(Sister Mary Serra and I agreed that we would collaborate on her blessed life story. I would listen, write a draft and she would rewrite or change in whatever way was agreeable to her. Her life has taken many interesting turns from a loving happy family in Illinois, in Kentucky and then Michigan to the Sisters of Mount St. Joseph in Owensboro, Kentucky and then to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. It is an SCN blessing that her path has led her here.)
Sister Mary Serra was born Diane Marie Goethals in Moline, Illinois in 1934, the second oldest of eight children of Otto August and Barbara Blasig Goethals. Diane’s maternal grandparents came to America from Europe, – her grandfather Bernard Blasig from Germany, her grandmother from Ireland. Grandmother Lillian Keaney taught immigrants in Framingham, Massachusetts. There she met and married Bernard Blasig, a stained glass painter and draftsman. They had three children – Barbara, older brother Gibson who would later die of rheumatic fever at twelve years of age in Boston and younger brother Philip, a bombardier who would be killed in World War II Sadly, the mother died of the influenza when her daughter Barbara was only six and Philip was an infant. (Barbara was given violin lessons and later played in the Davenport, Iowa Symphony Orchestra. Mary Serra thinks that Barbara’s enforced long hours of practice was her father’s way of coping with the grief of his wife’s death.) Grandfather Blasig himself was called to the U.S. Arsenal in Rock Island, IL at the beginning of World War II and moved there with Barbara and Philip.
Maurice Goethals, Otto’s father, was from a large Belgian family. Although some of his siblings would later choose to go back, Maurice brought several to America. He opened a clothing and shoe store in Moline, IL with an apartment above the store. Maurice had two sisters who entered the Beguines order in Bruges, Belgium. (Interestingly, in 1983, Mary Serra met members of this order, several of whom knew her great aunts. They presented her with monetary gifts which she tried to decline, but later learned that the Beguines do not make a vow of poverty.)
In 1931 Barbara Blasig and Otto Goethals met at a party in Rock Island, IL. Otto subsequently made frequent visits to the University of Illinois in Champagne, IL to visit Barbara. Because she wasn’t sure her father Bernard would approve of her becoming a Catholic, in 1932 Barbara and Otto married in the Campus chapel without his knowing. Happily, he did not object when he was told.
(Barbara made her First Holy Communion at their wedding Mass. She and Otto made the apartment above the Goethals store their first home.)
In 1933 their first child, Paul, was born. Then, in the following years came Diane, Jim, Sylvia, Kathleen, Mary Ann, Jack and Cate(Catherine), with over twenty years between the oldest and youngest. Diane herself was twenty-one and a religious sister when Cate was born.
Otto built a home for his family in Moline. Diane/ Mary Serra remembers their happy home with a yard, a few fruit trees and a small World War II “Victory” garden. She has memories of sledding down their front lawn in winters and the Sunday walks their father took with the children. The family had no car but on his walks with his children, Otto would point out differences in various trees and let them pick berries. There might even be an ice cream treat on the way. This helped give their busy mother Barbara a time of rest and peace.
Diane’s mother was so very kind to the homeless, always ready to fix a sandwich and a glass of lemonade for those who stopped by the side door. Another happy family memory is that whenever Grandpa Goethals would stop by on his daily walks Barbara would have a glass of lemonade for him to enjoy. When he and Otto visited together they would speak in Flemish.
Saturdays were Otto’s days to cook and he made very good soup from the week’s leftovers.. Other special memories are of her mother’s seamstress friend who made the Goethals girls dresses and suits alike when holidays came around. Diane enjoyed being out of doors and was not always present for domestic chores as her mother would have wished. Her brothers, father and she would sometimes take part in a Sunday ball game. One time a football she threw hit her Dad and caused him to fall against a pole and to be knocked out – not such a happy memory.
Mary Serra remembers her father’s taking Paul and herself to an early Mass at Sacred Heart Church during October and May. At Thanksgiving they took a turkey to the Sisters. One day Diane said to her father after seeing the joy and kindliness of the Sisters,” Dad, I’m going to be one of those.” Her religious vocation was coming to life.
