Sister Maria Vincent Brocato sat down with Sister Elaine Puthoff to learn more about her life and calling to become a Sister. Here is what she learned.
In letting me have a worn yellow folder that was entitled “WE CANNOT LIVE LIFE AS USUAL — Breaking with the Old, Blessing the New,” Sister Elaine reminded this interviewer of the struggle SCNs and many religious women faced as they journeyed together in the years after Vatican II. She further reflected this in a stanza from one of her poems within the folder:
We view our previous ideal
And see it completely ruptured
Supplanted by a way of life
That’s becoming less, less structured
(This complete poem, “Reflections,” and others — all with annotation and written by Sister Elaine are attached to this short biography.)
Sister Elaine Puthoff entered the SCN Community in January, 1955. She would have just made perpetual vows when the winds of change blew through the Church. As it was in many religious Congregations, SCNs — both religious leadership and membership — took the direction of the Vatican II Council very seriously. Religious life would never be the same for SCNs and its members.
Sister Elaine was born in Covington, Kentucky in 1925 to Mary Kinsella and Edward H. Puthoff. Beautiful pictures of her parents — on their wedding day as well as one in later years — sit on a bookcase in Sister Elaine’s room. She was the youngest of the four children, having two brothers, Eddie who died in infancy, and William, and a sister, Margaret Mary. William was thirteen years and Margaret nine years older than Elaine (Her pride in them was shown when she went to great trouble to find pictures of Willie and Margaret for me to see.) With a laugh she acknowledges that her mother found ways to answer the unique wishes of young Elaine, such as fixing a dish to suit her at mealtime. “Maybe I was somewhat spoiled,” she laughingly admitted.
“Ours was a very happy home,” Sister Elaine says with a joyful smile. “We were very Irish and even teased my father by calling him ‘O’Puthoff.’ We lived with my grandparents, Maggie Sullivan and William Kinsella, also my Aunt Sarah. We loved to sing together, especially at Christmas time with our favorite carols. One year I remember that at Christmas when my mother was playing, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ she immediately went into ‘Jungle Bells’ as if that was the song of the angels. There was much laughter and joy in our house. I have a memory of dear Papa on Dec. 6, on St. Nicholas Day, his birthday. The doorbell rang. We puzzled over who rang the bell and left a pillowcase of walnuts and oranges. Kris Kringle was the answer. Years I realized that my father was Kris Kringle.”
Another dear memory is of a neighbor, Mrs. Lyons, who remarked to Elaine’s mother, “Many a lad has stopped to give me a ride as I waited at the bus stop. But that Willie, he was different. He came up to the sidewalk to pick me up.” Little did Mrs. Lyons realize that Willie had only gotten his license the day before and driving up on the sidewalk was not the acceptable way. Willie’s nervous response to all this, “I damned near killed her.”
Margaret Mary was sweet and very sociable. We teased her about visiting the neighborhood with stories from our family. We even called her “The Inquirer, The Times Star, The Post,” — all newspapers for which she could have been a reporter.
During the Great Depression years Elaine’s father, who had worked in publishing in Cincinnati — “Cincinnata” to them — lost his job and took a milk delivery job. Later he was able to work in insurance. While on the milk route he might come home and say, “Mary, they did it to me again,” meaning that they didn’t or couldn’t pay.
Sister Elaine says, “My mother, Mae, was a sweet loving person. All duties in the household were shared and despite the number of persons there, it was a peaceful and happy place.” Elaine was given a quarter each week for going to the bus stop to meet her Aunt Sarah and another quarter if she shined a pair of shoes. (Not bad income for a young one in Depression times!)
All the Puthoff children went to the SCNs’ La Salette Academy in Covington even though times were hard. Elaine has a memory of the Sisters telling her, “Tell your Mama you owe $2 for tuition,” — a significant amount in Depression days. Sister Mary Rosine Callahan was her first and second grade teacher; Sister Anne Horrigan was a favorite and is well remembered.
During the flood of 1937, Elaine’s Uncle Jim Kinsella, his wife, and their five children came to live in the Puthoff/Kinsella household, another example of their hospitable, welcoming home.
After graduation from high school Elaine wanted to enter the SCN Community but her mother was not supportive of her leaving. Elaine then took a job in “Cincinnata” as a secretary/treasurer for the Central Trust Company and worked there nine years. Going to Cincinnati was “just across the river,” and the family traveled there easily. The skills Elaine sharpened in this position would stand her in good stead in the later years of her ministry. (This interviewer saw in Elaine’s room much evidence of the organization and order built up then and in the years to follow.)
