I was born June 1, 1928 in the extreme western part of Kentucky, Carlisle County, which borders the Mississippi River, three miles west of Fancy Farm, on state highway 80. My parents, Joseph Leslie and Beatrice (Cissell) Wilson, married November 9, 1921 having only ten dollars, with five dollars going to the priest who married them. They lived with my paternal grandparents for a short time while a small house was being built for them on the Wilson property. A few years later the bordering farm was up for sale. With their savings and a loan, they were able to buy this farm and move there. In 1932 they built a new home, the only home we children remember. The country was in the Great Depression, people were out of work, desperately needing a job. My parents decided it was the time to build a better home and give some of these skilled carpenters a job. The tobacco barn became our home that summer while our home was being built. There were five children by this time.
Our family grew by one every two years totaling eleven by 1942, five girls and six boys: Pauline, Joseph Leo, Thomas Cloyd, Dorothy Mae, James Harold, Patricia Ruth, Charles Albert, Frances Shirley, Rose Nell, James Jerome and Philip Anthony. The first child, Pauline, died within three hours of birth. Grandma Wilson, midwife for my mother, baptized her. She was buried in St. Jerome’s cemetery in a little box that my dad built. It was such a traumatic experience for my parents that they could hardly ever respond to our questioning about Pauline. We were all born at home with the help of Dr. Ernest Merrit and Grandma Wilson. It was an exciting time for us children each time God sent us a new member. Each one was warmly welcomed and soon found his/her place in the regular routine of this farm household, teasing and all. The girls helped our mother around the house and garden while the boys worked with our dad out on the dairy and tobacco farm.
My parents took great pride in their home and farm and constantly worked to improve it. My mother said we had little cash to spend because my dad kept using it to buy more land so that they would have something for their children when they grew up. He dreamed that all of us would live on a farm; however, long before he died he saw things changing in the world and recognized the need for a good education and encouraged it. I loved the country life and never wanted to leave it and yet most of my adult life has been spent in the heart of a few cities. I remember my brother, James, deciding that he was not going to school any more. When it was time for the school bus and James was not there, we found him on the wagon hitched up to a team of mules. My father had left the mules there while he had breakfast. He said, “I’m not going to school. I’m going to be a farmer like my dad.” And he did just that. My oldest brother, Joe, along with five or six other boys who had to be out of school a lot to help with the farm work were placed in a special classroom where individualized instruction was provided for them. They were called the “Opportunity Class”.
We all went to St. Jerome School in Fancy Farm, Kentucky with the exception of a few years at the one room public school, Reddick’s Pond, located on our farm. I had two years at this school, the first and third. My father had always gone to St. Jerome, staying with his grandmother to do so, and was never satisfied until he could make arrangements to get us there. Finally, he bought a horse and buggy for us to use while negotiations were being worked out for a Carlisle County bus to take us to Graves County for school. The school building was owned by St. Jerome Parish but rented to Graves County.
The school was staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth beginning in 1892. These Sisters had great influence on our lives. They were from various parts of the country and studied at various universities thereby bringing an extra richness to the academic setting. As children growing up we didn’t recognize these extra pluses. We saw the Sisters as smart, strict and demanding teachers. Our report cards came out once a month and had to be signed by one of our parents. We could get by with a poor grade in a subject but never with deportment.
It was sometime during high school that I first started thinking about “being a Sister”. I admired some of the Sisters who taught there and I was attracted by what I heard and read of what some Sisters were doing for the poor. During a retreat for the high school students, conducted by Rev. Raphael Sourd, a Glenmary priest, I became very interested in the work they were trying to do in the rural unchurched areas of our country and about this new community of Sisters they were forming. I stayed in contact with him all through high school and seriously thought of joining the Glenmary Sisters. My parents, however, were very uncomfortable with my going to a community just forming.
In the meantime, I met Mother Ann Sebastian, the Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who heard about me and my aspirations to work with the poor. She went out of her way to see me and acquaint me with places where the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were working with the poor. I didn’t know Fancy Farm had any poor folks! With Father Sourd having to be in Rome for three months getting approval for this new community of priests and Sisters at this time, it seemed God was guiding me to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. I knew it was now or never for me because a big fisherman was out there trying to catch me. Looking back, I’m sure the fact that my aunt, Ann Leo Wilson, SCN was already a member and her sister, Judith Ann Wilson, SCN was planning to enter had some influence on my final decision.