The family moved to Louisville, Kentucky when Diane was thirteen, following the Dad who had moved the year before because of his work at International Harvester. The house that Otto was having built for the family was not yet completed. They stayed at the Brown Hotel downtown for ten days …a fun time of riding elevators and going to the nearby movies. Barbara assisted Otto in everything connected with the new house since she had studied home design during her college days.
Diane loved Louisville. She was enrolled at St. James School where the Ursuline Sisters of Maple Mount, KY taught. She was at St. James for the seventh and eighth grades , enjoying school but admits being a talker. With some of the boys in the class, she served many detention hours after school. Diane continued her piano lessons which she had taken since third grade. When it was time for high school, Diane says, “ Most of my classmates went to Presentation Academy but I was enrolled at Sacred Heart Academy for my freshmen year because it gave me a convenient ride with a neighbor’s daughters. There I again enjoyed school and was involved in sports – basketball and field hockey. We had our first car in Louisville. All of us would pile in to enjoy rides together. A later fun memory is that our little sister Mary Ann had an imaginary playmate named ‘Sally.’ Even as crowded as we were in that car, we had to make room for Sally.”
Otto decided not to accept an International Harvester position in Chicago. Instead he made the decision to go into the foundry business for himself. Mary Serra shares, “When he informed us, I was so grieved because it meant that we needed to move to Michigan. I locked myself in my room and refused to come out because I was so sad.” The family moved to Sturgis, MI where Otto went into business for himself, starting a foundry making castings for motors. Diane reminisces, ” My father understood why I was so sad and conferred with my mother about finding another Catholic high school for me. They discovered and enrolled me in Nazareth Academy, Nazareth, Michigan, fifty miles away from Sturgis and I loved it there just as I had loved Louisville.”
The Goethals family had plans to move into a large home, formerly a boarding house. “ Again we lived in a hotel while our house was being renovated. I’m sure my mother hated to see me go away to Nazareth Academy. I knew she would miss my being at home to help with some of the house work,” Diane mentions this with a smile, remembering that housework was not always her preference. Diane’s father hired an Amish woman to help Barbara with washing and cleaning.
Diane was only able to remain at Nazareth Academy for her sophomore year. Her mother was not well and Diane was needed at home. She attended Sturgis High School for her junior year. It was not an easy year with this being her third school in three years and having to attend a religious education program that was not really adequate. Diane worked at a Sturgis shoe store after school and during two summers. Her joy was great when, before her senior year, the Sisters from Nazareth Academy called and offered a scholarship. Diane’s parents told her, “We have prayed and believe that it would be of benefit for you to return and complete your senior year there.”
It was there that she met and worked with beloved Sister Bernard Maria, SSJ, who asked if Diane had ever considered being a religious. After some serious conversations together, Sister arranged for her to be interviewed by the Mother Superior. Diane asked about being able to bring her class ring with her to the novitiate. The strong, stern “No, my dear”, let Diane know that this St. Joseph Congregation was not for her. It did confirm her desire to become a religious.
When friends or relatives asked about her plans after high school, Diane replied that she was considering Brescia College in Owensboro, KY. In the meanwhile, she made an appointment with the parish priest, She shared that she felt she was called to religious life and needed to make a choice of a community. She thought of the religious communities she had known from school or religious education – the Franciscans, the Maple Mount Ursulines ,the Louisville Ursulines, the Dominicans and the Sisters of St. Joseph. He supported her choice to write to the Maple Mount Community to request entrance into their novitiate. After receiving her letter of acceptance, she made her preparations. Diane’s very supportive parents drove her to Owensboro, KY, stopping for a farewell meal of hamburgers and milkshakes with a little juke box music for enjoyment.
Diane entered the Maple Mount Ursuline novitiate on September 8, 1952. There were twenty-five young women in her novitiate class and on August 14, 1953 Diane received the habit and the name Sister Mary Serra.
