Interviewed by Sister Paschal Maria Fernicola, 2016
My father, Louis J. Discher, was of German background. He, his father and his brother created a store on Market St. in Louisville, Kentucky, called “Geher and Son”. Eventually, the whole family was involved in this enterprise, selling heating and cooking stoves, refrigerators and other household necessities.
My mother, Evelyn King Discher, was of Irish descent, born in Louisville. After her marriage, she was a “stay-at-home” mother. My sister, Mary, was the first-born, followed by me, Martha, and last was my brother, Joseph. We lived on the corner of Edenside Avenue and Norris Place, across the street from the Ursuline Convent. In the middle of our block was St. James School and at the end of our block was St. James Church, which we attended.
I remember when I was a child, Msgr. E.R. Willett would often take walks in the evening to cool off. One evening while our family was sitting on the cool porch, he walked by. My mother invited him up for some refreshing lemonade, which he graciously accepted. My mother thoughtfully spiced it up with a bit of bourbon. After enjoying it, this very proper gentleman said, “This is the best lemonade I have ever tasted!”
A friend who lived on the same street as I, recounts this story about me; “On a hot summer day, Martha wanted a good, cold ice cream. The neighborhood ice cream shop, The Double Dip, was just around the corner, and there the youthful Martha presented herself, but without the required nickel. “Well”, proposed the owner, “I’ll give you the ice cream cone if you wash my window”. Without second thoughts, Martha jumped to the task. Meanwhile, Msgr. Willett on his evening walk saw the “job” in progress and his witty mind saw a joke in the making. Knowing that Martha’s older sister was a refined, “lady-like” young woman and not a bit like “tom-boy” Martha, he decided to tell her what he had just seen. “NO!” she shouted, horrified. “YES!” he pointedly asserted. Anyway, Martha happily enjoyed her ice cream while those two elders pretended to be in shock! Quite a story!
I went to Presentation Academy for my first two years of high school, and to Nazareth Academy for my last two. On graduating, I attended Nazareth College in Louisville for four years. After that, I worked in my father’s store for six years. I was getting restless doing this, thinking that there had to be something better.
My mother and Sister Mary Charlotte Fowler, SCN, were very good friends who enjoyed the same interests. Sister often came to our house to weave and sometimes stayed for dinner. Maybe this experience of her made me begin to think of religious life, which I entered on September 8, 1955. After six months of being a postulant, I became a novice, receiving the habit and a new name; Sister Louis Mary. However, later when we were allowed to take back our baptismal name, I happily did so. Being a bit older, I found the novitiate very challenging.
I made first vows on July 19, 1958, and went on my first mission to Sacred Heart School in Memphis, Tennessee to teach the sophomore class. At this time in our history, we Sisters ate most of our meals in reflective silence or listening to “table reading” unless there was a special reason not to do so. A memory of such an occasion was of the twenty of us sitting around the dinner table in complete silence and our Superior, Sister Jean Maria Fitch, saying, “I think someone somewhere must be having a birthday today, so let’s all talk.” What a relief! We were all young and eager to share the happenings of the day!
Two years later, I was missioned at St. John High School in Bellaire, Ohio where I taught biology and English. I was young (but not too young), curious and interested in going places and doing things. Sister Rose Angeline Ogg was our superior. She was kind, but could say “No” to things I wanted to do faster than anyone I knew!
Someone must have noticed how biology was a “natural” for me because two years later in August of 1962, I was sent to St. Louis University to study Hospital Administration where I earned a Master’s Degree. During this time, I had no clue about what I would be doing with this new knowledge. Next, I found myself at Mt. Carmel Hospital in Columbus, Ohio for a six-month internship, followed by a move to St. Mary’s Hospital in Evansville, Indiana for six more months of the same. By then, I had the sure feeling that my teaching days in schools were over and that a new and challenging ministry in health care was opening for me.
