These degrees didn’t come easy. Sister Ruth remembers, “It was very strenuous. We didn’t have time to study. We studied under the covers at night with a flashlight. We supported each other. I don’t think I would have gotten through that without Joseph Angela. She’s a person of great wit. We found lots of things to laugh about, and we survived.”
In summer 1962, with her degree in English completed, Sister Ruth was headed to teach at St. Joseph High School, Mayfield. But a call from Mother Mary Wilfrid Hayden informed her of a change of plans – she was to go to St. Louis University to earn her doctorate in English and a minor in German. Brescia College president Sister Joan Marie Lechner, Sister Ruth’s mentor and close friend, had recommended that she do so.
After five years of study in the Gateway City, Sister Ruth returned to Owensboro and started teaching at Brescia College, even though she hadn’t yet received her doctoral degree. “I was working on my dissertation and teaching at the same time,” she explained, teaching English and, for a while, some German.
Ruth Bittel of Owensboro was one of her Brescia students. “Her classes were always interesting and enjoyable,” she says of her former teacher. “I remember her always encouraging us to achieve and go beyond ourselves. And since I was a student teacher at the time, I really appreciated that. She always supported us.” Over the years Ruth Bittel, now Ruth Bittel Nuñez, and Sister Ruth have become close personal friends. “She is a good listener,” the former student says. “She’s always kept in touch, has been very supportive and has always found time for a friend whether she was the president of Brescia or a teacher in the classroom. We shared our love of travel through letters, postcards and visits. We also shared our love of good literature and now our love of the good Hispanic people.” Bittel Nuñez is a member of the staff at Centro Latino, a center for local Hispanics founded by Ursuline Sister Fran Wilhelm.
Sister Ruth’s early years at Brescia were during the Vietnam War, and the school was filled with students and short on faculty. Things happened quickly for Sister Ruth. She soon became chair of the English department and then of the Humanities division. For a couple of years she was alumni director (“That was a fun job. I really liked it!”). She worked in publications and was involved, for a time, in the writing of the new constitution for the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph following Vatican II.
In 1975 Sister Ruth was one of five Ursuline sisters chosen for a Friendship Force exchange to Cremona, Italy. Approximately 200 people from Owensboro traveled from Evansville to Cremona, Italy, and 200 people from Cremona were brought back to Owensboro for two weeks. For Sister Ruth, it was quite an experience. “My first grade teacher changed my whole life,” she says. “Mount Saint Joseph Academy changed my whole life. And the Friendship Force experience changed my whole life.”
She continued, “I found out that Europe wasn’t just a place in a book or on a map. It really existed!” After spending a week in Cremona, she managed a number of side trips throughout the area, including visits to Desenzano, birthplace of Saint Angela Merici, and Brescia, where Saint Angela lived and ministered most of her life.
“The Friendship Force trip was a great adventure,” says Sister Ruth. “It opened my eyes to the wonders of Europe. After that I started thinking about Germany. It took me about five years to get there.”
In 1984-85 she returned to Europe to teach English and work in the library for the Ursuline Sisters of Straubing, Germany, the community that founded the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, who later established the Academy at Mount Saint Joseph. She lived with the sisters, speaking mostly German.
Back at Brescia in fall 1985, Sister Ruth was asked to substitute for college President Sister George Ann Cecil when she underwent surgery. She was named acting president when Sister George Ann died in December. In February 1986 she was elected president by the board of trustees, a position she held until September 1995. “These were strenuous years,” she remembers. “I was blessed by the strong support of the board of trustees, our bishop, the college faculty and staff, our students, and my Ursuline community.” She is especially proud of the Brescia Campus Center, “the fruit of years of hard work on the part of the Brescia community and the generosity of so many dedicated donors.”