(When this interviewer asked about her choice of a name, Mary Serra replied that she hoped to teach American Indians. Bishop Francis Cotton of Owensboro assured her that even if Father Junipero Serra was not yet canonized the name was a good one, and he approved. As we know Father Serra has now been canonized by Pope Francis.)
Novitiate life was not difficult for Serra, and she found herself busy and happy. She wanted to be the best she could be, whether her duties were in the dairy or bakery or “big” kitchen. In a sincere effort toward goodness Diane devoured works of Trappist Thomas Merton. Louis Everly was another favorite author.
(Many of us who entered religious life can recall that powerful fervor that took over as we strove to imitate holy lives near us that we saw or read about)
Mary Serra made first vows on August 15, 1955. She rejoiced that her parents and siblings were all able to be present. She was assigned to St. Andrew’s School in Harrodsburg, KY. Although she remained there only one and a half years, she remembers the very kind pastor, Father Julian Pank. The next year Mary Serra was missioned to Vine Grove, KY where she taught the sixth grade at St. Brigid School. It was not an easy year for Mary Serra but she did everything possible to create an atmosphere of peaceful, creative learning for the children.
Mary Serra’s next missions were San Fidel, New Mexico for six years and Farmington, also New Mexico for one year. In those schools she taught Native American children, a call she had felt for many years and one that that had helped her select her religious name. She loved to share the blessings of these missions with Mother Ambrose Martin, who had just finished serving in central leadership in the Maple Mount Community. These missions to the Native American people give Serra many happy memories.
Mary Serra was next missioned in Louisville, KY as principal at St. Bernard School, a new school in the Archdiocese. There were challenges right away. She was not involved in the hiring of teachers, there was no secretary and there were no desks until November. Besides these situations , Mary Serra taught fulltime and there was new math on the curriculum. Although only twenty-eight years old, Serra managed this ministry well and remained there seven years. It was during these years that she earned her Masters degree in Education at Spalding College/University.
Mary Serra shared an important lesson that came to her during this time. A difficult situation arose and she handled it as she thought best. One parent called and had strong complaints about the treatment her child had received from a teacher. When Mary Serra talked to her wise father about it and the upset it caused, he replied,” How many families? Over 200 families in your school and only one called! Is that not a lesson to you!”
1971 marks the beginning of a different path in Serra’s life. She had hoped to direct a grant program from Spalding University. When the grant to fund the program did not come through, Sister Frances Loretto Yowalski telephoned Mary Serra and said that she and Dr. Dick Walsh had a position for her that fall semester. They asked if Mary Serra would work with them for a semester in the Education Department at Spalding College, now University, and supervise student teachers. In January, 1972 Sister Anna Marie Trance, OSU, Chair of the Education Department, offered Serra a position at Bellarmine College, now University, also supervising student teachers.
Vatican II Council had a tremendous impact on religious communities. Mary Serra and the women with whom she worked and lived were influenced and heartened by the promise of updating their theology and practices in religious life. It was a time for broadening one’s horizon. Promise was in the air. Everywhere Sisters were meeting and sharing their insights from readings and conferences. In the Archdiocese of Louisville there were several parishes which had priests, knowledgeable about the teachings of Vatican II, who gave presentations related to the Council. Serra remembers their names – Fathers Frank Eimer, Charles McDonald, Joseph Voor She also remembers that she and other Sisters attended all of these weekly sessions at St.Rita Parish. Serra was invited by Fr. Voor to be on a committee of priests who developed guidelines for the Archdiocesan Parish Councils. This was a special honor.
A group of Maple Mount Sisters – eager, enthusiastic, educated young religious, inspired by the directives of Vatican II, received approval from OSU, MSJ leadership to form a collaborative community’ Their hope was to practice and begin to live out the initiatives of Vatican II
Regretfully, the OSU leadership withdrew permission after one year not understanding how this group could modify their religious life following the direction of Vatican II. After several meetings the collaborative community group was asked to disband and take positions in Louisville OSU Schools.
