Remembrance of the Life of Martha Belke SL
Oct. 24, 1927 — April 12, 2015
Martha Jane Belke was born into a hard working German Catholic family in Louisville’s upper west end. She was the sixth of seven girls born to Mary Catherine Huff Belke and John Phillip Belke. Mary Margaret and Loretto Marcella were nine and six years older than Martha; Carolyn Frances was five years younger. Three sisters didn’t survive infancy.
Martha’s early childhood coincided with the Depression and was culminated by the Louisville flood of 1937, in which her family lost everything. She and her sisters attended St. Benedict School, where they were taught by the Sisters of Loretto. In her detailed autobiography, Martha’s love of the Sisters rings through story after story of her grade school years. Yet, when it came time to go to high school, she confessed “I decided that I did not want to follow my older sisters to [Loretto Academy], Broadway. This presented a major problem in my Mother’s mind. She absolutely did not understand why I wanted to be different and go to Presentation Academy [with the Charity Sisters]. She talked with Mother Agnes Marie who advised my mother to let me go to Pres … I would probably do better there than being forced to go to Broadway.”
Throughout her high school years, Martha made it a habit to visit the Loretto Sisters at St. Benedict’s after school one day every week, doing chores, grading or organizing test papers. One day toward the end of her junior year at Pres, Loretto Sister Ora asked Martha what she was going to do when she graduated. “Without hesitation, I said, ‘I am going to Loretto.’ That was a bit bold, since I had not asked anyone if they wanted me. I took for granted that if that was what I wanted, they would be glad for me to come.” And indeed, Reverend Mother Edwarda’s welcoming letter was warm and gracious.
Martha arrived at the Motherhouse on Oct. 25, 1945, and was received into Loretto as Sister Mary Joel on April 25, 1946.
Martha later wrote, “Novitiate days were far better than I had expected.” Her many stories of the novitiate years ring with the same affection that Martha showed as a child for the Sisters at St. Benedict. One of Martha’s duties for the entire two-and-a-half years of her novitiate was to starch the “protectors”, the white linings for the Sisters’ veils, a job that grew and grew as the numbers of Sisters and novices at the Motherhouse increased in the late 1940s. Martha’s novitiate coincided with other changes as well. The church was remodeled. The “middle building” was taken down and the Infirmary was built in its place. Sister Rose Vincent began Ward classes, every day, with all the novices.
Aug. 15, 1948, Martha made her first vows and left immediately for St. Philomena School in Denver, with time for barely 20 minutes’ visit with her parents at the train station in Louisville. “During this first year of teaching I had 48 second and third graders. Sister Godfrey was the superior and principal, a wonderful person. If it had not been for her great example and encouragement I would never have survived all these years as a Sister of Loretto.” In the summer of 1949, Martha had all her teeth extracted and bone surgery performed on her jaw. At the end of summer retreat, having recuperated at Loretto Heights, Martha left Denver to go to Rockford, Ill., and her second mission to teach 36 first graders. The year was difficult for Martha; her four companions in the convent were generations older; the heat system was faulty. “Since I was the only young Sister in the house, I had many heavy jobs to do as well as the ordinary duties. I spent most recreation days by myself. I had one cold after another [and] the doctor finally decided that I must have TB. I was shipped off to Denver at the beginning of Holy Week and spent the next two months in bed at the Heights, [with pneumonia, not TB.] This was a hard time, but Sister Antonella Marie would sometimes entertain me with stories of her days in China. Sister Ethelbert was able to keep despair from the door by her daily visits.”
There followed a string of brief assignments: two years at St. John’s in Denver; one year at St. Patrick’s in El Paso; one year at New Town Las Vegas, New Mexico. Three consecutive years was her longest assignment, at Loretto Academy, Santa Fe, N.M., where she taught primary grades and lived 24 hours a day, seven days a week with the youngest boarders. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly everything changed. “Nearly through my summer school classes at Loretto Heights, I was paged by Mother Eileen Marie, who told me I was to be sent to El Paso to teach chemistry. I was taken aback [and replied], ‘Mother I don’t even have a degree.’ Her reply was very quiet: ‘that’s alright dear, just be careful in the lab.’”
