Interviewed by Sharon Cecil, SCNA
Mary Eula Johnson was born on January 7, 1934 in Hawesville in Hancock County, Kentucky to George Albin Johnson and Emma Josephine Hagman Johnson. She had two brothers, Victor and Eugene and she was the youngest of the three. Both sisters, Marie and Rose died at their births.
Mary Eula was baptized by Fr. William Jarboe who dedicated her to the Blessed Mother. Father directed her mother to dress her in blue until she was six years old. She still remembers the first dress that was not blue: pink flowers in a background of blue. She still has a little blue dress made from her mother’s wedding dress.
Her parents were deeply spiritual. She loved going to confession with her Dad on Saturday afternoons. That was her special time with her father. Forty Hours, missions, Lenten devotions, Corpus Christi Processions and the evening family rosary were also a part of her family’s practices.
Mary Eula went to the public school for grades 1 through 6. Bishop Francis Cotton gave a directive that all parents put their children in a Catholic School. She and her brother Eugene went to St. William School in Knottsville, Kentucky. Her brother Victor was sent to St. Bernard School in Cullman, Alabama for high school. Living out in the country with no close neighbors, she entertained herself by taking long walks, riding her bicycle, and fishing. She thinks it was because of the sounds of nature and the silence that appealed to her. Thus she experienced contemplation as a young girl. She developed a great love of nature growing up on the farm. She loved caring for the farm animals and caring for the garden; eagerly awaiting the first shoots of asparagus and rhubarb in the spring. In the summer she helped with tobacco setting. When it was harvest time for wheat, her dad would get a thresher and invite the neighboring farmers to bring their wheat for a threshing party. Her mother and some of the women would prepare dinner; cakes and pies included for all. Sister Mary Eula attributes this experience for her love of cooking and baking pies and cakes.
Mary Eula does not remember fighting with her brothers. They had a good relationship. However, on one occasion while cranking the freezer making homemade ice cream, she pulled the chair out from under her brother causing him to sit down hard on the concrete sidewalk. She received a spanking, the only one she remembers receiving. Victor, her dad explained, could have been seriously injured.
Mary Eula grew up becoming very close with her 31 first cousins. Since her grandmother lived with her family in the summer, her cousins visited often, even those from New York and Connecticut. Grandma Hagman spent the winter months in Owensboro with the Lewises, Sister Mary Raphael, Fran Cecil’s family.
Sister Mary Eula and her brother Eugene on the day of their First Communion in 1940.
For graduation from high school, both Frances and Mary Eula were given a month trip to New York to visit their Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Henry Rives. While on this trip, Mary Eula made the decision to enter the Sisters of Charity. Frances had already made her decision which likely influenced Mary Eula. However, there were several SCNs on both sides of the family in the Community. Her Grandmother Johnson’s sister, Sister Ann Joseph Shoemaker; the three Carrico Sisters Angela Maria, Ann Maria, and Lucy; and also two Johnson SCNs, David Catherine and Joseph Damien were among those on her father’s side. On her Mother’s side, Sisters Mary Ann Powers, Ruth Angela Powers, Ann Roberta Powers and Mildred McGovern were all SCNs. It was quite natural that the SCNs would be a part of that decision. Mary Eula remembers the Carrico Sisters coming home for their home visit after their final vows. Their joyfulness struck her. Another memorable event was Sister Ann Roberta’s coming to say goodbye to Aunt Theresa, Eula’s Grandmother, before she went to India. This beautiful, excited young woman made an impression. Right then and there, Mary Eula made her decision.
On Sept. 24, 1951, she entered the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and received the habit on March 25, 1952 taking the name, Sister Mary Albin. She pronounced her first vows on March 25, 1954 and her perpetual vows on July 19, 1957. In the mid-1960s, Sisters were given the option of returning to their Baptismal name or to continue with their present name. Sister chose to return to her Baptismal name.
Sister Mary Eula’s first mission was to Annunciation Academy, Pine Bluff, Arkansas to teach Kindergarten. What a challenge! She knew nothing about working with small children. Sister Stephen Maria Hayden came to the rescue. She also mentored her the next year when she became the first grade teacher. Sister Stephen Maria mentored her in her profession as a teacher but also in how to be a Sister of Charity of Nazareth.
In 1956, Sister Mary Eula was sent to St. Cecilia School in Louisville where she would stay for six years teaching and studying on Saturdays. She taught the 6th grade which she loved because of her great interest in Social Studies. While there, Sisters were allowed to watch TV and with great interest, she and the others watched President Kennedy’s inauguration. Shortly after arriving at St. Cecilia her father died of a heart attack. Her thoughts were with her mother who had lost four people in her family circle within ten months.
Saint Joseph in Tiltonsville, Ohio was her next mission. President Kennedy was assassinated on Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. For the next three days, the only interest was the events unfolding about our grieving nation and the pageantry surrounding the unforgettable events.
In January of 1966, Sister Mary Eula was sent to St. William School in London, Kentucky where she met the challenge of teaching grades 1, 2, and 3 until June and then grades 4 through 8 with only 19 students the following year. What a challenge. Living with the hospital Sisters led to many interesting experiences. Sister was often called to sit with a grieving family or a sick child in the waiting room or the recovery room.
