Growing up in the shadow of the church had a great impact on my formative years. Born at home directly across the street from our parish church, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, I was literally in its shadow. St. Elizabeth was the heart of the Schnitzelburg neighborhood, a German-American enclave in Louisville, Kentucky.
My father, Urban Knabel, grew up on a farm just outside of Louisville and attended a one-room school. After finishing eighth grade, he was encouraged to go to a boarding school in Lexington for high school. The family did not have the funds to support that, so Dad had to work on the farm even though his desire was to continue with his schooling.
After serving in France during World War I, he returned to Louisville to live with his parents above Knabel’s Grocery store owned by my grandfather John Knabel. Dad worked for Wells Fargo and later for Railway Express as a financial clerk.
My mother, Theresa Kiesler, was born in Lanesville, a small town in the hills of southern Indiana. In her parish school all classes were taught in German which was difficult for her as her family spoke English at home. When she was nine, the Kiesler family moved to Louisville where her father, Valentine, a wagon maker, tried to find work. Valentine soon became very sick and died at a young age. His wife, Mary Elizabeth, found herself a widow with seven children to support. She took in washing, which was back-breaking work, and the older boys found jobs. The Salvation Army came to her aid several times to help provide food for her growing family.
Upon finishing eighth grade at Holy Name School, my Mom attended Commercial College at St. Helena’s where she was trained in typing and office work which helped her to find a job with the Peasley Gaulbert Company. She may have been in the first graduating class in 1914. She was so proud of her schooling at St. Helena and loved the sisters there. Little did she know that one day her daughter would become one of them.
Mom and her younger sister, Margaret, were members of the St. Helena Cooperative Club for Business Girls. The two were part of the group who came to Nazareth for a picnic in late August, 1917. They traveled in battery-powered vehicles called “electric trucks,” which were in vogue at the time.
My parents met through mutual friends and married in June 1922. They built their home on Burnett Avenue down the street from Urban’s parents who still lived in the rooms behind what is now Check’s Café. Their family grew to include eight children: Mary Elizabeth, Urbie, Eddie, Dorothy, Albert, Margie, Theresa and Agnes. They did all they could to provide a Catholic education and were determined that all their children would finish high school. They bought war bonds saving them to pay tuition for our schooling at St. Xavier High School, Ursuline Academy and Mercy Academy.
I was the seventh child, born on September 8, 1936, the feast of the Blessed Mother. My mother wanted to name me after Mary but we already had a Mary Elizabeth, so I was given my mother’s name, Theresa Marie.
Living so close to the church had many blessings and a few disadvantages, as we thought Father Zahner was always watching. That was just our perception as I now know the priests had many more things to worry about than what the Knabel kids were up to. We were awakened each morning with the Angelus bells at 6:00 a.m. We heard the bells again at noon and 6:00 p.m. This greatly upset our two beagle dogs who howled mercilessly, which did not endear us to the neighbors.
Being so close to the church meant we were called upon to help out – my brothers serving Mass and the girls helping in the sacristy and singing at daily Mass.
On my sixth birthday, I began my schooling at St. Elizabeth. I was a shy little thing, but even then, by fourth grade I had the courage to ask Sister why girls could not be altar servers or priests. I don’t remember the answer, but I do remember that it did not satisfy me. I wanted to learn to play the piano, but we did not have the fifty cents a week for lessons. I soon learned that I did not have the talent for it either.
Our back yard was our playground. We had a long grape arbor which provided a wonderful space for our active imaginations. It was a playhouse, a school room, a fort and anything else we wanted it to be. When the grapes were plentiful, my sister Margie and I would load up our little red wagon with grapes to sell in the neighborhood. The money collected was given to Mom who rewarded each of us with a nickel. A nickel may not sound like much, but at that time it could buy a double dip ice cream cone.
Following eighth-grade graduation in 1950, I attended Mercy Academy. I can still sing our school song with great pride: “Mercy, we’re singing to you.” The travel to and from school each day was actually enjoyable as we girls would gather at the back of the city bus with the boys who were going to St. Xavier, sharing much talk and laughter.
