80 Years a SisterJanuary 17, 2020
By LEANN BURKE
FERDINAND — The year was 1940. The movie “Rebecca” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, “The Singing Hills” by Bing Crosby played on the radio and although the U.S. had yet to enter World War II, the effects of the war in Europe were felt in the States.
Amid the cultural hustle and bustle and the shifts brought on by the impending war, Mary George Kissel and Theresita Schenk — along with 11 other young women — professed their first vows as Benedictine sisters at Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand. Now, 80 years later, Sr. Mary George and Sr. Theresita, 96 and 99 respectively, are the only two left from their class.
Living in the monastic community for 80 years means a jubilee year for Sr. Mary George and Sr. Theresita. In monastic life, a jubilee year celebrates a significant anniversary of the members’ first vows, first at 10 years, at 15 years, at 25 years, at 50 years and again at each decade after. For Sr. Mary George and Sr. Theresita, the year is both a celebration of their decades of service to and life in the community and a year of reflection on how much monastic life has changed.
“There’s been so much, I don’t know where to start,” Sr. Mary George said when asked about the change.
Unlike many of the sisters, Sr. Mary George still wears the veil she was given as part of her habit at her first vows. Most sisters switched to wearing lay clothes several years ago, but to Sr. Mary George, the veil is a mark of pride that she enjoys wearing every day.
“Well, no one’s ever told me to take it off,” she said. “I like people being able to identify me when I’m out. I love what I got at those first vows.”
Beyond the habit, Sr. Mary George and Sr. Theresita both received a door into a life of community living that is rich in prayer that they agree has been one of the best parts of their lives. But the monastic life is not without work, and both enjoyed successful teaching careers.
Sr. Mary George made her career teaching elementary school at a long list of schools in Southwest Indiana. Most of her assignments were in the Evansville area, though St. Celestine and St. Henry also make the list. She also had two assignments teaching English to elementary students in Bogota, Colombia.
“I taught for 71 years, and I still miss all my students,” Sr. Mary George said. “I miss teaching.”
A hallmark of her career was setting up a program for students who were falling behind in reading. Often, she said, the students would come to her program angry and hating school because they struggled and were often the brunt of kids’ cruel jokes. A lot of the students in the program had both parents working, so they didn’t receive the support at home their classmates did, Sr. Mary George said.
“When the teachers have 30 or more students in the class, they can’t give the kids individual attention, and when both parents work, who’s going to help the kids?” she said. “They had nobody.”
In Sr. Mary George’s program, however, the kids were always told that they were good kids, they weren’t dumb and they could master the concepts. Invariably, Sr. Mary George said, the kids in her program caught up to their peers, and a handful went on to graduate at the top of both their high school and college classes.
Sr. Mary George retired from teaching six years ago at age 90, returning to the monastery in Ferdinand, known as “the mother house.” She thought she’d be able to take it slow and enjoy retirement, but she soon learned that there was more to be done. These days, she fills her time with collecting and organizing food, clothing and school supplies that are distributed to poor communities throughout the Owensboro area and collecting religious items, such as rosaries and prayer cards that are donated to area religious education directors for use in their programs with students.
Sr. Theresita dedicated her life to music in one way or another, teaching organ and piano for many years at the university level at Indiana University, Vincennes University Jasper, St. Meinrad’s seminary and St. Scholastica College in Duluth, Minnesota. She also taught elementary through high school at various points in her career.
An exceptional organist and piano player, Sr. Theresita has taught many, many people — including fellow sisters — to play the instruments.
Sr. Theresita is also a composer and is responsible for the English version of many of the hymns and prayer songs used throughout Benedictine orders today. When Vatican II happened in 1962, the Catholic Church switched from holding Mass and prayers in Latin to allow each church to use the common language. For the sisters in Ferdinand, that meant switching to English. Of course, it also meant they no longer had materials for Mass and prayer because everything was written in Latin.
“We sang and prayed in Latin,” Sr. Mary George said. “Of course, we didn’t always know what we were saying, or at least I didn’t.”
Sr. Theresita didn’t like that the community lacked English hymns and prayers, so she set about remedying the issue. She took the Latin hymns and prayers and rewrote them in English, then came up with music to fit the new words, making sure that each creation matched the spirit of the source material. Her works quickly spread as the different Benedictine communities across the U.S. gathered to share resources.
Today, Sr. Theresita resides in the sisters’ St. Hildegard Health Center where she continues to play the organ and keyboard for the prayers held there.
Looking back over their time in the order, Sr. Theresita and Sr. Mary George agree that much has changed. Vatican II and the move to the English language was big, as was sisters changing out of their habits and into lay clothes. American culture has changed, too, and the order has shrunk over the years. When Sr. Theresita and Sr. Mary George joined, the community was 500 strong. Today, the community hovers around 150.
“I think women today have their own jobs, their own apartments, their own cars,” Sr. Mary George said. “We didn’t have any of that.”
Also, the monastery used to have a girls’ high school — Academy Immaculate Conception — on the monastery grounds that helped attract new sisters. Sr. Theresita and Sr. Mary George both attended the Academy and joined because of the familiarity of the life and the impact the sisters who taught them had. Sr. Mary George also attended St. James Catholic School in Haubstadt where sisters from Ferdinand taught. Those sisters, too, made a lasting impression, and Sr. Mary George knew in elementary school that joining the monastery was something she’d at least consider. When she got to the academy and saw her older classmates making their vows, she decided to follow suit.
Neither Sr. Mary George nor Sr. Theresita has ever regretted their decision to take the vows.
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