Interviewed by Paschal Maria Fernicola, SCN
On April 1, 1923, a chubby baby girl was born to Laurence Vail and Magdalena Noll Brennan. One week later, this auburn-haired child was baptized Catherine Esther at St. Mary’s Cathedral Church in Covington, KY. She was named Catherine after her father’s only sister who died tragically at the age of seventeen and Esther because she was born on Easter Sunday. Occasionally her father called her Katie while the rest of her family members preferred Esther.
Esther was preceded by two sisters, Mary Margaret and Ruth Magdalena and followed by Nora Mae (Nonnie), then came two brothers, Laurence Vail and William Daniel Lee Patrick. They, in turn, welcomed Theresa Martina and Angela Patricia. Thus the Brennan clan consisted of mother, father and eight siblings.
Unknown to me, Esther, were my maternal grandparents from Alsace Lorraine. Later in life, I learned that Grandpa Noll had built houses. On my father’s side, his mother, Kate Vail, was also unknown to me. Grandmother Kate came from County Cork, Ireland to Boston. From there, she came to Kentucky where she met and married Grandpa Brennan, also from County Cork.
Grandma Kate was the Irish matriarch of Covington. The Irish settlers came to her with their problems. She also helped spearhead the drive to build the cathedral in Covington. As a reward for her efforts, Bishop Maes gave her a beautiful, expensive Bible which the family treasured.
Grandpa Brennan was a familiar figure. Often he would dance the Irish Jig and play his violin.
My father was an engineer on the L & N Railroad. My mom was a stay-at-home-mom. Our family was a peaceful and happy one. I never heard my parents argue. My mother was completely selfless. She lovingly devoted her whole life to her children. My father often gathered us children in the evenings and told interesting, made-up stories that had moral lessons. Often he would ask if we had prayed our morning and evening prayers.
My father belonged to the Knights of Columbus and the Holy Name Society. When his daughters became older, he encouraged them to join and participate in Our Lady’s Sodality.
My childhood was carefree and happy. With my sister, Nonnie, and the neighborhood children, we played the usual childhood games. Flying kites, playing marbles and jumping rope (single and double Dutch) were favorite pastimes too.
When the weather was inclement, we would play pick-up-sticks, jacks and cards indoors. On rainy days, my mother would buy five cents worth of candy – a large bag full in those days! We would play cards all afternoon. The winner of each game would receive a piece of candy. Thus began my life-long love of cards!
During my growing years, I was no “Goody-Two-Shoes”. Along with my sisters, Ruth and Nonnie, and Marian Haney, I would get into mischief and play tricks on people. My parents knew none of this and would have thoroughly disapproved.
Formal education began when I entered first grade at St. Mary Cathedral School. I received a solid education from the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. At the end of eight years, a scholarship to La Salette Academy was awarded to me.
One memory stands out during my elementary schooling; all students were required to attend a solemn High Mass at 9:00 a.m. at the Cathedral on Sundays. By the time Mass was over, it was 11:00 o’clock when I got home. After lunch I had to return to school for more catechism lessons from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. Then I went across the street to the Cathedral for Solemn Vespers and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament which lasted until 4:00 p.m. I accepted this regimen as normal.
High school followed my grade school pattern as I studiously applied myself. La Salette had a custom that any student who made a 90 or higher grade in any subject did not have to take semester or yearly exams. During my four years there, I never took any of these exams!
Every afternoon when school was out, my best friend and I would often go to a five-and-dime store to buy ribbon for our hair – a fad in those days, or go to Pilgers for some good, home-made candy. My friend’s brother-in-law owned several movie theaters. Every Friday night, we watched two free movies.
Upon graduating, I won three medals; for being first in Religion and English, and for having the highest grade average. I received scholarships to Villa Madanna College and to Our Lady of Mercy College in Cincinnati, Ohio. As I was thinking of entering Religious Life, I declined the scholarships.
During the summer, I taught myself typing and short-hand. Hired as a secretary, I worked for a year to pay for my postulant clothes and Novitiate entrance fees.
On September 24, 1942, I entered the Novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. For the first three months I cried every day for being so homesick. Being very naïve, I took everything too seriously.
After six months, I received the name Mary Patricia, and on March 25, 1944, I made my first vows. As was the norm in those days, I was sent to teach the third grade at Blessed Mother School in Owensboro, KY. In the summers, I continued my college education at Brescia College. My first mission lasted nine years. The majority of the time, I found the superior and principal to be difficult.
In August 1953, a thin letter sent me to St. Raphael School in Hyde Park, MA. Thirty-nine Sisters resided in the Convent. I made friends with the younger members. This mission afforded me the opportunity to attend Boston College.
