ann lives in Canton, North Carolina, brother Bob in rural Warrick County, Indiana.
Janet entered the first grade at Scott Township School in northern Vanderburgh County. The country had just moved out of the Great Depression into World War II, and, in these years of fuel rationing, her father moved his family frequently to be closer to his work. Second and third grades were spent at Saint Boniface School on Evansville’s west side, where Sister Ruth was taught for the first time by Ursuline Sisters – Ursuline Sisters from Louisville. “We still lived out in the country,” she recalls, “and I rode the Reitz High School bus to school every day.”
When the family moved to Evansville’s east side, Sister Ruth spent fourth through eighth grade at Saint Benedict School, taught by the Benedictine Sisters from Ferdinand. Many years later Sister Ruth would again cross paths with the Benedictines from Dubois County.