(Sister Suzanne Sims completed her ministry at St. Mary of the Woods in 2016. In January 2017, she began ministering as director of faith formation at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Owensboro, Ky.)
Before the 1975 spring semester began at St. Bernard School in Louisville, Ky., Ursuline Sister Suzanne Sims was asked to take over as principal due to a medical emergency. She was not yet 27 years old, and had been teaching for 3 ½ years.
“It was a nice experience, and I thought ‘Maybe I’ll do this someday,’” Sister Suzanne said. She earned her elementary principal certificate, then proceeded to embark on an array of ministries over the next 34 years that never required her to use that certification.
In October 2009, while looking for a salaried ministry to help the Ursuline community during the economic downturn, she agreed to teach religion for a teacher taking maternity leave in Paducah, Ky. Before that began, she received a call from Jim Mattingly, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., who had a different request.
“Jim asked if I could meet with him about taking over as principal at St. Mary of the Woods,” Sister Suzanne said. “I talked with my housemates over the weekend and asked them to pray about it with me. We met on Sunday and they said, ‘We all think you should do it.’”
St. Mary of the Woods is a small, parish-run school in Whitesville, Ky., a city of 600 people about 30 minutes from Owensboro. The previous principal was dismissed mid-semester amid a scandal that rocked the close-knit community.
“It has been a challenge in every way,” Sister Suzanne said. “I did not know one child’s name when I arrived.”
The Ursuline Sisters believe when there is a need, it is their mission to fill it. Sister Suzanne knows how she ended up in Whitesville. “God led me here, there’s no doubt,” she said.
Mattingly said the school is fortunate that Sister Suzanne accepted the job.
“She’s doing an excellent job,” he said. “She’s very committed, and brings a spiritual presence that’s extremely valuable. She’s increasing their marketing and enrollment efforts.”
It was Father Dave Johnson, the pastor at St. Mary’s, who suggested Mattingly call Sister Suzanne.
“Through the grapevine, I heard she was available, and I knew her reputation of being professional and topnotch,” Father Johnson said. “We were in a difficult situation, and she was the right person to come to our rescue. Never underestimate the power of prayer.”
Norma Kaelin is a kindergarten aide at the school. All eight of her children, now grown, are graduates of St. Mary’s, as is she.
“Sister Suzanne is really encouraging community support, and brings a religious aspect. She’s really dedicated,” Kaelin said. “She just stepped in, open and eager to learn how we were doing things. She didn’t come in to turn everything around to her way, she listened to the teachers. She’s excited about being here, and we’re excited to have her.”
The school has existed for 132 years, run most of those years by the Sisters of Charity. While Ursuline Sisters have ministered at nearby Trinity High School and at St. Mary’s Parish through the years, Sister Suzanne is the first Ursuline at St. Mary’s school.
“She cares very much about the school and the students, and is good at promoting the school,” said Erin Kamuf, who is in her first year teaching the middle grades. “She’s a wonderful example for her students to have someone in a religious community in charge of a Catholic school.”
Like many Catholic schools, St. Mary’s is struggling with its enrollment. There are only 160 students grades K-8, and the school survives because of the generosity of the community and the parish, Sister Suzanne said. It’s not uncommon for grandparents to pay the tuition, or even parishioners who are unrelated to a child, so the student can get a Catholic education. Tuition is $2,500 for the first child, with the parish absorbing much of the cost.
There were 17 children in pre-school last year, but only two of them are in the kindergarten this year. “Fifty percent of the parish kids are not coming here,” Sister Suzanne said. “I asked the school board to form an enrollment committee, and they’ve been meeting. There are generations of people who went to school here, but there is no alumni association,” Sister Suzanne said, something she and the Trinity principal hope to remedy.
Christina Huff is the school secretary who began two months before Sister Suzanne, but she is also the parent of two children at the school. “I want my kids to have a Catholic education,” she said. “Parents want this school to stay open. I like the small, family feel to it.”
Sister Suzanne brings a religious presence to the school that parents appreciate, Huff said. “She makes students aware of feast days. She’s always praying for someone,” Huff said. “She’s always on the go, always has a new idea, always urging the teachers to learn more. Her mind is going all the time”
Sister Suzanne reports to Father Johnson, and a school board acts in an advisory role. “When I came, Father said, ‘Keep it stable and listen. No innovations this year. We need a lot of healing,’” Sister Suzanne said. Once she was committed to return for the 2010-11 school year, she knew some changes needed to be made.
