Sister Rachel Willet: A Profile

Mar 31, 2016 | 15 comments

Sister Rachel Willett, SCN
March 2016

The remarks of the interviewers are in italics.

When Sister Elaine McCarron and I walked into the area of Nazareth Home where Sister Rachel is a resident, we were so pleased to find her enjoying a walk through the halls. In her always welcoming, gracious manner Rachel invited us into her room for a visit. The next hour and a half were delightful as she answered our questions and shared with us events of her childhood and family, her education, her Community life and ministry. Besides this interview, we have drawn on earlier pieces written about Rachel and have added words from others who also know and cherish her.

Rachel Marie Willett was born on November 9, 1921 in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, the daughter of William Irie Willett and Ida Mary Stahr Willett. Three of her nine siblings are still living and devoted to Rachel as she is to them: Dr. Joseph Emmanuel Willett, Lenora Willett Turney, and Celeste Willett Russell.. Sister Clara Willett, SCN, older than Rachel, would precede her into the SCN Community and would remain a supportive, loving Sister in Community as well as in family. Rachel’s aunt, Victoria Stahr Wedding, had a daughter, Mary Hildegarde, who also entered the SCN Community. We know her now as Sister Mary Wedding. Rachel’s memories of home and family are very happy ones.

Rachel Willett_Photos_1Rachel shares, “We had a normal, secure childhood, enjoying the usual fun and scrapes of children. We lived on a farm, had tenant farmers and shared chores that were needed related to the garden and the farm animals. Although it was Depression time and not much cash was available, we did not lack for essentials. My father loved music. We had a snare drum in our parlor which he could play. My mother had been a teacher and gave us a great love of books, including a full set of encyclopedia. We had horses to ride, woods to explore, berries and nuts to pick. Night prayer and deep faith were a vital part of our household; there was also much love and caring.”

St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm is notable for many reasons, and is surely the fount of many vocations, both religious and lay. It was the center of activities for its people, and remains important to them until today. St. Jerome’s Grade and High School, a public school for Graves County, was where Rachel received her basic education. Rachel remembers her education at St. Jerome’s and the SCN teachers who were a great influence on her life.

She has these words of appreciation: “Our curriculum had emphasis on education, culture and lived Faith experiences. Music was a part of our morning prayer. Later at Nazareth College I kept this love for music and decided to become a member of the Glee Club. Classical courses were required for all. Drama, under the direction of Sister Frances Ann McGaughran was usually based on a classic, such as David Copperfield or Silas Marner. Sister Helen Constance Walker was my excellent English teacher. I learned typing and shorthand from a very able instructor, Sister Clementia Clark.”

(We know so well that acquiring these language and typing skills would benefit Rachel greatly. She would become a very fine English teacher and later a competent secretary.)

After high school, Rachel, remembering the years of the Depression, and wishing to earn her own money, accepted a position in the office of Sperti, Inc, in Cincinnati, Ohio, This job enabled Rachel to buy her own clothes, purchase gifts for her family, take in a movie, usher at a summer opera, and enjoy dancing at Coney Island, five miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio.

She left this enjoyable life in September, 1942 to respond to God’s call and entered the Novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. When she received the habit she was given the name, Sister Jerome, honoring the parish which had figured so strongly in her family and parish life. Rachel/ Sister Jerome made vows in March, 1944 and was sent on a temporary mission to St. Peter‘s Orphanage in Memphis, Tennessee. She would remain in Memphis and teach at St. Mary’s School until 1947, and taught grades one and two..

Rachel was then assigned to St. Vincent de Paul School in Mt. Vernon, Ohio where she taught high school for the first time. Her next call in 1949 was to be a special one for Rachel. She became the founding principal and upper grade teacher at St. Catherine of Siena School in Fort Thomas , Kentucky. There are at least three Sisters of Charity who attended St, Catherine School while Rachel was Principal – Sisters Diane Pharo, Susan Kilb and Marian Stenken. They have fond memories and two knew her as teacher.

Sister Marian Stenken, SCN, remembers,” Sister Rachel was at St. Catherine Grade School as Principal for four years. One year we had three grades in one room with Sister Rachel as teacher and Principal. She was an excellent teacher, excelling in her teaching of English. I can easily describe her as kind, supportive and, at the same time, challenging. There was no convent so the Sisters traveled by cab back and forth from Immaculate Conception Convent in Newport. The boys at school loved her because she played sports with them on the playground – and was good at it !”

Sister Susan Kilb also has good memories. ” I was not fortunate to have Sister Rachel as a teacher but she was a very fine and well- loved principal. Whenever she filled in for another teacher we would enjoy her sharing with us her love of poetry and good writing. When the Sisters arrived by taxi each morning we were happy to help them with their book bags and black boxes – which I now know were cap boxes. The boys couldn’t believe how far she could hit a baseball.” Rachel would remain in Fort Thomas for the next nine years. She smiles and loves to reminisce about her days at St. Catherine.