At age 29 Elaine knew that God was still calling. She beseeched her mother to give this choice of religious life a blessing … which her mother finally did. For Elaine to enter the Nazareth Novitiate with girls who were still in their teens was a real challenge. Sister Mora Rose Marks was one of the novitiate directors and was most understanding. She could see the difference that age and experience made in the formation process offered to young women entering religious life. For the first time in her life Elaine was away from that loving, happy home, and felt the pain of homesickness. Sister Mora Rose consoled Elaine that homesickness was the reason she was crying every night.
After making first vows in December 1957, Elaine was sent to St. Barnabas School in Louisville, Kentucky. Thankfully, she did not have to teach seventh and eight grade, as first thought. Instead she was assigned third and fourth, where she remained for five years, learning such foreign things to her as “consonant blends and consonant diagraphs.”
Elaine had studied Spanish at LaSalette Academy and in 1962 and she was sent to get her degree in Spanish which she did, at the then called Nazareth College in Louisville. After completing her degree she was assigned to high school teaching at Holy Name High School in Henderson, Kentucky.
Again Elaine was sent to study, this time in 1965 to get a master’s degree in Spanish at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. (In ten years think of all the change that had come to Elaine’s life!)
With a master’s in Spanish Elaine taught for a year at Peninsula Catholic High School in Newport News, Virginia. Then she received a great blessing for her life and ministry. She was awarded a full year’s government scholarship to the University of Madrid in Spain and a Fullbright grant for expenses of travel. At the end of the year Elaine asked to return to Spain.
Sister Virginia Louise Stocker, provincial, did not give approval for Elaine to return to Spain, asking her instead to go to Sacred Heart High School in Memphis, Tennessee. Elaine’s poem “It’s Hard to Get Through to Ginny Lou” reflects this experience. When this interviewer asked her feelings about all of this, there was this happy reply, “Oh. I loved Ginny Lou. She let me accept a ministry in Bogota, Colombia.”
This was an exciting and fulfilling experience for Elaine. In Bogota she taught Spanish and English, and remained there from 1970 to 1973.
Upon returning from Bogota for good she went to St. Mary Academy in Leonardtown, Maryland, and stayed there until 1981, again teaching Spanish. For three summers after returning from Bogota, at the suggestion of her mother, Elaine worked as a “Kelly Girl” in Cincinnati, even donning a wig in order to look presentable.
In 1981 besides teaching at Our Lady of Nazareth Academy in Wakefield, Massachusetts, Elaine served as treasurer for the Eastern Province. In 1985 Sister Emily Ann Appleton asked Elaine to be the secretary/treasurer for the Nazareth Province. To serve with someone who became a good friend was a joy. She learned a great deal from these years of her ministry and community life that Elaine attributes to her friend, Emily Ann. She learned the difference between being assertive and being aggressive — a valuable lesson in any life. Another blessing of this time was meeting and becoming friends with a dear woman in the Lexington, Kentucky, area whose name was Irma Aparicio. Irma was from Bolivia and invited Elaine and others, including Sister Helen Glidden, to enjoy several trips with her.
Secretarial ministries followed — secretary for the Southern Regional Office in Lexington, Kentucky, secretary for the Lexington Diocesan Mission Services Office, and associate director for the Lexington Diocesan Mission Office. Elaine’s organizational and writing skills were much appreciated.
Having spent many years of her religious life in SCN academies or high schools, Elaine found their closings very difficult. The evaluative process and many attendant surveys seemed burdensome and always seemed to end in a closing. (The poem, “The Three Phases of Evaluation,” reflects this experience.) The baggage of those disappointments is gone now and for that she is grateful.
When Elaine was asked which of her missions was most life-giving, she thought a minute or two and answered this way, “The chance I have had to travel: to Spain, to Italy ,to Colombia, to Belize, to Ecuador, to places in the United States — all have been great blessings.”
One last question to Elaine was, “Can you tell me who that lovely African American woman is? You have her picture and funeral program on your bookcase.”
The answer, “That is Agnes Lucille Butler, named for our Sister Agnes Lucille Payne. She was a cleaning lady at St. Mary. Academy in Leonardtown. We became friends and through her I was introduced to the African American community there — a great blessing for me.”
As Elaine sits in her room at Carrico Hall and continues her improvement from a recent stroke, Elaine is peaceful and happy, enjoying her poetry and Italian opera books, the latter written in Spanish, of course. She has marvelous photo albums to share, of family, of ministry, and travel. These are wonderful remembrances for Elaine, of a happy home life and her fruitful and devoted life as a Sister of Charity of Nazareth.
Written by Maria Vincent Brocato, SCN