Sister Carolyn Kessler (formerly Sister Ann Carolyn)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. …Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.” (John 15:1-4)
Sister Carolyn Kessler was born on June 19, 1932, in Evansville, Indiana, one of two daughters of Frank and Genevieve Pursley Kessler. When she was baptized into the vine of Christ, she was given the name Carolyn Louise. Both her mother and father had roots in the Evansville area, her father in Evansville itself and her mother from a farm about 20 miles east of Evansville, said Sister Rosemary Schmalz in her commentary for Sister Carolyn Kessler, formerly Sister Ann Carolyn, who passed away on Friday, July 7, 2023, in Terre Haute. She was 91-years-old and had been a Sister of Providence for 69 years.
Sister Rosemary continued: Six weeks after she was born, the family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania. The reason for the move was that the manufacturing plant where her father worked was closing (this was depression time) and he was one of the few lucky ones offered a position in another one of the company’s plants, this one in Erie.
She spent her whole childhood there, attending schools run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Erie, a diocesan congregation. She told me that she experienced a call to religious life during her senior year, but she felt no urgency to respond to the call. For her, it was time to look at colleges.
The Sisters of St. Joseph had a college on the same campus as the elementary school and high school that she attended, and she was awarded a scholarship there, but Carolyn wanted to broaden her experience. She was not going to go to college in her hometown. Here was her opportunity to branch out, to explore, to grow.
She gave much time sending for and reading brochures from Catholic women’s colleges in the United States. One college she applied to was Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), and having been offered a full scholarship, that was where she went.
At SMWC, she majored in French and Chemistry — a combination of the arts and science. She also studied Italian with Sister Gertrude Smith. Both of these served her well in her future ministries, as we shall soon see.
Sister Carolyn told me that her years at SMWC were wonderful, the beautiful campus, the excellent teachers, the students’ geographical diversity. She also noticed that the sisters themselves had varied geographical roots, and their ministries reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific and even to Taiwan.
All of this pointed to opportunities for new experiences. And so, upon graduation, she followed her high school call and joined the Sisters of Providence on July 22, 1954. She was given the name Sister Ann Carolyn. She professed first vows on Jan. 23, 1957, and final vows on Jan. 23, 1962.
She began her many years of “bearing fruit,” teaching seven years at Marywood High School in Evanston, Illinois, and three years at Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, Indiana. From the beginning, she was an excellent teacher. Sister Rose Ann Eaton recalls that during her time in the novitiate, there were several other novices who had entered from Marywood and Memorial and she recalls their talking about Sister Ann Carolyn as an influence in their lives and their vocation.
Sister Maureen Fallon reports that when she was teaching at Memorial 10 years later, family members of Sister Carolyn’s students still asked about her and spoke words of praise for her teaching.
Sister Carolyn spent the last four summers of these 10 years at Georgetown University, working toward a master’s degree in French. While at Georgetown, she learned about Fulbright fellowships. She applied and was awarded a Fulbright lectureship for the year 1967-68 at the University of Rome, teaching English as a second language. Her Italian that she had learned from Sister Gertrude needed some work, but she became fluent as the year went on. As you might guess, she used the time to see almost all of western Europe.
To get a master’s in French at Georgetown, one was required to take two classes in linguistics, which Carolyn described as the “science of language.” Note again the blend of science and the arts. She says that in those two classes, she simply fell in love with the subject. And so, after returning from Rome, she received permission to continue on at Georgetown to pursue a Ph.D. in linguistics.
In 1971, fresh from graduate school, she came to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College for a year, then a year at Stanford as a lecturer, and then on to Immaculata College for two years where she designed and implemented an English as a Second Language program.
Then in 1975, she took a position at the University of Texas, San Antonio. The school was just opening that year, and thus she was a member of what was called the “founding faculty.” She stayed for 25 years, teaching in the department of Bicultural Bilingual Studies. Her fruit bearing expanded during these years. Her main focus was designing and implementing a masters’ program in English as a Second Language.
She published widely, books (I counted 11) and papers (I counted 40), and spoke at numerous conferences throughout these years (I didn’t even try to count them). I think this is our primary image of Sister Carolyn. She was first and foremost a scholar and teacher. She loved teaching and in particular, she shared with me how much she loved the students in her masters’ program. She admired their eagerness to learn, their commitment, their dedication to their students.
Through all of these years, she lived with Sister Mary Ellen Quinn. Sister Mary Ellen died in 2002 which was a great loss to Sister Carolyn. Sister Carolyn had retired in 2000 and with Sister Mary Ellen’s death, Sister Carolyn thought she probably should move on with her life. Connecting with Sister Mary Ann Leahy (RIP), she moved to Florida to be part of a small Sisters of Providence group there.