At St. Raphael, students were divided according to gender – all girls in one class and all boys in another. The classes were large, sometimes numbering in the sixties. I was assigned to teach the eighth-grade girls, many of whom won scholarships to the local high schools.
Another thin letter came in August 1964. Teaching the eighth grade at St. Joseph School in Bardstown, KY was my new assignment.
After three years there, I was asked to be Master Teacher for a year, for four SCNs who were beginning their teaching career. This assignment was a challenge as these young Sisters were extremely bright and very creative.
Following this experiment, Mother Lucille called me to her office and told me she was appointing me principal at Holy Family School in Louisville, KY. Three years later in 1971, I was asked to be one of the Supervisors at the Catholic School Office in Louisville, KY. There were 120 Catholic schools in the district. I had the responsibility for thirty of them along the Dixie Highway, Radcliffe, Muldraugh and Elizabethtown.
At this time, I was staying at St. Agnes Convent and was privileged to know Sr. Mary Terence. She was beautiful inside and out. Fun-loving, spiritual, generous, community-minded, inclusive of others, enduring cancer without bitterness, she was an inspiration to everyone. So was Sr. Luke’s devotion and care for Sr. Mary Terence in her illness.
A funny occurrence happened one day when Sr. Luke was taking a bath. Passing by, I heard her singing. Quickly I got my tape recorder. At supper, I told the Sisters they were going to be surprised with some beautiful music. I pushed the button on the recorder and Sr. Luke’s off-key yodeling poured out. Exclaiming, “Big Red”, she chased me through the convent!
In 1975, my mother’s health was fast declining. So after five years, I resigned as Supervisor and went to live in Covington near her.
Sr. Janet Bamberger contacted me to teach at La Salette. I accepted and taught Freshman Homeroom and Social Studies to Juniors. Two years later in 1977, the school closed. I saw this as an opportunity to become a nurse. I wanted to take care of our elder Sisters after I retired from teaching. At fifty-five, I started my nursing career. My Master’s Degree helped when taking the State Boards. Little did I realize that I had to practice nursing or lose my credentials. So I worked five years at St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, KY. Working eight hours a day, taking turns cooking the evening meal and joining in community prayers left little time for personal prayer and contemplation. Discerning with the Provincial about this, I left St. Joseph’s in 1984 and was appointed to work with Sr. Pat Worley in the Vocation Office. Sr. Pat was great – pleasant, agreeable and understanding. It was with reluctance, then, when after six months, my Provincial asked me to go to Nazareth as a nurse.
In 1985, I became one of the coordinators with Srs. June Monaghan and Rita Spalding. It was a harmonious relationship – we worked together beautifully.
In 1988 with community membership declining at Nazareth, there was no need for three coordinators. So I agreed to become a full-time nurse only.
Although I was on call 24/7, these nine years at Nazareth were happy ones. I loved the Sisters. Their humility and prayerfulness were impressive and inspirational. As the Sisters aged, I realized that one nurse could not attend to their growing needs. I resigned and three lay nurses were hired.
I went for a three months sabbatical on Centering Prayer in September 1994, at Concordia, Kansas after I left Nazareth. On returning, I joined the community at St. Thomas Moore in Louisville, but we soon had to leave since the pastor wanted to use the convent as offices. The three of us, Srs. Mary James Corey, David Clare Reasbeck and I moved to Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Convent at the invitation of the Sisters there. For me, this began a twenty-year ministry of driving infirm Sisters to doctors, dentists and occasional shopping. I helped at Candy-for-Caring, was on the Presence Committee at Nazareth Home for Sisters in the dying process, procured necessary supplies for convent living, was treasurer and annalist.
On our first arrival at Sts. Mary and Elizabeth’s we brought the membership there to twelve. Through the coming few years, this group decreased until there were only four remaining – Srs. Alfreda Crantz, David Clare Reasbeck, Mary James Corey and I.
These Sisters had a lasting impact on me. Sr. Alfreda did so by her faithfulness to duties as sacristan, by her ready response to any hospital emergency and her willingness to provide care when one was not feeling well.
Sr. David Clare, by her out-going personality, helped me become more sociable. Both she and Mary James impressed me with their unbelievable generosity, love for the poor, and ready helpfulness to those in need. Their example increased my own generosity!
Declining health was a deciding factor in my return to Nazareth. As always, the Sisters here show loving concern for each other. Much of my day is spent in prayer and short visits with my Sister-neighbors here in Carrico Hall. At night, I enjoy cards and reading. Life at Nazareth is peaceful, prayerful and happy. I’m so grateful for more prayer time. Each day I thank God for his goodness and kindness. I often say to myself, “In Him I live and move and have my being.”