Our high school did not have much in the way of sports in those days. I was part of a bowling team called the Gutter Dusters along with my sister, Margie. The name suited us well and it was no surprise that we never won any trophies.
My father died on Easter Monday when I was a junior and my young heart was devastated.
Within two days of my high school graduation, I began work as a bookkeeper with the Willett Lumber Company, a wholesale lumber company with offices in the Starks Building in downtown Louisville. I liked being in the midst of the city with all its activities. For our morning break, the women of the office would walk across the street to the Seelbach Hotel to enjoy our morning coffee. When the horses were in town, my boss would often send me to the corner of 4th and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali) to buy a racing form for him. (That was the same corner where Thomas Merton had his epiphany of seeing everyone in a new light.) On Derby Day we had the added bonus of good seats for the races provided by our company – giving us a chance to dress up and have a good time.
Since the Cathedral was just one block from my office, I often attended Mass there. The building next to it housed The Record, our Archdiocesan weekly publication, and included a lending library. It was from here that I borrowed a book that changed my life. I read Up From Slavery, the autobiography of Booker T. Washington. That opened my eyes to the cruelty of slavery and racism. This new sensitivity led me to want to do something about it and to dedicate my life to that effort.
Good times were not enough for me, however, as I was drawn to religious life. For years I had been resisting the call, but by age 20, I knew I had to say yes. I broke up with my boyfriend and prepared for Nazareth. On January 18, 1957, I entered the Novitiate with six other women, only four of whom persevered to vows. A life-long friendship began with another postulant, Janice Campbell.
During the early days of my postulant year, I was assigned to clean the church. In my initial ardor I found meaning in Psalm 84, “I would rather be an abject in the house of my God than to dwell in the tabernacle of sinners.” (Old translation.) In contemporary language, my translation: “I would rather be the cleaning lady in the house of my God, than a princess in the palace of the wicked.”
The Novitiate was a challenging time for me as I tried to conform to convent living with the strict rules, times of silence and early bedtime. There was a comradery among us as we were all experiencing the same difficulties. This was also a time of great blessings as we were taught to pray and to live the religious life. As we became novices, we were allowed to submit three names, one of which might be given to us as our new religious name. My first choice was Sister Mary Claver after St. Peter Claver, the Apostle to the Enslaved arriving on ships in Columbia, South America. I kept the name until the late 1960s when we were permitted to reclaim our baptismal names. I was grateful to become Theresa again after being called Sister Mary Clover, Mary Clever and Mary Cleaver.
My three classmates and I professed our first vows on December 8, 1959. Following vows, we joined the Junior Professed Sisters while we continued our studies. In the fall of 1960, some of us were assigned as teachers at St. Joseph School in nearby Bardstown, even though we were not quite prepared.
It was a constant struggle keeping one day ahead of the students in preparing for multiple subjects from the basic three “r’s” to history, geography, science and art. And of course, the Catechism. I felt a special bond with my sixth-grade students as they were so eager to learn and taught me as much as I taught them. At the end of the year, they presented me with a gift and a “Teaching Certificate.” I valued that more than the official one I received from the state later.
While studying at Nazareth College during the summer of 1961, I received a “thin letter” from Mother Lucille assigning me to St. Matthias School in Columbus, Ohio. I was placed with the sixth graders again which made me happy until I learned it was a double classroom with seventy-five students. I did have an aide to help me, but she was new to the job, so there was much preparation needed for each day.
Four years later another thin letter assigned me to Little Flower School in Memphis. It was a much smaller school with fewer resources. This was where I first learned to drive through lessons from AAA. As I was the only driver in the house, much of my time was needed to drive the older sisters to doctors’ appointments. This was important work, but not the ministry I always envisioned.
After two years in Memphis, I was transferred to Sacred Heart Academy in Helena, Arkansas. I had barely turned 31, when I was appointed Superior of the house and Principal of the school. That was challenging enough, but I was also directed to close the Academy and work with the pastor at St. Mary’s to open a parish school. That was a quite a task for a new principal and made even more difficult as Helena was so isolated from all our other schools. Every phone call to another school was a long-distance call. (We had to watch those pennies; you know.) The nearest convent was in Clarksdale, on the other side of the Mississippi River, requiring a trip across the toll bridge costing $1.00 each way. (In today’s currency that would be an $18.00 round-trip.)
