Sisters Joan Walz and Mary Agnes VonderHaar: “They have an incredible spirit of Saint Angela”

While in Whitesville, it was decided that Sister Mary Agnes should get a principal’s certificate, so she attended Western Kentucky University at night, then became principal at St. Joseph Inter-Parochial School in Bowling Green, Ky., from 1975-81.

In 1981, Sister Mary Agnes decided she wanted to be near her aging parents, who lived in Louisville, so she applied for a job teaching math at the all-male Trinity High School in Louisville. “There were a number of diocesan priests, Charity Sisters and Sisters of Loretto, but no Ursulines,” she said.

Teaching at an all-boys high school had its challenges. “I learned never to sit down when you have 25-30 boys in a classroom, or else you’re a good target,” she said.

Her father died in 1984 and her mother in March 1988. She left Louisville that year when she was elected to the community’s Leadership Council, a job she didn’t seek.

“They tried to get a group that would move us forward,” she said. “I was assistant to (Sister) Mary Matthias Ward.”

The change was drastic. “I went from teaching high school boys to director of retired sisters,” she said. During those years, the chapel was remodeled and the piazza created. That was also the time when Sister Dianna Ortiz was kidnapped, and the sisters became more involved in social justice issues.

Sisters Joan and Mary Agnes sit in the back of St. Mary of the Woods Catholic Church in McQuady.

“Sister Agnes worked tirelessly on governance and constitution documents without much appreciation or notice, but did it for the welfare of the community,” Sister Judith Nell said.

Sister Mary Agnes said she knew she couldn’t go back to teaching after eight years on leadership. “Things had changed a lot in eight years, there was so much rebellion in the schools, you didn’t have the parental support,” she said.

She thought it best to look away from the Mount for her next ministry, so she moved to Sacred Heart Parish in Hickman. “Sometimes you can stick too close. I just thought, ‘Get out of the way,’” she said.

“Sister Rose Marita (O’Bryan) was leaving (Hickman) to become superior. The only reason people accepted me was because they thought the world of her,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “I was pastoral associate. I did a lot of work with different churches and different ministers.

“I never thought I’d work for the church considering how they treated women,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “The Holy Spirit just laughed at that. Half of the people are women, they need ministering too.”

She was there during the millennium celebration. “I organized a pilgrimage at the black church, Sacred Heart, the Methodist church and the First Church of God. People of all denominations, we could walk to each one,” she said. “I was the first to ask the black church members to come sing at Sacred Heart.”

About 35 percent of the roughly 2,500 people in Hickman are black, but Sacred Heart never had a black member, Sister Agnes said. “I went to the Martin Luther King ceremony at the black church and I was the only white person there.”

She lived alone for the first time at Hickman. She wasn’t afraid, but she wanted someone to pray and eat with. “I’d always ask not to live alone,” she said. When she had knee surgery in 1999, Sister Joan came.

Her favorite ministry was teaching, especially when there was no administration. She liked teaching math the most, and religion in high school the least.

“I hated teaching religion and being a disciplinarian at the same time, it just seemed like a contradiction to me,” she said.

She enjoyed her time teaching RCIA. “People are eager to learn, and you see how their faith grows,” she said.

Sister Joan sits in her blue “University of Kentucky” chair while Sister Mary Agnes looks on. Sister Mary Agnes has a red chair to show her support for the University of Louisville.

She said she’ll let the Holy Spirit decide what comes next for her. “I’m just visiting the sick for now. We’ve got someone who has a master’s degree from St. Meinrad (Ind.) who’s ready to take over religious education. They tell us at the Motherhouse to work yourself out of a job.”

Sister Joan

Sister Joan’s formal address as a child was Hawesville, Ky., but Cloverport was closer, so she went to school there at St. Rose. Her mother, Ida May, was a housekeeper and helped run the family store. Her father, Otto, was a farmer, and “I was his boy,” Sister Joan said. She had three older sisters and then her brother came along six years later, but he wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, she said.

She had Ursuline teachers in Cloverport and two of her mother’s sisters were Ursulines. “Sister Ethel Sims was my fourth-grade teacher. She was really an inspiration,” Sister Joan said. “She played with us at recess. She was very joyful.”

She knew before high school that she wanted to become a sister.

“I had a very close friend in the eighth grade. She told me she was going into nursing,” Sister Joan said. “I knew I was going to be a sister, but I lied to her about it.”

She went to high school at the Academy, as her three sisters had. Her sophomore year, she started recognizing boys and her interest in becoming an Ursuline started to wane. “My senior year, I had a very moving experience during retreat,” she said. “I was reading a book about the Trinity, I just felt so one with the Trinity.”

She had to work at the Academy to help pay her tuition. “I’d clean tables and kneel before the Blessed Mother statue,” she said. “I thought how beautiful it was to live and die in such an atmosphere. I know that sounds selfish.”

She entered the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph in 1949, the summer after she graduated. “Sister Francesca Hazel (a music teacher at the Academy) told me to go have a good time over the summer, but when I did, I didn’t want to come back,” Sister Joan said. “I had a boyfriend, he wanted me to go to (the University of Kentucky) with him. The idea of community life is what I wanted.”

Sister Joan’s first assignment was in 1952, teaching second and third grade at St. Paul School in Leitchfield, Ky. “I also was doing choir, that wasn’t for me at all.”

The next year she went to St. Benedict in the tiny town of Wax, Ky., where she taught second, third and fourth grade. “It was a lot. I couldn’t be attentive to them all at once.”

She then went to Nebraska City, Neb., the birthplace of Arbor Day, to teach the early grades. “In those days you got a pink slip, you didn’t open it until you got to the chapel. That’s when you found out where you were going,” she said.

There were four teachers in the grade school, and they lived in an old stone mansion with sisters who taught at another school. One of the sisters she lived with was Sister Elaine Burke, her classmate at the Academy.

“Joan’s a very quiet person, very calm,” Sister Elaine said. “She had a great desire to gain knowledge.

“She’s still the same person she was. She’s always eager to greet you,” Sister Elaine said. “Joan is a very compassionate person, especially with the elderly or infirm. She knows when someone needs someone to listen to them.”