“I enjoy learning. We can’t just stay static, we have to look at what’s best for these children,” she said. The first innovation was requiring the teachers to take part in professional learning communities, in which they gather in groups to analyze the data from their students, and find ways to teach to individual student needs. The learning communities are already in use in the public and Catholic schools in Owensboro.
Another change involved additional instruction for religion teachers, whose catechetical formation needed updating, Sister Suzanne said. Ursuline Sister Karla Kaelin is the director of religious education at St. Mary Parish, and along with Sister Suzanne, planned seven Saturday sessions for the teachers, with instruction from the diocese’s associate director of faith formation.
“She’s self-motivated and very resourceful, that’s what we needed,” Father Johnson said.
The school also needed better focus and a long-range plan to keep it viable, Sister Suzanne said.
“When I came, the school had five names,” Sister Suzanne said. “The sign says ‘St. Mary Grade School,’ but it’s also called ‘St. Mary of the Woods School,’ ‘St. Mary’s,’ ‘St. Mary’s Catholic School,’ and ‘St. Mary of the Woods Catholic School.’” After some input, the name is now officially St. Mary of the Woods Catholic School, and a new logo was developed to build consistency. Open houses were scheduled for lower and upper grades.
She has had a lot of learning to do, and has been helped by other Catholic school principals in the diocese. She was surprised to learn last summer that her principal certification from the 1970s was good for her lifetime.
“I started a newsletter for teachers called ‘Learn Each Day.’ I start it with what I learned today,” Sister Suzanne said. She still lives in Owensboro and makes the half-hour commute each morning, arriving by 7 a.m.
What she enjoys most about being principal is the energy of the children and the teachers. About half of the faculty members are in their 20s or early 30s. One of those is Tabitha Lucas, who came to the school in October as the music teacher.
“Sister Suzanne always says hi to everyone, makes sure you have what you need, but she’s not overwhelming. She’s kind to everyone,” Lucas said. This is Lucas’ first teaching job, and being at a Catholic school is even more of a challenge since she’s not Catholic.
“She’s never made me feel like my faith is less than hers,” Lucas said. “I’ve never felt out of place here.”
Life with a big family
Sister Suzanne was the seventh of 11 children born to Mary and J.R. Sims, but the first to be born in a hospital. (Records show she was the 60th child born in Owensboro’s Mercy Hospital, which has since closed.) J.R. Sims was a tenant farmer in western Daviess County, not too far from Mount Saint Joseph, but when Sister Suzanne was 9 months old, he bought a 57-acre farm in the eastern part of the county.
Two of the older Sims children died in the 1940s, prior to the availability of penicillin, so nine children lived on the farm. Sister Suzanne was closest in age to all the boys.
“I was a girlie girl, so I often played paper dolls alone,” she said. “When I wanted to play in groups, there were only boys around. I did a lot of things alone, like reading.”
Growing up in a rural area in the 1950s, it was unusual to have books in the house. “My mom took a subscription to Spiritual Books for Kids, they came in the mail,” she said. “I remember books about Damien the leper and Teresa of Lisieux. I loved them.”
Her parents were both involved in her education. “My mom helped us with our homework, but my dad helped us with spelling and religion. He led us in prayer,” she said. “Before we went to bed, we prayed, we said the rosary on our knees. If we were old enough to walk, we could kneel down.”
The family attended Sts. Joseph and Paul Church in Owensboro, where Sister Suzanne went to school through the fourth grade. Her parents were instrumental in establishing St. Pius X Church on the east side of Owensboro, where Sister Suzanne went to school from the fifth to eighth grades, she said.
“My dad said, ‘We’re all going to church, I want to fill the pew.”
Sister Suzanne had an Ursuline Sister every year of grade school, except in the fourth grade. “I cried because I had a lay teacher, and not Sister Mary Mercy (Hayden),” she said. “My brothers talked about Sister Mary Mercy so much. One day, Sister Mary Mercy told me I could come visit her any time, she made me a friend that day.”
When she began attending St. Pius School, her teacher for half of fifth grade and all of sixth was Sister Rosalin Thieneman, who is now retired and volunteers at the Motherhouse. “She was always such a lady,” Sister Suzanne said. “Her forthrightness and charity were apparent, and she loved kids. Those were very formative years for my vocation.”
Another sister who had a major affect on her was Sister Cecilia Jean Lonergan, who taught her in the seventh and eighth grades.
“In the eighth grade, she asked me if I’d thought about becoming a sister. I said yes, I started thinking about it in the fourth grade,” Sister Suzanne said. “Then she asked if I wanted to go to (Mount Saint Joseph Academy).” Sister Suzanne wanted to, but doubted her family could afford the tuition.
