Wake Reflection: Sister Theresa Marie Wilkerson
“The king will say to those at his right hand, “Come you blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world—for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”
(Matthew 25: 34-35)
On July 27 2009, at six minutes before midnight, Sister Theresa Marie Wilkerson stepped onto the shore of the kingdom—not a strange shore, but one she knew well and had longed for in her last year of suffering. In a1999 interview for the Western Kentucky Catholic, she told the reporter that she was grateful for all the time she had to pray in her semi-retirement. “I have been with many sisters when they died,” she said “I think it’s a great honor to be with someone when they go to heaven. You prepare your whole life for that moment.”
And she did prepare for it all her life, ever since she was born Mary Louise Wilkerson, on May 16, 1920, in Owensboro Kentucky. She was the first child and only daughter of James Wallace Wilkerson and Earmena Catherine Hay. Her father was a telegraph operator, and later a printer, while her mother stayed home to raise the five boys that came along later: Thomas Carl, James Wallace, Gerald Martin, all now deceased, and Robert Louis and John Owen. She was very fond of her family; the annals reports in her community files are full of references to news of her brothers and the accomplishments of nieces and nephews—and of course that great nephew Brad, a gold medalist with the Olympic baseball team and a major league player on various teams. I’ll bet we have seen most newspaper articles ever printed about him! I do hope you, the family and friends of Sister Theresa Marie, will accept my love and sincere sympathy on behalf of the entire Ursuline community.
Mary Louise was baptized in St. Paul Church, and in confirmation took the name Theresa. The first school she attended was St. Francis Academy run by the Sisters of Charity, but she transferred to St. Joseph in fifth grade, where she loved every single one of her Ursuline teachers: Sisters Raphael, Joan Marie, Lucita, Casimir, Mary Carmel, and Agnes Marie (who, she says, really taught her how to teach when she was in grades 7-8). She said she particularly loved high school there, because she took voice lessons from Sister Helene and did a lot of singing in operettas, on the radio, and in the choir, and played in the band and orchestra. On Saturdays she worked at Newberry’s Ten Cents store, where she earned $1.49. After graduation from high school she got a job at KenRad.
Mary Louise was an enthusiastic, devout girl with great devotion to the Sacred Heart, and she felt a strong call to religious life. In early correspondence to Mother Teresita she said “You will no doubt remember me by the part I played as a nurse in the Passion Play at St. Joseph. I remember meeting you backstage and have loved you ever since.” She said if Mother Teresita needed a reference she was sure Sister Raphael, my “teacher and good friend and advisor” would surely give her one.
However, Mary Louise’s father was very opposed to the idea of her entering, sending a strongly worded letter to that effect to Mother Teresita on January 17, with the entrance date only two weeks away on February 1. You could feel Mary Louise’s anxiety reflected in her letters as the time drew near. In his letter her father said she was too young, she was headstrong and rebellious, she was the only girl and needed at home. He was also afraid that she would stay only a few months and by then would have lost her job. He said he would not go so far as to resort to legal means, but he did say they would “prevent the removal of her trunk from home.”
Somehow, over the objections of her father, she entered on February 1, 1940 with classmates Sisters Margaret Joseph Aull, Mildred Barr, Madeline Hicks, Frances Miriam Spalding, and Robert Ann Wheatley. To you, her classmates, the community and I extend our special sympathy. Your classmate had mixed feelings about the novitiate and was not always happy—she said “it seemed our main reason for being there was to work, and work we did!” But her father, in the meantime, had “come around” and was actually very proud of her when she took the habit. He died a year later, leaving her mother with the five brothers at home, the youngest one only four years old. She said it was very hard to remain in the community, knowing that her mother needed her. But we know that story had a happy ending!
Sister Theresa Marie’s first mission was to Fairfield, Kentucky, where she said they had an old coal stove, her feet got frost bitten, they didn’t always enough to eat, she didn’t know how to teach—and she loved it! Next she loved teaching for Father Frankenberger in Jeffersontown, and had to brag a little on a student who went on to become an Ursuline Sister and the President of Brescia University (S. Vivian Marie). Other places she taught included St. Columba’s in Louisville, Leitchfield (St. Paul), Central City, Vine Grove, Knottsville, St. Charles, and Whitesville, Kentucky. Her six years in Nebraska City were hard because she did not like being so far away from her widowed mother. For the same reason she did not want to go to Afton Missouri, but said “back then the choice was not yours to make—you had to go. I was glad though after I got there—I was able to go to St. Louis University and get my Masters.” After her ministry in Afton she wrote to Mother Ambrose and told her she really did not think she could teach the babies any more—it hurt her back to bend over and besides they got on her nerves. At that point she began working her way up into the higher grades where she really found her niche in high school, at Catholic High Owensboro and at the Mount Saint Joseph Academy. She loved teaching at the Academy, working with girls from all over the United States and Central America…little did she know it, but that experience was helping prepare her for the job of a lifetime.