Meanwhile, Serra and the other Sisters had contact with other religious communities in the Archdiocese – particularly the Sisters of Loretto and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth – who were moving forward in their desire and efforts to implement the new direction of Vatican II. It was apparent to the members of the group that to be true to themselves a decision needed to be made. Should they return to their religious community and go back to older ways or were there other options?
Serra shares, “Several of us decided it was time to meet with a canon lawyer. I was one of the five who flew to Toledo, Ohio for a scheduled meeting to learn what options were available to us as vowed religious. The priest/ canon lawyer encouraged us to seek a religious community that was aligned with our hopes and desires to live out Vatican II.”
The group researched religious communities who were able to move forward with greater flexibility. Five made an appointment with Sister Barbara Thomas, SCN, who had a background in canon law. Conversations began with her about the process of becoming SCNs. Letters needed to be sent to Maple Mount asking to withdraw and to Rome asking for dispensation.
For Serra that letter of dispensation came while she and Sister Rose Howard were in graduate school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. At a Mass in St. St. Mary Orphanage, an SCN ministry, she signed the dispensation letter and immediately afterward signed her vows as an SCN. Final vows were later made in the Bellarmine University chapel.
Again Serra recalls, “Living out Vatican II initiatives was very heartwarming. For thirty eight years Rose (Howard) and I lived in a home close to Bellarmine. For many of those years other SCNs were with us. Sister Mary Jane Hutchins lived with us for 12 years, Sister Marylee King for 17 years. Those two are remembered as the most pleasant, understanding and encouraging community members one could want. Rose and I were also privileged to have live with us many of our young Sisters from India who were sent to the States for study. It was our happy task to assist and guide them as they completed their studies.”
Since 1972 Serra had been on the faculty at Bellarmine University as Assistant Professor. To become a full faculty member Serra needed to complete a doctoral degree, which she did over three summers and a semester residency at Peabody College of Education, now of Vanderbilt University, This was an experience – “difficult but exhilarating”. In 1975 Serra was asked to assume the Chair of the Education Department. In the years that followed Serra led the Department to establish a Masters of Education program and two national accreditations in 1994 and 2000. It was after the latter that Serra decided it was time to retire. Serra had always loved teaching, study, research, interaction with other educators, guiding student teachers. The ministry at Bellarmine had given this natural inclination of Serra full measure of completion.
Upon retirement Serra received approval for a four month study sabbatical at the University of Louvain, Belgium, the homeland of her paternal grandfather. While there she visited close relatives.
In Spring, 2003 she explored the artistic bent of her Goethals/Blasig ancestry by taking classes in the Bellarmine Art Department. Serra happily completed six canvases. (Sadly, in downsizing Serra let those pieces go when she moved into the SCN Apartments.)
After General Assembly 2003 Serra was asked by Central Leadership to assume the Secretary/ Treasurer position for the Congregation until 2008. In that role Serra worked with a Committee whose members would be writing the history of the Congregation from 1912 through 1980. She also assisted Sister Margaret Maria Coon in completing a manuscript on Mother Catherine Spalding, and Sister Collette Baran in finishing a manuscript on Mother Emerentiana Handlovits. Later she would become Chair of the Publications Committee entrusted with the editing of the manuscripts of the history of the Congregation (1912-1980).
Presently Serra is a trustee on the Board of Spalding University, a member of the SCN Investment Advisory Committee, a visitor at Nazareth Home, a lector at Masses at Nazareth Home and the Cathedral of the Assumption. She loves reading, traveling, walking, enjoying the out of doors, the walking downtown bridge a favorite place.
(Serra’s story, as are other stories of the courageous religious women who have transferred to our SCN, Congregation, is to be remembered and admired. The call to religious life is in itself an act of faith and loving response. Then, to be called beyond your present ‘home’…… to put your life with another group, another place, to be asked to trust again. What courage and faith!)
Sister Maria V. Brocato, SCN