Following these years, Rachel would begin a series of missions as an outstanding high school teacher of English to both Juniors or Seniors. Sometimes she also taught commercial courses. She would go first to Sacred Heart Academy in Helena, Arkansas in 1958 for a year, then for six years to Owensboro Catholic High School in Owensboro, Kentucky. Her next mission was to her own Fancy Farm as superior and teacher of English. After those two years she returned to St. Vincent de Paul in Mt. Vernon, Ohio but this time as superior, high school principal and teacher. In her next mission, La Salette Academy in Covington, Kentucky, she was principal and teacher of English.

Besides teaching English and commercial classes Rachel remembers directing senior class plays – i.e., “Meet Me in St. Louis” in Helena, Arkansas and “Tammy, Tell Me True” at Owensboro Catholic.

(She mentioned to the two of us interviewers a special love for poetry. “I hope I didn’t neglect prose” she said with a sigh. We assured her that she must certainly have done well in both.)

Rachel had received her B.A. in English in 1957 from Spalding College in Louisville, Kentucky and her M.A. in English from Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana in 1967. She went back to Owensboro Catholic High School in 1969 for six years and then to St. Mary High School in Paducah, Kentucky. Rachel spent a year at Spalding College as English teacher and then went back to St. Mary’s in Paducah for four years.

There was a custom in the SCN Community, that the Mother General would visit the Sisters in their various missions and speak with each one. Rachel would smile and say she never had the opportunity for a formal visit with the Mother General. The reason – she was constantly taking shorthand, writing letters and in other ways helping the Mother General with her mail while she was away from Nazareth.

In the summer of 1970 Sister Rachel had the opportunity for study at Oxford University and London University in England. Sister Susan Gatz was also a student at Oxford and Rachel was a designated witness when Susan renewed her temporary vows

(After reflecting on this list of missions and study, we can certainly understand why Rachel has been asked to offer her special gifts of teaching, composing and editing. Her English skills were indeed well honed for ministries yet to come.)

Sister Rachel ministries changed at his time. In 1979 she became personal Secretary to Bishop John J. McRaith, Bishop of Owensboro, Kentucky. She would remain in that role for seven years. Her competency and care for confidentiality were special assets that Rachel brought to this ministry.

Her ministries after this one are varied: Writer for the Laubach Literary Method Program, personal Secretary to Sisters Emily Nabholz and Elizabeth Wendeln, both Presidents of the SCN Congregation, speaker and Grant Writer for the SCN Mission Office, Staff member in the Office of Congregational Advancement. There for several years, she reached out and kept in contact with donors which included her extended family. Rachel ended her active ministry as a volunteer in the Nazareth Archival Center.

(The range of these tasks reveals the generous and competent Rachel, always the same kind, gracious person we know today.)

In 1999, Patricia Kelley, SCN, wrote Fifty Monsoons reflecting on her twenty-five years in India as a missionary. Rachel was most helpful to Sister Patricia as she noted in her acknowledgements: “I give special thanks to Sister Rachel Willett, who entered into the composition, editing, typing, and proofreading of this manuscript as if it were her own. In certain aspects she is a co-author.”

Another accomplishment of which she can be proud is that she was co-author of two of the SCN series, Impelled by the Love of Christ. The first , written with Sister Patricia Kelley, SCN, covered the years 1924-1936, during which Mother Mary Catherine Malone and her Council led the SCN Community. The second, Impelled by the Love of Christ, 1936-1948 was co-authored with Sisters Patricia Kelley and Elaine McCarron. The Mother General for these years was Mother Ann Sebastian Sullivan, who led the SCN Community assisted by her Council.

(Both these books are, as is the series, valuable to the history and legacy of the SCN Community. The time and effort spent in research and writing is a gift to the SCN Community and to the history of women religious in America.)

Rachel Willett_Photos_2Rachel remains devoted to her siblings and other family members. She is justly proud of her nephew, Rev. David Willett, a priest of the Diocese of Owensboro. Fr. David has served as a military chaplain in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a Colonel in the United States Army Reserve and currently serves as Associate Pastor of St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm, Kentucky.

Rachel remarked on the many skills that her sister Clara had, particularly her homemaking ones that she shared at Nazareth Villages. Rachel is likewise proud that she was able to assist her cousin, Sister Mary Wedding, in the typing and editing of a French translation of a book of Bishop Flaget. It was comprised of three volumes and Sister Mary says with appreciation how grateful she is for Rachel’s special skill in this project.

(Now that Rachel is a resident at Nazareth Home, she is missed by those of us who know and love her but we can be comforted that she is the same kind, gracious person. Her keen, gentle humor was very evident as we said “Goodbye.” We told her that we would be back with a draft of her story for her review. When we said, teasingly, “please, not too many corrections for commas, sentence structure, etc.,” Sister Rachel responded with a twinkle in her eye, “Just be sure you double space everything so that I can have plenty of room to edit.” We left with smiles on our faces and in our hearts.)

Sister Maria Vincent Brocato, SCN
Sister Elaine McCarron, SCN
March, 2016