Sister Theresa Marie had taught 38 years and she said “I enjoyed every year of it; I never taught a pupil I didn’t like.” She had completed a Bachelors degree in History from Creighton, a Masters in American History from St. Louis University, and received several study grants to various universities to study Political Science, Politics and Ideologies, American Studies, Economics, and – much later, English as a Second Language. She worked eight weeks one summer in a camp for the blind, and then another eight-week summer program with Mexican migrant workers in Texas. While working with the immigrants and homeless in that program, she would literally go out into the streets and bring them in. “Most of the time we only had to eat what I could go out each day and beg from the merchants. We always had cantaloupe and bread…” Looking back, you can see where the Spirit is leading her in this, can’t you?
In the late 70’s, hundreds of refugees began coming into Owensboro, Bowling Green, and Paducah. In 1980 Sister Theresa Marie began work with the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the United States Catholic Conference, running a program to help these refugees. Sister Theresa Marie also served on the Kentucky State Refugee Advisory Council. She and her workers (including several other Ursulines) would find the refugees housing and supplies, help them get jobs, find needed social services and health care, provide interpretive services and teach them English, and “take care of them like a parent.” Or she would take someone who had fallen through the “bureaucratic cracks” to a soup kitchen. The refugees came from counties like Cambodia, Vietnam, Romania, Afghanistan, Iran, China, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Poland, Laos, and Ethiopia.
In an article in the Western Kentucky Catholic (1993?), Ginny Knight wrote, “If you should happen to see a nun driving down the street with a mattress strapped to the roof of her car, bed slats sticking out of the window, and the back seat loaded with clothes and blankets, it’s probably Sister Theresa Marie Wilkerson moving some of ‘her’ people.” When she got word that a family was coming, she would find a house and furnish it, often with Ursuline furniture and bedclothes. She also got her brothers involved, sometimes borrowing their truck to go out to collect furniture. She enjoyed working with so many different nationalities. She learned to live “one hour at a time.” She never knew what would happen next. She loved it.
In 1994, as the number of refugees began to fall off, the state dropped the program and the diocese had no more refugees. But she continued with immigration work, doing all the paperwork for those seeking Permanent Residency in Lexington, Bowling Green, and Western Kentucky. About that time, she had surgery for breast cancer, but soon took at job as chaplain for Owensboro Daviess County Hospital, while continuing to work with immigrants. She also served as Eucharistic Minister, a labor of love that she performed for about eight years. When the two hospitals merged and she was out of a job, St. Stephen’s parish asked her to visit the sick and those in nursing homes. In 1997 she brought her gifts home to the Mount, to help with transportation and in pastoral care. By 2007 she was listing her ministry as “Prayer, Suffering, and Resignation” and noted that “I’m glad I can have the time before my death to pray…” And she did have that time, and the physical and spiritual support she needed to make good use of it. I would like to thank all the health care staff, as well as the sisters in pastoral ministry, for all the loving support you gave our sister in these past few months.
Maybe you noticed in this reflection that Sister Theresa Marie used the word “love” a lot. Even when she commented on something that was hard, she would say, “I loved it.” When I visited her in her last months of life, she would often seem to be out of it, focused in on her world of suffering, not responding to casual conversation. But if I said, “Theresa Marie, I love you,” her eyes would snap open, she would look straight at me, and say “Well, I love you too!”
In her archival folder, I found a card from a fan of hers, known only as “Miguel.” He said “I never forget your help to me, your clear heart, your love for everyone. Thank God for give me Sister Theresa.” We Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph also thank God for giving you to us, Sister Theresa Marie…your help, your “clear heart,” your love for us, your example of generous service, and for your life well lived.
In a letter thanking her for her years of service with refugees, Bishop John McRaith said “You have done so much good over the years as you reached out to the newcomers to this community and this country. I’m sure Jesus has a special place for those who welcome strangers, and you have done it so well.”
So, dear sister, you stepped onto that far shore on Tuesday, not as a stranger, but as a special chosen one who welcomed strangers, and who loved. We love you, too. Welcome to the kingdom “prepared for you since the foundation of the world.
Sister Michele Morek, OSU
July 29, 2009