A very interesting thing happened while we were at Sacred Heart. A Hollywood movie producer was in town searching for an ante-bellum home to use as a movie locale. He visited us to see if our school building would serve for a film they were making. They needed an historic building which looked authentic for a movie set in the 1850s. Although our place was old enough, it was not chosen as too many changes had been made over the years, but it was fun to think about.
It was there that we learned that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in Memphis. We had to cancel a class field trip to the city planned for the next day. It was a frightening time. I remember inviting the son of our lunch room cook to visit my classroom. He was an intelligent young African American man who looked striking in his Air Force uniform. I wanted the students to see a Black man who could command respect. My seventh and eighth grade students had many questions for him and especially wanted to understand the Black Power movement. Later, I received calls from concerned parents, and feared we might find a cross burning on our front lawn. Thankfully, that did not happen.
By 1970, we could choose our own ministries, and I had decided I wanted to return to Louisville to be near my family as my mother was aging. It was not to be, as I was asked by our Provincial, Sister Virginia Louise, to go St. Michael School in Memphis where I taught seventh and eighth grade religion and math. That proved to be a very good experience and one of my favorite schools. Sister Barbara Spencer was Principal and I served as Vice-Principal. We worked well together and became fast friends. I still occasionally hear from some of those students. There was, however, sadness mixed in as my mother died unexpectedly in 1973, and I was not there with her.
In the early 1970s our community was making a great effort to work and educate for justice. I very much wanted to work with African American students and, in 1973, I applied for a position with St. Patrick Church in downtown Memphis. I tutored ninth grade students in the public school system helping them to succeed in their studies and stay in school. Summer classes were held for them and activities provided such as outings for swimming and picnics. These young people came from the poorest homes in the city, living in public housing. I remember feeling so deprived of beauty that in the springtime I would drive to east Memphis to see the beautiful tulips, azaleas and dogwood trees. The people who lived in the inner city did not have that same opportunity.
Sister Barbara Spencer and I, along with Sister Elizabeth Miles, OP, rented a home near the church so we could live among our people. We were surrounded by housing projects which were not safe places to be. We often saw drug dealers on the street and young women working in the sex trade on every corner. Occasionally we heard gunfire. We made friends with some of our neighbors, and it was interesting to see how they responded when we planted flowers in our yard. We soon saw hanging baskets of flowers on some of their porches, all helping to beautify the neighborhood a little at a time.
I soon became more active in the church teaching religious education and heading Vacation Bible School as well as our usual summer school classes.
By 1980, I had moved to North Little Rock, Arkansas, where I was pastoral assistant at St. Augustine, a Black parish, working primarily in religious education for children and adults. Under the leadership of our new pastor, the parish formed a gospel choir where we swayed to the gospel music and sang our hearts out to hymns like, “Soon and very soon, we’re going to see the King…” We also ministered at a small rural parish, Holy Trinity, in England, Arkansas which the pastor and I visited twice a week. The people in each of the churches were warm and friendly, and I became very close to them.
Four years later, I was called back to Nazareth to work in the finance office at SCN Center. It was a joy to work with Sister Mary Reisz, and I learned so much from her. She was responsible for developing Nazareth Village II and asked me to assist her in this endeavor. I always said it was from God, as that project had so many chances to die, but with the help of Bob French we always found another door open to keep the project alive. After much strategizing and a very complicated mix of grants, loans and financing, Nazareth Village II became a reality with forty-five apartments for elderly and disabled persons. It remains filled to this day.
Another life-changing experience was the opportunity to travel to India as part of our Global Exchange Program. I remember the thrill of my first sight of Mokama, the founding place of our Indian Mission. Although it was a place so very different for me, it was home because the sisters were warm and welcoming. They were so kind to me as they knew I was suffering from the intense summer heat. What a wonderful opportunity to meet so many sisters with whom I have maintained a long-distance friendship.
