Sister Sharon Sullivan, OSU: Exploring life inside and out

“That’s when I knew I had to do something,” she said. “I hadn’t made a vow to anything, it was just my choice. I knew if it got hard, I could give it up. I was looking for a deeper commitment.

“As early as 16, I felt I should give my life in service,” Sister Sharon said. “It was just my understanding that’s what I was supposed to do. It didn’t seem all that altruistic. I remember the conversation with my mother. ‘Would you mind if I didn’t get married?’ I thought I was supposed to make a difference,” she said. “I was soul searching. I was enough of a Texan to think I could do it myself, but you can’t do it yourself.”

Following her final vow ceremony in 1987, Sister Sharon, second from right, is joined by (from left) Sisters Carol Shively, Maureen Griner (her novice director) and Margaret Ann Zinselmeyer.

The contact sister program had begun with the Ursulines, and Sister Julia helped her get started, with Sister Marietta Wethington as her contact sister. During this time, she and her friend Nancy Hugenberg had a dream to open a camp for troubled kids in Colorado. Their plan to pay for it was to become truck drivers.

“We figured you could really see the country,” she said. Hugenberg wanted to become a veterinarian. The two decided that if Hugenberg didn’t get into veterinary school and Sister Sharon wasn’t accepted by the Ursulines, they would begin truck-driving school. These days, Hugenberg is a vet in Grand Junction, Colo., Sister Sharon is an Ursuline Sister, and that camp never got started. “Perhaps we’ve impacted a few lives anyway,” she said.

Sister Sharon entered the St. Pius community as a postulant, affectionately called “The Decades.” “I was in my 30s, Sister Clara Reid was in her 40s, Sister Margaret Joseph Aull was in her 60s, Sister Rose Ann Boone was in her 70s and Sister Charles Asa Williams was her in her 80s,” she said.

When she’d completed her time as a novice, Sister Sharon learned that the Ursulines were not teaching special education in any school.

“Sister Mary Edgar Warren said, ‘We don’t know and you don’t know what you could do best for us.’ She urged me to write what I’d done, what moved me, and I gave it to leadership,” Sister Sharon said. The housing director position was open at Brescia because Sister Rose Jean Powers had gone to the Mount to be coordinator. “Sister Mary Edgar said, ‘Your work with special education and Girl Scout camps makes you perfect to deal with freshmen girls,’” Sister Sharon said.

A few of the inspirational messages Sister Sharon has in her office in the Brescia Administration building.

She moved to the Brescia campus in 1984, and has remained, although she has moved around the campus a few times. By her second semester as housing director, she started teaching special education part time at Brescia.

“In 1987, I finally said, ‘You have to choose.’ We were adding another house, there were more residential students.”

She began teaching full time, but by 1990, she decided she needed to get her doctorate. She was granted an assistantship at Purdue University to pursue a doctorate in special education.

“I worried about not having a community,” she said. She got involved in the St. Thomas community as a lector and in the choir, and a Presentation Sister lived nearby. “I found a community at a non-Catholic school,” she said.

The downside of her Purdue years was the distance from her mother. Her parents had moved to North Carolina where her brother lives, and her father died there in 1989. Her mother moved back to Owensboro in 1990 at the time when Sister Sharon was at Purdue. By the time Sister Sharon returned full time in 1993, her mom had moved into the Carmel Home nursing home, her health declining due to Parkinson’s disease.

“She used to say the kids at Wendell Foster were prisoners in their bodies. That’s kind of how she was,” Sister Sharon said. “It was hard to watch her decline.” In 1994, her mother married a man at the Carmel Home, both of them with Parkinson’s. Her mother died in 2001, at age 80.