It was no surprise for me in August of 1964, when I was assigned to St. Joseph Infirmary in Louisville, Kentucky. I began my new career there as an assistant to Sister Mary Antonella Staubach who was in charge of the hospital. I learned so very much from her. Under her outstanding leadership, the hospital had become one of the largest and most respected hospitals in the area. Then, after only six months of my being there, Sister Mary Antonella resigned and in August of 1965, I took her place. This was a daunting responsibility for me, but I loved the challenge and succeeded very well, working with a great staff, lay and religious. It was an honor for me and for the hospital in August of 1966 when I became a member of the American College of Hospital Administrators.
On my time off duty, I enjoyed a happy life there at SJI with forty-five Sisters living in one wing of the main building. It was a huge shock when news came in the summer of 1969 that the hospital would be sold. The two main reasons given were that the buildings needed extensive major repairs which the Congregation could not meet financially and that Sisters to staff the hospital were becoming fewer in number. This decision and its ramifications was a most painful experience for everyone, and especially for me.
I resigned effective at the end of that year. Since the role of women religious in those days seemed to be less associated with the management of large institutions as in years gone by, I believed that my future could be well spent meeting other needs of my religious congregation and the people it serves.
From there I went to Frankfort, Kentucky to work in the State Department of Health as Senior Hospital Administrator. This, too, was a challenge I enjoyed, but I returned to Louisville in August of 1972 and became Program Director for Community Health Orientation Program for Students (CHOPS), sponsored by Kentuckiana Metroversity.
The basic function of this project was to have students (nurses, doctors, dentists, social workers, etc.) to study the health needs of the Park-Duval-Community in Louisville where the program is situated, learn about the Health Center and study the “team concept” of health services as it was operated at the Center and to build their own teams. These students received college credits for their work, the same as for their other studies.
In 1974, I earned a Master’s Degree in Community Development from the University of Louisville. At the same time, from August of 1974 to 1979, I was Director for Center Services for Health Care and Chairwoman of the SCN Health Commission.
In August 1979 I was Administrator of Administrative Services at Central State Hospital also in Louisville and later, I was invited by Sister Michael Leo Mullaney to come to St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. My ministry there began as Director of Planning, and three years later, I became its Vice President. I did well and enjoyed my work and the people there.
My fondest memory of that assignment, though, happened in January of 1984 when I was asked to go to Mokama, India for six weeks to help our Sisters to move from the old hospital to the new 285-bed hospital building. This new building was constructed during a five-year period, primarily by a grant from Miserior, the German Bishops’ Charitable Fund.
On arriving at the convent in Mokama, I was warmly greeted with a garland of flowers, a hand-washing and anointing ceremony, and with lively songs. I was joyfully danced into the convent by the Novices! That day also happened to be Sister Lawrencetta Veeneman’s birthday which was already being grandly celebrated.
In addition to these festivities, I had arrived a few days earlier at my first stop in New Delhi where our Sisters were living, and they came to meet me. I was just in time to accompany them to a special anniversary celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s death. It was observed with an abundance of flowers, speeches, music and beautiful pageantry.
Moving the hospital was a stimulatingly challenging task for me, as was coming to a new culture with people accustomed to working differently from my way of doing things. To make this succeed, it had to be a participative endeavor. Several planning meetings were held with each department to familiarize all as to how we were to proceed.
Of course, most of the old furnishings and equipment would be transferred. Only some beds, treatment tables, an emergency generator and a few desks and chairs would be new. Best of all, the new washer and dryer would eliminate doing the hospital laundry by hand and drying it in the sun, depending on the weather!
I also helped clarify roles, structures and the responsibilities for the nine-member Hospital Society (Board of Directors). To help accomplish the newly defined goals of the Hospital Society, I recommended the establishment of committees for finance, personnel and a joint conference for patient care and education. I did a lot of interviewing of the hospital personnel and a bit of teaching. It all went very well, but not without a few laughs and stumbles as were expected!
It wasn’t all work, however. I visited many beautiful sites and interesting places and had fun with the Sisters and the staff. I can truly rate this work-vacation as one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.