“She asked my mom to start teaching again at St. Pius,” Sister Suzanne said. “Mom taught the third grade at St. Pius for 23 years, and had a part-time job at a camera shop. On Friday and Saturday nights she worked as a nurse’s aide at Hillcrest Nursing Home,” she said. “I know the sacrifices my parents made for us to go to Catholic school.”
Her father continued attempting to farm, but alcoholism had overtaken him. He sold the farm and the family moved, and another farm he owned in Indiana did not prove successful in the long run. He managed a convenience store later in his life. “His alcoholism impacted all our lives,” she said.
Sister Suzanne thought of the sacrifices her parents made when she came to St. Mary’s, but she doesn’t consider her current ministry a sacrifice. “I’m using my gifts to help these children grow in their faith. It’s a way of sharing the Gospel that I haven’t experienced in a long time,” she said. “I can pray with them, and let them tell me about Jesus. It’s a beauty to share that with them.”
A life at the Mount
Sister Suzanne was a boarding student at the Academy, because there was no public transportation to the Mount. She worked for four years in the laundry and the Guest House to help defer her tuition.
“Sister Miriam (Medley) was my principal, and I’m her health surrogate now, that’s my way of giving back,” Sister Suzanne said. “I loved going to school with girls from all over the world.” Two friends from the Academy who she remains close to are Sisters Maureen O’Neill, who ministers in Louisville, and Sister Mimi Ballard, who ministers in Chile.
“Suzanne was always an achiever, encouraging others to try new things,” Sister Maureen said. “She loves a challenge, has changed ministries over the years, and is constantly finding new areas to explore.”
Sister Suzanne described herself as a “strong B student,” who sought her leadership opportunities in extracurricular activities. As a senior, she was elected president of the Sodality, which allowed her to crown the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Our Lady of Prompt Succor statue, and lead student prayers in the chapel before Mass.
During her senior year at the Academy, she told her mother she wanted to join the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. “My mom wanted me to be happy, she told me I would always have a home. The one thing she required is that I be the one to tell my dad,” Sister Suzanne said. Her father was a man of few words, and when she told him, he replied, “Do you think that will make you happy?” When she said “yes,” he answered, “That’s all that matters.”
“I really respected the sisters, I wanted to be like them,” Sister Suzanne said. “In the summers I played softball with girls who were all Protestants, they took bets on how long I would stay.” This year marks her 44th year as a sister.
In April 1969, just shy of her 21st birthday and a few months before she made her temporary vows, J.R. Sims died of lung cancer at age 57. Mary Sims still had four children at home when her husband died.
“The day of his funeral was the first time she ever locked the doors,” Sister Suzanne said. She and her siblings grew up with trust issues, not dealing with their emotions about her father’s drinking, she said. “I learned through counseling (in her 30s) that there is such a thing as a child of an alcoholic. We had group counseling and had some healing,” she said. “I was able to lead my family in healing we didn’t know we needed. I’m very blessed to have a family who struggled with that with me.”
Sister Suzanne entered as a postulant in 1966, a few months after graduating from the Academy, right in the midst of the Second Vatican Council. “To us, it was an exciting time to be alive, things were opening up for women in the church,” she said. “I would get to be a part of Mass.”
What Sister Suzanne learned during her novice years excited her. “We had new theology with Monsignor Bernard Powers. I was reading scripture every day for the first time, that’s when I fell in love with Jesus,” she said.
“I felt I was being called and saying ‘yes’ for life,” she said. “By the time I made my first vows, I knew religious life was something I loved. I fit.”
She recalls “long, intense summer chapter meetings” that the novices like her were not part of, as some of the sisters struggled with the Vatican II changes. One event that wounded her was in 1970, when Sister Cecilia Jean left the community after 27 years. “It shocked me,” she said. But Jean Lonergan didn’t leave Sister Suzanne’s life.
“She was with me the night my mother died,” in 2000, she said. Lonergan spent the last 20 years of her life as an Ursuline Associate before dying Dec. 31, 2009.
Throughout Sister Suzanne’s life, people from her past have returned, just like Jean Lonergan, she said. Father Paul Boyle, a Passionist priest, visited the Mount to teach the young sisters about the Vatican II changes. When the Diocese of Owensboro embraced Mandeville, Jamaica, as its sister diocese in 2003, Boyle was the bishop there.
A life in service
As part of her volunteer work as a young sister, Sister Suzanne taught classes on Vatican II to adults at St. Alphonsus Parish, across the road from Maple Mount. “Teaching was comfortable to me,” and as all the sisters were expected to do in those years, her degree from Brescia College was in education.