She told me that after a year, she had the sense that this was not the right place for her and that she should move on. She felt drawn to go back to the Evansville area. She had learned that there was a vacant house on her mother’s family farm and she asked her cousin if she could rent it. Lo, a year later, a tornado came through the area. It did not demolish her house, but it did demolish another house on the property where an aunt was living, and Carolyn realized she should move out to let the aunt have the house.
Sister Barbara Ann Zeller (RIP) had indicated that she would welcome her to join the work at Providence Self-Sufficiency Ministries in New Albany and so she moved to that area. However, Sister Barbara Ann didn’t have specific work for her and at some point, Sister Carolyn decided to return to San Antonio. She told me that when she arrived, she felt as if she had “returned home.”
She stayed there for 15 years, living in a Catholic senior citizen complex, initially doing some consulting work. She was quite involved in the residence, “bearing fruit” in a variety of ways, especially service related to daily Mass: Sacristan, reader, Eucharistic minister. She wrote the following in a 2011 Archives Information sheet: “I welcome newcomers, help them feel at home, take part in a wide variety of activities, share meals … and generally get to know as many as I can … The Pastoral Care Director … told me … that I served as a kind of leaven and probably had no awareness of my impact on the residents here. I can only say that I don’t have any awareness. This ministry is in God’s hands, certainly not mine … I do pray that I make a difference … I hope people know that I care for them.”
At age 90, she told herself that it was time to return to the Motherhouse. The fact that Saint Mary’s Senior Living was just opening made the possibility more inviting and move she did, just a year ago, in June 2022.
I think all of us are grateful to have had her in our midst this past year – her being present with the Community at Mass, her gracious presence at a meal, her quiet and gentle manner. Sister Josephine Bryan named this quality “refinement” and Sister Carolyn Glynn used the phrase “the perfect lady.” Her refinement was also expressed in a deep respect for each person, an inherent kindness, a carefulness not to hurt or wound by a brusque or rude word or manner. And how appreciative she was of the kindness from others, in particular, that of Sisters Joseph Fillenwarth and Jeanette Lucinio, who helped her get settled after her move here.
Sister Jeanette and Sister Linda Thompson were with Sister Carolyn at her death. They asked me to share this moment with you. Sister Linda had noticed that all the signs were indicating that she was soon to depart and so having called in a nurse, she and Jeanette spoke aloud her vows. As they spoke the last words of the vow formula, “to be faithful to them until death,” the nurse reported that she breathed her last breath.
Indeed, Sister Carolyn Kessler’s life was one of many branches on the vine of Christ. Her devotion to Eucharist kept her well attached and allowed her to bear great fruit: Her professional work, her dealings with students, her kind demeanor. We rejoice with her that she is now with the source of this loving kindness.
Funeral services for Sister Carolyn took place on Monday, July 17, and Tuesday, July 18, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A Wake took place from 2:30-4:30 p.m., on Monday, July 17. Mass of Christian Burial took place at 11 a.m., on Tuesday, July 18.
Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Carolyn to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Carolyn in the comment section below.
Sister Carolyn Kessler (formerly Sister Ann Carolyn)
In Illinois: Teacher, Marywood, Evanston (1957-64).
In Indiana: Teacher, Reitz Memorial High School, Evansville (1964-67); Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (1971-72); Consultant, Floyd Knobs area (2004-06).
In Italy: Fulbright Lecturer, University of Rome (1967-68).
In Washington, D.C.: University Fellow, Georgetown University (1968-71); Linguistics, Director of ESL Program, Immaculata College (1973-75); Adjunct Lecturer, Trinity College (1973-75).
In California: Research Associate in Linguistics, Stanford University School of Medicine (1972-73); NCEA Project, San Francisco Hearing and Speech Center (1972-73); Lecturer in Linguistics Program, Stanford University (1975).
In Texas: Professor of ESL, Linguistics, Bicultural Bilingual Studies, University of Texas, San Antonio (1975-83); Professor of ESL, Linguistics, Bicultural Bilingual Studies, University of Texas, San Antonio (1983-95); Professor, University of Texas (1996-2000); Professor Emerita, University of Texas (2000-04); ESL Consultant (2003-04); Professor Emerita, University of Texas, San Antonio (2007-2022); Outreach Ministry/Lead Sacristan, Villa de San Antonio, San Antonio (2012-21); Co-Director of Resident Council, Villa de San Antonio, San Antonio (2021-22).
In Florida: ESL Consultant (2003-04).
In Taiwan: Lecturer, English as a Foreign Language, Providence College, Taichung (1983).
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