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Baptism by horseback

Sister Marceline Mattingly on her baptism day, Jan. 6, 1916.

One never knows what lunch conversation in Providence dining room will bring! Since I first started dining with Sisters of Providence in 2012, I have experienced lunch conversations that range from the weather to the prison industrial complex to “When I was a novice…” and beyond. This week, I was enthralled by a baptism story unlike any I had ever heard, and just in time for the retelling of Jesus’ baptism story in our own Church calendar.

“I call it my first horseback ride,” Sister Marceline Mattingly (nearing 82 years a Sister of Providence) said of her adventurous journey to baptism.

“I was born in November of 1915. At that time there were terrible rains and the bridge was washed away by the storm. I was going on six weeks old. My family was very concerned because in those days to go beyond one month without being baptized had a penalty of sin.”

With a twinkle in her eye, as if to imply the mischief this six-week-old could’ve gotten into, Marceline said, “I was growing fast and taking in the world!”

Marceline went on to describe the scene that day — 99 years ago this very week. The only way to cross the creek to get to the church was via a plank bridge that could only hold a horse with one rider. It was decided that her grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Hall, would be the one to take her across the creek to be baptized at St. Peter’s Church in Waverly, Kentucky.

This meant they had to construct a sling for the baby. The sling would allow her grandfather to hold the reins to direct the horse with one hand while supporting the baby with the other. (At this point in the story, my hands were sweating!)

Of course, valiant grandfather Hall and baby made it across the creek and to the church. But the drama did not end with the plank bridge. Marceline’s mother had requested her baptismal name be Thelma Louise. At this time in history, though, the priest would have the final say. The priest at St. Peter’s rejected the name since he felt it was associated with a popular actress he considered a “wicked woman.” It turns out the priest was mistaken – the movie star he had in mind was Theda Bara! But, Marceline was grateful for this mishap:

“Thank God!” she exclaimed, “I wouldn’t want to be named Thelma!”

The priest instead chose the name Elizabeth Louise.

The plot thickens still! Marceline’s grandfather, not wanting to disappoint her mother, reported back that the priest had chosen Elizabeth Lee. This way at least she would have a traditional family name for her second name, after her paternal grandfather, Robert Lee Mattingly.

Sisters Mary Moloney and Marceline Mattingly at a gathering celebrating Sisters over 90 years of age.

Years later, Marceline finally tracked down her baptismal certificate and learned her true name. She was delighted to find out that she shared her middle name with her aunt, “My favorite person in the whole world as I grew up,” she said.

She spoke about the name confusion lightly, laughing, “I’m an AKA [also known as] all the way!”

On a more serious note, she explained, “I felt it was the real me; my true identity.”

I can’t tell you what I had for lunch that day, but I’ll hold on to the expressions on Marceline’s face and the sacredness of her sharing for some time to come. Find your thrills on TV or in the movie theater if you like — I’ll take another day in the dining room!

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Sister Tracey Horan

Sister Tracey Horan is a Sister of Providence in formation. She professed first vows in 2017. She is a former intern at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence. She currently ministers as education coordinator at the Kino Border Initiative/Iniciativa Kino para la Frontera where she works with an education team to coordinate and host individuals and groups for immersions to the U.S./Mexico border in order to engage participants on the current reality of migration.

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9 Comments

  1. Jennifer Calvert on January 12, 2015 at 8:48 am

    What a beautiful story. I am so thankful to have the ability to read/learn about the Sisters’ and their historical contributions. I will forever think of this particular story when I see Sister Marceline in and around Healthcare! (Which is quite often). It is vital we obtain these types of tales before it is too late. I never tire of learning about their adventures and experiences. Another great example of Love-Mercy-Justice…handed down from one generation to the next.

  2. Mary Ryan, S.P. on January 12, 2015 at 9:52 am

    This is an amazing story! I learned something new about Marceline. The sisters have so many stories to share with us. Tracey, thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. Lori Strawn on January 12, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Sr. Marceline never fails to amaze me!

  4. Marsha Speth, SP on January 12, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    A delightful story! Thank you for being amazed by it, Tracey, and sharing with all of us.
    Can we assume that she wore that beautiful baptismal gown as she rode in the sling with her grandfather?

  5. Janet Tosick on January 12, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    I loved reading about the heartwarming adventure of Sister Marceline’s baptism.
    Thank you Tracey, for sharing this story, for it is wonderful hearing
    about the sisters and their lives.

    Sister Marceline attends the All Academy Mass and Luncheon each year in
    November honoring the six all girls Catholic schools that closed in Indianapolis.
    She is honored each year for graduating from St. Agnes Academy in the 1930’s.
    She is truly amazing!

    Janet Tosick

  6. Roni on January 13, 2015 at 11:11 am

    thank you for sharing a lovely glimpse into both Sr. Marceline’s journey of faith… And yours:) you have chosen to surround yourself with beauty and grace, thank you for shining some on your readers!

  7. Tara Elmore on January 13, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    You have a wonderful ability to capture the heart and excitement of a story. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Mary Moloney on January 15, 2015 at 11:25 am

    Tracey, you really did capture the excitement of the story. I love your conclusion, our dining room is full of life and faith journeys. What a treasure we have in Marceline! and in you!

  9. Mary Weber on April 26, 2022 at 11:42 am

    I heard this story many times from Sister Marcie! But I had never seen the photo, what a treat! Thank you, Tracey, for writing it so beautifully! My husband, Gary Meister and I are Providence Associates, and she was our companion on that journey! I will miss her terribly!

    Let’s keep her stories alive!

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