Sister Teresa Riley, OSU: Always ready to listen and affirm

“My mom quilted a lot, she taught me to do that,” Sister Teresa said. “When we got home from school, she’d let us quilt and crochet some. I still do it if I have time.”

Sister Teresa went to public school through the fifth grade. The family lived seven miles away from St. Joseph Catholic School in Mayfield, and it was difficult to get the children there, so her father wrote each year to Bishop Francis Cotton for permission to send the children to public school. When Sister Teresa was to begin the sixth grade, the bishop stopped granting that permission, so Sister Teresa began at St. Joseph, a school begun by the Ursulines in 1934. All her teachers were Ursuline Sisters.

Twice a month, Sister Teresa visits New Haven Assisted Living Center in Kevil to bring Communion to some of the residents. Here she shares a smile with Gus Kirn and Pearl Vinson.

After she graduated from St. Joseph High School, she worked for a year at the hardware counter at Woolworths in downtown Mayfield. “I loved it,” she said. She was going to Mass almost every day, and once a month Fr. Leo Dienes would bring Communion to her grandmother, and Sister Teresa would ride back to church with him for Mass.

“One day Father said, ‘When are you going to enter the convent?’ I hadn’t even thought of that,” Sister Teresa said. “It just bothered me. I went to talk to Father and he said, ‘I didn’t know if you knew what you were going to do with your life.’ So I gave it a shot. I’m still here,” she said with a smile.

She’d originally thought she would enjoy being a missionary, like the woman who would become her patron saint, Saint Therese of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower or Saint Therese of the Child Jesus.

“It is a saying in my culture, that ‘a person’s name influences him or her,’” said Fr. Ibemere, a native of Africa. “This evidenced itself in Sister Teresa’s way of life. The life of humility, evangelical simplicity, and trust in God of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus has a positive influence on her. Like her patron saint, love appears to be the hinge for her vocation. She is down-to-earth, open-minded, and an understanding person. She loves dialogue and consultation.”

Sister Teresa entered the Ursulines as a postulant in 1954, breaking the news to her boss at Woolworths, Mr. Kipp. “I’m not surprised,” he told her.

“My family was fine with it,” she said. “They told me, ‘If that’s what the Lord wants you to do, we’ll support you.’ When I entered, we were not allowed to go home unless a parent was seriously ill, and we couldn’t eat with our parents if they came to visit,” Sister Teresa said. “I never heard them complain that I couldn’t come home.”

One of her classmates at St. Joseph, Sister Francis Louise Johnson, also decided to enter the Ursulines that summer, but neither of them knew the other was joining. The postulants were given material to make their own clothes, which had to include some French seams, but Sister Teresa’s mother didn’t know what French seams were. Sister Jamesina Spain, a former teacher at St. Joseph, was in town visiting, so Sister Teresa and her mother went to see her to ask for guidance, and that’s when they saw Sister Francis Louise there too.

Sister Teresa and Sister Francis Louise, who is the Guest House coordinator at the Motherhouse, remain good friends.

“She’s a very sincere person, very self-giving, and very unassuming,” Sister Francis Louise said. “She’s somebody you immediately respect and admire. She’s just a wonderful human being.”

Although the two never ministered together, Sister Francis Louise knows the impact Sister Teresa has in La Center.

“She is an organizer. Her leadership is quiet, but it’s effective,” Sister Francis Louise said. “She gets people to take ownership of their parish.”

Sister Teresa gives Communion to New Haven resident Mary Vandini in the community room at the center.

There were 18 members in Sister Teresa’s novice class, and six of those remain: Sisters Francis Louise, Marietta Wethington, Margaret Marie Greenwell, Catherine Marie Lauterwasser, Marie Michael Hayden, and Sister Teresa.

“We started a class letter about six years ago, in which one person writes it and then we each add to it and send it on,” Sister Teresa said. “About every three months, it comes back.”

On a mission

Sister Teresa’s first ministry was in 1957, teaching first grade at St. Leonard School in Louisville, a newly built school. It was her first time in a big city.

“The people were just super and the pastor was so good to the sisters,” she said. She stayed until 1967, an unusually long tenure for a first ministry in those days.

“I’m not sure how I stayed so long. I guess I didn’t do too bad of a job,” she said.