From the time she was a little girl near Harrodsburg, Ky., Gemma loved animals and it has been reciprocated. Born in 1919, Gemma was the fourth child born to the Harlow family. When she was six years old, Eva, her sister and favorite playmate, died from encephalitis; this was indeed an arid time for a little first grade girl. Gemma remembers her high school days as a very positive experience. She blossomed in this learning environment where both principal and teachers were fair and caring and her grades soared! At Nazareth College, Nazareth, the excellent example of Sisters Ann Patrick, Marietta, and Helen Constance coupled with interaction with saintly Father McGee, as her spiritual advisor, fanned the flame of Gemma’s religious vocation. Saint Gemma had recently been canonized and it was fitting that this Harlow girl became Sister Mary Gemma on March 25, 1941. During her novitiate her sister Ruby, age 32, died after a long illness; she left three small children. Her middle child, Donald, prophesized that he would be joining his mother and in fact, seven weeks later, he died of pneumonia. A very arid time for Gemma! Her brother, Everett died in 1974 at 61.
Home and work life on the missions offered many challenges but this philodendron woman persevered. What kept her going was her inner courage, her adaptability, and her personal relationships including on-going spiritual direction. S. Gemma’s teaching experience ranged from pre-school language arts to graduate college classes to Principal to Supervisor of Catholic Schools in the Memphis Diocese. She remembers advice given to her by Mother Lucille, “Every time you go to supervise a teacher, share with that teacher something that was done well!” S. Gemma followed that advice!
Currently S. Gemma serves as Records Librarian in the Maintenance Department at Nazareth Campus Service. To reach S. Gemma’s office, one passes through what could be called a philodendron gallery! Healthy vines boast shining monochromatic green leaves which cover the poles and pipes! The etymology of the word philodendron is “lover of trees” and the plant has been described as having the ability to survive in arid settings. There is no aridity in the Maintenance Department! S. Gemma considers Richard Sweazy, her supervisor, as the person responsible for the continued positive atmosphere of Maintenance. “Richard is non-judgmental and gives us the benefit of the doubt; he studies both sides of any story,” she said. As our conversation continues, Ed Wilkerson, mechanic and electrician, drops in. Ed has recently lost his father and he stops by to share with S. Gemma some photos of his younger days including a photo of himself between two mules which he describes as “his corn-eating tractor”! S. Gemma’s office walls are lined with cabinets. Here cross references of data, repairs, etc. for over 1000 pieces of equipment reflect 14 years of quality work by S. Gemma who set up the system and continually updates these cards, files, and binders. Yes, this is an office of efficiency and strict business! But wait! Is that a cat calendar on her desk? “S. Gemma, when I last passed your office, did I really see a black cat sitting on your desk?”
S. Gemma shares the story that Vincenta, mechanic shop cat, found a tunnel from which later her five kittens emerged. Three found homes, and Vincenta was sent off to be spayed. Velvet and Charcoal were lying on top of the stone looking forlorn when they were separated from their mother. As S. Gemma passed, she heard a meow. “Are you missing your mother?” The cat, responding with a sad meow, gently approached her and straddled her fore-arm. He learned to “talk” to her! That was it! Now the cat reports to Maintenance on a daily basis for grooming. Precious Velvet also tiptoes in and can be seen peeking around the bend as he rubs his cheek on the door frame. He knows he is welcome here!