Her first ministry was in 1971 as a seventh and eighth grade teacher at St. Bernard School in Louisville. “I cried every night for two weeks. I thought I would teach the fifth and sixth grade,” she said. “I didn’t know much more about the science I was teaching than the students did. My legs hurt so bad, I didn’t know what to do. The other sisters explained to me it was from standing on concrete floors all day, that I would get used to it.”
She was 22 years old and the next youngest sister she lived with was 60, she said. “I was the only driver in the house. They liked to shop in downtown Louisville, with all the one-way streets,” she said. “Their doctors were all over town. I’d take my map and drop them off and then learn where else to go.”
She learned how good her teacher training at Brescia was while at St. Bernard. “I wish someone would study how many teachers Brescia taught who are teaching in schools in Owensboro,” she said.
The Ursuline Sisters asked her to leave St. Bernard following that school year and work on her master’s in elementary curriculum and instruction at St. Louis University. The plan was for her to take over some teacher education duties at Brescia when she completed her masters, to replace a sister who would soon retire.
“I went to all the student dances, ball games, and plays, anywhere students were,” she said. “I became president of the local ministerial association my third year.”
Campus ministry got her interested in parish ministry, she said. “I was part of a think tank on the lay ministry program that Bishop (John) McRaith started. Father Ed Bradley asked me to help with RCIA at St. Stephen Cathedral. I loved RCIA, I thought I could do this,” she said. “Bishop McRaith asked me to go to LaCenter (Ky.) to do parish ministry. I couldn’t see myself at Brescia for 40 years.”
The rural parishes of St. Mary in LaCenter and St. Charles in nearby Bardwell reminded Sister Suzanne of where she grew up. Another benefit was her cousin, Father Jerry Riney, who had a great influence on her growing up, was nearby in Fancy Farm.
“Sister Suzanne is very approachable and extremely generous,” Father Riney said. He is now the pastor at Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green, Ky. “She has a great spirit about her, and tends to see the best in people.”
Sister Suzanne only stayed one year in that ministry because she was elected to her first term in leadership, which she began in 1988. “I felt shocked, but affirmed,” she said. It was the only time in her religious life that she didn’t have enough to do on a daily basis, so she asked if she could work part-time helping Sister Ruth Gehres, who was president of Brescia College. She did that the last two years of her term. She was also director of the apostolate, which included keeping records of the sisters’ professional development, among other duties.
“I’m happiest when I’m busy,” she said.
The harrowing time of her term in leadership was responding to the abduction of Sister Dianna Ortiz in Guatemala. “The decisions were so hard,” she said. It was the education she received learning about the injustices in Guatemala that would instill in her a desire to act on social justice issues.
Her own plan
Following her four-year term on the Council, the community asked Sister Suzanne what she wanted to do next. “I was dumbfounded. It was the first time I’d been asked to make my own decision about ministry since I entered the community,” she said. “I’d never dealt with discerning that way.”
She decided to pursue her doctorate in higher education administration at Loyola University in Chicago. From 1993-97, she went to school full time, and in her last year did an internship with Sister Anne Marie Diederich, an Ursuline Sister of Cleveland who was president of Ursuline College in Cleveland. “I shadowed her, went to donor meetings with her. I thought I could do this at a small college,” Sister Suzanne said.
While living in Louisville in 1997 while looking for her next ministry, her classmate Sister Mimi Ballard asked her to raise some money for Casa Ursulina, her ministry in Chillan, Chile. “I was able to raise enough money to build their first building,” Sister Suzanne said.
Later that year she became the president of Springfield College in Illinois, which replaced its previous president after a scandal.
“They needed enrollment and Catholic identity, and they had bad public relations from the past president,” she said. “I loved my time there. The faculty prayed together for the first time. I started the first capital campaign there.”
While in Springfield, she began Centering Prayer, which changed her life, she said. “It’s helped me to have a deeper desire for the presence of God, to be open to change and conversion, to be open to God without words,” she said. “I learned a lot about myself and what God is like. I experienced conversion, I needed to change something in my life and be closer to God.”
She wanted to stay in Springfield, but after three years, she was again elected by the sisters, this time as assistant congregational leader. “My heart won’t let me say no to my community,” she said. “If you look at my resume, people may think I can’t keep a job. When my community asks me, I go. I committed myself to God through them.”
Being in leadership offers an insight into the sisters that few others can see, she said. “I learned the beauty of the sisters individually, and getting to see the influence they have on people’s lives,” Sister Suzanne said. “I learned to try to serve their needs as a ministry. I feel blessed to work with the women I worked with. I truly love each of those women.”