Since I had served as a board member for St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock for several years, I became interested in working in health care. I began my work at the hospital in Out Patient Registration, then after a year, became manager at St. Vincent Health Clinic East, an off-campus facility in East Little Rock, an area we would call a “healthcare desert” today. That was very difficult as I was ill-prepared for health care ministry. It was on the-job-training. There was such a great need that I did not mind all the hard work. A bonus of those years was the gospel choir formed among the very talented African American employees at the hospital. We sang at hospital events and, often on Sunday afternoons we entered choir concerts singing the rich spirituals of Black heritage.
Following this, I felt the need for a break and requested a sabbatical which the community granted. I was privileged to participate in the Israel Fall Study program through Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. We spent three months in the Middle East mostly in the Jerusalem area. I stayed at the Passionist Monastery in Bethany within walking distance of the Old City. The gospels came alive for me and, even now, I can visualize the places named in the scripture readings. That opportunity has greatly enriched my spiritual life.
Meanwhile, an ever-present danger of being unemployed even for a short time, is you are viewed as available for the next work that needs to be done. And that, I suppose, is how I was chosen to lead the Space Study of Nazareth to learn what was needed for our aging Sisters and for ministry. After a year of study of all the buildings and grounds, I was asked to lead the renovation project of three very large buildings. The project involved demolishing the old infirmary and building the new Carrico Hall. One memorable moment was the use of a wrecking ball to take down the old walls. This drew quite a crowd of observers – from a safe distance – to watch the eighty-year-old operator swing that ball. The next phase was the renovation of the Motherhouse and O’Connell Hall including adding central air for the first time. These were years of work and worry, but in the end all is well.
Following this, I was elected as part of the Province Team for the newly formed Western Province encompassing the whole United States. I served as Vice-Provincial along with Provincial, Susan Gatz, and Vice-Provincial Eleanor Martin. The challenges brought us close together and we are still very good friends.
The stint in leadership earned for me another six-month sabbatical, this time in Leuven, Belgium at the American College Seminary where I had the opportunity to audit classes at
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The classes included Liberation Theologies and Islam and Christianity among others. Free time was filled with exploring the wonderful museums and cathedrals of Europe. This was a dream come true. And I gained long-lasting friendships as well.
My three nieces joined me for a side trip to the little German village of Buttlar, the home of my Great Grandfather, George Kiesler, who emigrated in the 1840’s. We were delighted to find distant relatives still living in the original half-stone house.
Back at home, I learned that community leadership made the sad decision to take down Russell Hall due to its many structural, mechanical and electrical issues. I was asked to lead the effort to deconstruct the building in an eco-friendly way. With the able assistance of Sister Susan Gatz, we managed to recycle or reuse a very large percentage of the building and its contents. Very little went to waste and landfills. The land was restored to its original contours making our resident deer very happy.
When the Congregation began planning for the 200th anniversary of our foundation in 1812, Sister Susan Gatz, as Vice President, was asked to lead the planning for our SCN Bicentennial. I had the privilege of working with her as part of a committee to plan monthly activities throughout the year of 2012. It was a major undertaking but ever so enjoyable and memorable. One part of that was designing the monument dedicated in gratitude to our enslaved families at Nazareth. The dedication, itself, was memorable, with nearly 200 present, some of whom were descendants of our families. Sculpture artist, Ed Hamilton, was with us for the occasion.
Since that time, I have worked on many committees for the Congregation, and have served on boards for four of our former hospitals and for St. Vincent Collaborative in Pittsburgh. Even now, I am privileged to serve on several committees that I believe make a difference and feel very blessed to be active in this limited way.
I have learned so much through our Ecological Sustainability Committee and am thrilled to see the many ways we have improved Nazareth by being more sensitive to the environment we share with wildlife on our land and by nurturing the earth with the planting of trees and wild flowers. Nazareth is, indeed, a beautiful place to enjoy God’s creation.
Now, in my later years, I enjoy the privilege of living at beautiful Nazareth and taking advantage of many opportunities for enrichment. Being a member of our church choir has enhanced my prayer at liturgy.
I am so grateful to God for my call to religious life as I have experienced much joy over these years. And I am grateful to my sisters in the SCN community for accepting me and challenging me to continual growth.
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