Sister Dorothy MacDougall, our President, wrote a glowing recommendation for me for another assignment which I so treasured; “In my experience of Martha’s skills, two specific incidents stand out. One, in the fall of 1983, our Congregational Corporate Board held a seminar for all Sister trustees in our health-care institutions. Martha chaired the committee which prepared the seminar which was an impressive weekend program for fifty participants.
The second, observing Martha’s skills, the SCN Executive Committee asked Martha to travel to India to assist our Sisters to move from the old to the new 285-bed hospital building. Within a six-week period away from St. Joseph Hospital, she completed that incredible task. In a participative manner, she not only developed a plan for the move, but also a plan for the new organizational running of the new hospital. I cannot say enough about Martha’s ability to bring people together and get them enthusiastic about a project despite problems inherent in different cultures and work styles.”
Because of this confidence in me and because I had experience in the field of strategic planning, I was appointed to the Future Planning Committee. This committee was established by the 1982 Assembly to explore directions in ministry, to monitor and study the implications for ministry focusing on the Actuarial Study, finances and other SCN realities. We divided ourselves into four categories: funding needed for retirement, ways of funding for retirement, types of ministries, and lifestyles. We shared our findings with the Corporate Reflection Steering Committee which prepared materials for community-wide reflection that fall. It was an interesting and detailed task.
From April 1987 to June 1991 I served at Kentucky Children’s Treatment Service in Anchorage, KY. From June 1991 to June 1996 I was Regional Administrator for the SCNs in Louisville, KY. These were rewarding years supporting and working with the Sisters.
Louisville Province Election, February 11, 1996. Left to Right: Sisters Mary Elaine Zehnder, Sarah Ferriell, Betty Blandford, Martha Discher, Patricia Huitt, and Miriam Frenke
An outstanding memory of this time is my second trip to India. We Provincials along with the Central Leadership Team had planned meetings with our Sisters in India. Each of us was given the privilege of spending a day or so in the country of our choice en route there. Some chose Rome, France, or Germany, but since my family is Irish, I chose Ireland. What a thrill it was for me to ride along the streets my ancestors had walked and to visit the homes and places I had only heard about till then. The flowers, greenery and the warmth of the people filled me with joy and gave me a deeper love for all who had gone before me. I will always be grateful for this unexpected blessing.
We all eventually met in Mokama, India, the place I still held dearly in my happy memory of years before. We were warmly welcomed with joy and gladness by our Sisters there, in loving outpouring of SCN hospitality. Because of the intense heat, much of our meeting, eating and sleeping time was spent on the roof where we sometimes were favored with a gentle, cool breeze. Sleeping under the stars was a new experience for most of us, but it provided refreshing rest and comfort.
We visited several other places where our Sisters were in ministry and were awed by all the wonderful things they were doing. We also saw many other places of interest, historical sites, and shrines – and as usual, my camera got a workout! Too soon we were back home in the States with marvelous stories to tell.
In July 1999 the President of the community, Sister Maria Vincent Brocato, appointed me to a three-year term on the Committee for Corporate Responsibility to begin the following September. After that, I officially retired but still lived in Louisville doing volunteer ministry. I enjoyed this time in my life, since I could do what always appealed to me, yet didn’t have the time to do before.
I helped in many ways in the parishes, with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, visited the sick and championed the causes that were dear to me. A unique thing I began during this time was to make special memorial cards for each Sister that died, with the Sister’s picture and pertinent dates on one side and a suitable scriptural quote with flowers or a picture from nature to honor her on the reverse side.
Remember all those pictures I took in India? Retirement gave me the leisure to put them into a huge scrapbook, all well-labeled and many pages embellished with other mementos of those trips. This was a special joy to me, bringing back to memory the pleasure of those days and times that had so blessed my life.
Sister Martha Discher and her Nazareth Academy classmate and good friend, Jeanne Mueller
I moved in May 2015 to the SCN Apartments in Louisville, and in April of 2016, I officially retired to Nazareth. Besides my personal belongings, I brought all my treasures, one of which was my India scrapbook. It was too precious to hoard in my room, so I donated it to the Nazareth Archives where everyone is free to enjoy it.