The Community, mindful that Sister had not finished her degree in education, moved her to St. Pius X in Louisville so she could attend Saturday classes. She graduated in 1968. This assignment to this progressive and innovative program initiated by Marie Celine Osbourn, SCN was a very enjoyable experience. Sister taught Social Studies in an interdisciplinary approach combining Social Studies, Language Arts, and Religion. One of her students entered a contest on KET and won a trip to New York to appear on National Education TV. Sister accepted the assignment of principalship her last three years at St. Pius X.
After leaving St. Pius in 1973, Sister changed her ministry to Youth Ministry and for the next eleven years she devoted her energies to getting this new Ministry firmly established throughout the Archdiocese. She strongly believed that the development of youth in conjunction with adult leadership was vital for the future of the Church of Louisville. In collaboration with The Offices of Religious Education, of many pastors and adult leaders and with the blessing of the Archbishop, Youth Ministry was adopted by almost every parish and even in neighboring dioceses.
After Father Jerry Bell was appointed the first Director of Youth Ministry and Sister Mary Eula joined him as Associate Director, this fledging ministry expanded rapidly. Sister soon became Director of this growing ministry. The catalyst was a Youth Congress in 1978 that drew 1,600 youth and adults. This was followed by succeeding Congresses in 1980, 1982, and 1984 which drew 2,400 enthusiastic participants. Nationally recognized speakers along with skilled local workshop presenters put the Archdiocese in the forefront nationally. This was achieved by collaboration with many, many persons. Focus on leadership development and opportunities for spiritual growth were vital and initiated.
Permission for a sabbatical was granted to Sister Mary Eula in 1985 and she went to Loyola in Chicago. At the end of this period of study, Sister was appointed Vocation Director for the SCN Community. Unfortunately, this was cut short and the many outreach contacts Sister made did not come to fruition.
Sister moved to Owensboro, Kentucky in 1987 to live with her mother who was ninety five and living alone. Sister became involved in advocacy work for domestic violence victims at OASIS, a safe shelter where many services were available to the victims. She set up advocacy assistance in all seven counties of the GRADD district, utilizing a trained adult who went to court with victims. After eleven years she became a case worker for Boulware Mission, a homeless shelter for drug and alcohol addicted adults (both men and women). Her work at OASIS had prepared her well for this work for she realized that in almost every case, drugs and alcohol were in some degree involved in cases of domestic violence. It was imperative that this be addressed through treatment. A competent staff of counselors provided this. Sister says these last two ministries were very rewarding. She concluded this aspect of her ministry as pastoral counselor for persons in McLean County where there were few options for help.
Her last ministry, at the invitation of the Director of Centro Latino, was to work with persons who needed to learn English as a second language. Difficulty in scheduling appointments because of the need to work and unstable living conditions brought an end to this after two years.
Sister Mary Eula was the last SCN to minister in the Owensboro Diocese. Her leaving ended almost a two hundred year presence of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Western Kentucky. To celebrate this closure, an event was planned in conjunction with celebrations across the Community commemorating the SCN Bicentennial. Sister, with the assistance of Joan Perry, a former member, who had also taught at Owensboro Catholic High for 45 years, was invaluable in planning and contacting persons who needed to be invited. Priests, Sisters, Lay leadership and representatives from all the parishes and schools where SCNs had been in ministry were sent invitations. To involve young people, topics and events important to the Community’s history were chosen and assigned to each school for students to research and depict on a poster. The posters were presented before the liturgy, thereby covering SCN history. Local dignitaries addressed the gathering. Most Reverend William F. Medley was celebrant and Reverend Patrick Reynolds, the Vicar General and former student of SCNs delivered the homily.
Following the beautiful and moving liturgy, all were invited to the undercroft for a delicious lunch catered by Frances Lewis and assistants. Special thanks were given to Mr. Jim Mattingly and Ms. Ann Flaherty. Mr. Mattingly was Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese and a former student of SCNs who taught him at Somerset, Kentucky, and Ms. Flaherty was Assistant Superintendent. Both were invaluable in contacting the schools and stirring up excitement and motivation for the event. The fact that a bus load of Sisters came from Nazareth made the celebration complete.
Justice Program 1975 was an experience that Sister will never forget. She felt so privileged to be chosen to participate in this program with thirteen other SCNs who spent two months in India. All of her time there was spent in the state of Bihar. They came in on the monsoons but they arrived to see the earth thirsty for rain and then the transformation of the country to trees bursting in bloom and flowers everywhere. She and Sister Antoinette Magistro rode high in the mountains, “six weeks away from civilization,” because the roads were all washed out and there was no way out until the rains stopped.
They stayed in the village of Mahuadanr/Kutuderi. There were many things that impressed Sister Mary Eula but she was particularly struck by the desire of the students to learn. They were so committed to learning that many walked five miles to school. Others studied every night without supervision until the electricity was shut off. Discipline was not an issue there. Sister was moved by the faith and trust of the people in their suffering and poverty. What little they had, they shared joyfully. This trip offered so many rich experiences.
As part of her responsibilities as Vocation director, Sister Mary Eula visited Belize for a month; another rich cultural experience. She gained a much better understanding of why vocation ministry would be slow moving. One of the highlights of this mission was spending time in San Antonio where she met Higinia Bol’s family. She stayed in the house where Sisters Chris and Higinia are living today.
Throughout her 26 years of living and ministering in Owensboro, Sister was active in the Diocese and in her parish, St. Lawrence. She continued her outreach efforts to get adults involved in community building and spiritual formation events. Now at the age of 82, Sister Mary Eula hopes to take advantage of all the opportunities available to her. Her desire is to find something in which she can remain productive and also give back to the community which has given so much to her.