On September 24, 1947 I entered the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, with Father Sourd’s blessing and spiritual guidance. We maintained our friendship until his death in 1981. There were fifty-one girls who entered that day from various parts of the U.S. We didn’t know one another and each of us had our own idea of what this experience was going to be like. I can only imagine now what an overwhelming assignment this must have been for the two people in charge of formation. A hundred plus novices were already under their guidance and now fifty-one more! I found the novitiate very challenging. So many of the rules and practices didn’t make sense to me, such as: keeping silence, asking permission for so many things, not being able to explore the beautiful grounds at our leisure or just get out of the building for a brief period, having little privacy, taking college classes with no time to study or research, to name a few. Scripture did not escape my critical eye either. Along the top border of the walls in the dining room were printed in beautiful calligraphy several passages for our reflection. One said, “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you.” I thought, “You are wrong about that. I did so choose you.” Little did I know! Despite my negative reaction to some of these things I felt I was called to religious life and loved Nazareth. I survived by remembering the many Sisters I knew well and admired who had gone down this path and survived. “If they could do it surely I can, too,” I kept reminding myself. Profession day, March 25, 1950, was a happy day for me.
A few days after finishing the novitiate I was sent to St. Andrew’s School in Roanoke, Virginia to teach the third grade. I loved these two and a half months and thus started my happy career in education: nineteen years as teacher, seven years as Principal and sixteen years as Associate Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese. After that short stay in Virginia I was sent to St. Dominic’s in Columbus, Ohio to teach the first and second grades. This was an African American school located in the heart of Columbus. I had between ninety and a hundred students in my classroom for several years. I was young, healthy, full of enthusiasm, loved the people I was working with and what I was doing. It didn’t occur to me that you can’t teach that many children in one class! The Superintendent finally intervened requiring that a second teacher be hired for one of the grades.
I remember the music supervisor of our schools, Sister Cecilia Howley, SCN coming to pay her annual visit. When she arrived in my classroom for the “Ward Method” lesson we were trained to do in twenty minutes, I dutifully did it. At the end, she said, “ That was wonderful!” I said, “Oh, but we can do a lot more”. So I proceeded to show her. I became an instant hero with her and she very generously sang my praises thereafter. When I told the Sisters that night what I had done, they said, “You didn’t!!!” No one would prolong a visit of Sister Cecilia in their classroom.
Sister Charles Burch, SCN, was the Principal and Superior the first two years. She was everything I thought a Sister of Charity of Nazareth should be, a replica of Mother Catherine, who was the foundress of our community. These six years were a tremendous learning experience for me in many different ways, lessons that had and will continue to have a powerful influence on the way I live my life especially, witnessing the cruel effects of racism and poverty.
The next six years, 1956-1962, I was assigned to Holy Names of Jesus and Mary Parish in Memphis, Tennessee teaching the second or third grade. It was located in a mainly Italian neighborhood and staffed by Franciscan priests. The people were very involved in the parish and the Sisters were the recipients of their thoughtfulness. I continued to take college classes on Saturdays (Siena College), as I had done in Columbus, Ohio (St. Mary of the Springs). All of my education took place on Saturdays and during the summer time. I ended up with a Bachelor Degree and a Master Degree in Education plus Principal and Superintendent certification for the state of Kentucky, Rank 1.
In 1962 I was transferred to St. John’s in Louisville, Kentucky to teach fifty-three first and second graders. After a month and a half, due to illness, I was transferred to Holy Name to teach a second grade class with twenty-two students, a much smaller load; in 1974 I was sent to Resurrection to teach intermediate grades and in 1967 to a consolidated school to teach intermediate level students, in the St. Philip Neri building. Near the end of the second year, I was contacted by the SCN Regional and the SCN Director of Education to discern about taking the Principal position at the newly merged schools of St. Joseph and St. Monica in Bardstown the following year. I loved where I was working with these inner city children; I could never lose that desire to work with the poor. After a couple of days of prayer and reflection it seemed God was calling me to at least give the Principal position a try, which I did, beginning August 1969.