Sister Suzanne was certainly busier during her second time in office. The community hired its first technology person, first lay Motherhouse administrator, and did a compensation study for lay employees. Aside from her Council duties, in 2000 she became the first director of Mission Advancement, overseeing the community’s development efforts and supervising a staff that included Communications, Vocations, Ursuline Partnerships, and eventually Mission Effectiveness.
Starting from scratch was a bumpy road. Although the community’s Chapter had agreed years earlier that a development effort was necessary, none was started, and some of the sisters still needed to be convinced of its importance. There were no offices ready for Mission Advancement, as St. Angela Hall had yet to be renovated. Being the development person and a staff supervisor also had its limitations, she said.
She’s proud of making the friends of the community more mindful of the sisters’ impact. “We started communications and recognition of the donors, making them feel a part of us. Visiting donors was a joy, or having them come to the Mount.”
She led the annual picnic to benefit the retired sisters from 2001-08, a role she enjoyed despite the amount of work involved.
Being elected to the Council also brought her back to Owensboro in time to spend time with her mother before she died in November 2000, at age 90.
“She taught me that faith, family, and friends are the most important things,” Sister Suzanne said.
Sister Suzanne stepped down as director of Mission Advancement in November 2007, and took on a newly created role in Ministry Development. The idea was to investigate the needs for possible new ministries for the sisters, and seek examples elsewhere of ministries that could be emulated.
While she enjoyed seeing how other communities were meeting needs, Sister Suzanne’s greatest passion had become social justice issues, initially spurred by Sister Dianna’s ordeal.
In 2005, she joined a group for a 32-week commitment called JustFaith, which seeks to teach people how to serve the needs of the poor. Out of that group came the St. Benedict Homeless Shelter in Owensboro, of which Sister Suzanne has been closely involved for several years.
“It got me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It brought alive to me the Church’s social teaching.”
In the past six years, Sister Suzanne has made mission trips to Mandeville, Jamaica, with the social concerns committee at her parish, St. Stephen Cathedral; raised awareness locally about the need for clean water, and traveled to Uganda on behalf of Rotary International to oversee an effort to supply clean water for Ugandan families; protested against the impending death penalty for a Kentucky inmate, and participated in the annual march in support of closing the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga., which many believe to be a training ground for Latin American assassins.
Father John Vaughan is the pastor at St. Stephen Cathedral, and was one of the 10 people who made the trip to Jamaica that Sister Suzanne coordinated.
“It was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he said. The two met when Father Vaughan was a seminarian and she was a novice, and he admires her “commitment to the Church, her zeal for social justice issues,” and that she makes friends so easily.
She’s been committed to education through the years, and Father Vaughan said he was not surprised when Sister Suzanne took on the role at St. Mary’s. “She saw the need and accepted it,” he said.
Sister Suzanne is now the Ursuline community’s representative on UNANIMA, a nongovernmental organization that works with the United Nations to shape international policies, especially those affecting women and children. This effort has brought her closer to the issue of human trafficking, and she was a speaker during the 2010 Ursuline Convocation on the Stop the Demand campaign. She is involved in an Owensboro task force on trafficking that is just getting started.
These experiences have taught her how “rich” she is, and how “poor” others are, she said. “Everyone is a blessing from God. I didn’t do anything to earn that blessing,” she said. “I see people with no clean water, no electricity, and how other human beings have robbed them. You can’t do everything, but you can listen and do what you can.”
While she is dedicated to her ministry at St. Mary, the demands of the job have required her to give up much of her social justice activity. She helps at St. Benedict once a month, and can no longer make it to Mass every day, both of which obviously pain her.
“Saint Angela joined the Third Order Franciscans so she could receive the Eucharist every day,” Sister Suzanne said. “I’m in those years with Angela when she couldn’t go to daily Mass.”
How long she’ll be at St. Mary is unknown, but she is committed to the school and the students. “I’ve liked all the ministries I’ve done,” she said. “God will lead me where I’m supposed to go.”
When she does take time to relax, Sister Suzanne likes to read. “I’m one of those people who has four books going at one time,” she said. She reads fiction and nonfiction, and books on social concerns. She likes to go to the movies – she enjoyed “The King’s Speech” – and visit with family and friends.
Sister Alicia Coomes was a senior in high school when Father Vaughan introduced her to Sister Suzanne. “She invited me to an open house weekend,” Sister Alicia said. “She was at Brescia when I was going there, when I got discouraged I could talk to her. There’s an ‘at ease’ about her, she makes you comfortable in her presence.”
Sister Suzanne is open to listening to others, and to answering any question posed to her, Sister Alicia said. “She has a willingness to share herself.”
By Dan Heckel