St. Joseph/Monica School had an enrollment of around 550 students in grades one through eight with two or three teachers for each grade level. The fifth and sixth grade classes were at the St. Monica building and the rest at the St. Joseph building. After four years with this arrangement it was decided that with some adjustments all students could be accommodated at the St. Joseph building, which we did, beginning with the 1973-74 school year. Not only did I find myself involved with building arrangements but with an enthusiastic group of teachers who were open and anxious to try some new ideas that were being promoted by schools of education all over the country. It was exciting to me to be in a position now as Principal to enable some of these ideas to come to life. The parents were very cooperative, wanting the best for their children and the children had the drive along with the ability to do “most anything”. I was enjoying this new challenge but after six years a new “call” beckoned me.
Following a Principals’ meeting that I was attending, the incoming Superintendent of Schools, Father Joseph McGee, asked if I would join him in June as Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Schools. This was a total shock to me. How could I tell the people at St. Joe’s I was leaving after these six wonderful years? We had so many things going on that we were so proud of! Did I have the qualifications needed for this job? I consulted with the Pastor, the SCN President, the SCN Director of Education, the St. Joseph School Board Chairperson and prayed for guidance to make the right decision. After a couple of weeks I felt the call again “to leave my boat behind” and to move to a new horizon. A comment made by the School Board Chairperson helped me to make my decision. He said, “I don’t look at it that you are leaving us. You will be in a position to keep us in mind when decisions are made at that level that may effect us.” As Associate Superintendent of Schools, I served eight years with Father McGee and eight years with Father Thomas Duerr, who followed him. I could not have worked with finer priests.
In 1991 when the Archdiocesan offices were being reorganized and renamed I decided this was the appropriate time for me to step aside and let new blood give birth to the new structure. These had been very gifted years for me to be able to work with so many talented and giving people here in the Archdiocese and State of Kentucky, as well as throughout the United States but especially the folks at the Louisville Office of Catholic Schools. I had planned to take a sabbatical immediately after this but was prevailed on to take the Principal position at Holy Name, a small inner city school, to see if it could be saved. It became clear to me very soon that the best thing we could do for them now was get the present students in one of three Catholic Schools really nearer to their homes than Holy Name. This we did, in consultation with all the appropriate people and groups during the 199l-92 school year. This wrapped up my many wonderful years in education, years I shall always treasure, working for the betterment of the lives of our young people. As I write this, it seemed to me, “icing on the cake”, that St. Joseph School in Bardstown, Kentucky, where I was principal for six years, was declared a 2017 Blue Ribbon school by the United States Department of Education, its highest recognition. I was invited and able to attend the presentation. How proud I am of them!
After taking a sabbatical year from September 1992 to September 1993, I spent the next thirteen years ministering at Nazareth Home. First, I worked as Associate Coordinator of Community Service, concentrating mainly on the Maria Hall section. When Community Service was reorganized in 2001 I spent most of my time as a contact person for the Sisters residing in the Charity Court section of the Home. In 2005, due to medical conditions I had to resign. It was a privilege to serve our Sisters in the twilight years of their lives. I had known and admired so many of them in their active years.
During the years of moving back to Louisville, June 1, 1975, I have lived in two different locations, one in the south end with three other Sisters and the other in the east end. Our first home was sold in 1987 making it necessary for us to move. Lucky for us, at the same time a house owned by Our Lady of Lourdes was being vacated. Sister Betty Blandford, one of the members of our house, worked there and asked immediately if we could rent it. They were happy that we were interested and welcomed the presence of Sisters back in the parish, October 30, 1987. It was ideally located for all of us. We felt a part of the parish immediately and participated in various functions as much as possible. Lourdes became my home for the next twenty-nine years.
In 2016, beginning to need more and more assistance with my daily living, I became aware that I may need to give up my happy home. I did not even want to think about it, let alone do it! But I knew I had to face it. I contacted Sister Kay Glunk the Assistant Provincial to discuss the matter with her. She was in agreement that this was the right time to make the move while I was able to help direct it. This meant breaking up our close knit family of three that had been together for so long – Sister Betty Blandford for forty straight years and Sister Virginia Blair for twenty-five years. What great companions they have been on this journey. I moved to Carrico Hall at Nazareth, Kentucky July 12, 2016, where I am now.
This is a brief account of some of the highlights of my life. There is much more that could be said of significant events and remarkable people that have touched me through the years but this would take a book. It has been a happy and fulfilling life. How blessed I know I’ve been! I want to end by thanking God for the people who have graced my life these eighty-nine years with their love, support and encouragement, especially, my SCN and biological families. “The Lord has been my shepherd; my cup overflows.” Psalm 23:1, 5.
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