So in 1958, with virtually no preparation, Martha began her 40-year career as a science teacher. Three years at Loretto in El Paso teaching chemistry and general science were followed by a year of full-time study to finally complete her undergraduate degree. Martha’s health didn’t permit her going back to Denver’s high altitude so she enrolled at Nazareth College in Louisville, which allowed her to be near her parents and family. When she graduated in May of 1962, Martha knew that she was destined to replace Sister Rosalie at Montgomery Catholic High School in Alabama. But she had hardly arrived in Montgomery when she had word that her father was dying. She hurriedly took a train back to Louisville, arriving in time for his funeral.
In Montgomery, Martha lived briefly in the old Gerald Mansion, which had been built in 1851 and purchased by the Sisters of Loretto in 1873 for their new St. Mary’s of Loretto Academy. Almost 90 years later, St. Mary’s of Loretto Academy High School had become Montgomery Catholic High School and moved across the street; the grade school was closing and the building was about to be taken down. Martha wrote later, “It took all the time from Aug. 11 to Dec. 15 just to get rid of things that we could not use, and to make arrangements for transporting what we need from the old house to the new convent at Our Lady Queen of Mercy twenty minutes south from the high school. This was December 1962 and there were 12 of us at that time.” Over the next 15 years, the number of Loretto Sisters would steadily decrease until Martha and Sister Leo Marie Reynolds were the only ones left.
Both in her autobiography and in a 2012 interview, Martha told of her experiences of racial tensions and the struggles for civil rights in Montgomery. “The Gerald mansion was across the street from the Court House. Shortly after getting settled, before we moved south, some of us went to register to vote. The first thing I noticed in the foyer were two drinking fountains. One had a sign over it which read WHITE, and the sign over the other read BLACK. My first reaction was to go over to get a drink from the BLACK fountain.
“These were exciting years. This was the time when President Kennedy was shot (1963). Integration of Catholic schools was announced by our Bishop Toolen (1964). Marches on the Capitol [very near our school] were organized by Jesse Jackson (January 1965). Bombs were planted under homes, threats of bombs in school were reported and we would have to evacuate the school until the firemen came to check the building. An FBI agent came to the convent one Saturday and asked if I taught my chemistry students how to make bombs. I did nothing of the sort, so he went off, pleased.
“The Selma March took place (March 1965) and all the schools were in session, mainly to keep the students from getting into trouble. After school when we were ready to go home, the principal followed us for fear that someone might give us trouble. During the Selma March, the marchers camped on the grounds of St. Jude, a college prep school for Black students near Montgomery. After the Selma march, when it came time for Catholic High to relocate to the south side of town, the land owners wouldn’t give the right of way for our water and sewer lines because Catholics had housed blacks during the march.”
Through the turmoil and slow progress, Martha worked diligently, focusing on her students and her teaching. In 1976 she wrote “I am now able to enjoy an integrated school in which problems, while they have not been completely solved, are at least being attacked from a sensible point of view.” In later years, Martha applied for Loretto Venture Fund monies to create a curriculum program called The Fifth Wall, to improve cross-cultural understanding and appreciation of other people’s beliefs and struggles.
Meanwhile, Sister Martha had become an anchor and a rock at Montgomery Catholic High School. Drafted into the role of assistant principal, her perseverance during several difficult administrations was rewarded when Tom Doyle became principal. Martha immediately won his support and encouragement. He saw that Martha was trained in the latest techniques and had the highest quality equipment to teach science as a hands-on learning experience. For 27 years they worked as a team. When Martha retired from Montgomery Catholic High School in 1997, Doyle announced the school would build a new science and media center and name it “The Sister Martha Belke Center.”
Retired to Loretto Motherhouse, Martha gave 10 years to the Finance Office, keeping the Social Security records of the Sisters in order and paying the FICA taxes. When she retired from that job, she gave another eight years as our IT specialist, keeping convent computer lab up and running.
At the time of Sister Martha’s death, on the webpage of the Montgomery Catholic High School ran this announcement:
“Today We Remember Sister Martha
The last Sister of Loretto to teach at Montgomery Catholic High School, Sister Martha Jane Belke died peacefully on Sunday, April 12, 2015. She came to us in 1962 and taught science for 36 years, retiring in 1997. We give thanks for her gifts to our school and we remember her today with the prayer Sister Martha began class with each day.”
We give Thee glory, thanks, and praise. Oh Bless our works and guide our ways. Amen.
(This remembrance was prepared by Eleanor Craig SL)
Faustin Weber, former headmaster of Pope John Paul II High School, wrote the following on learning of Sister Martha’s death:
“I taught chemistry and IPS at Montgomery Catholic High for over 40 years. I was privileged to be her co-worker and principal for about 13 of those years. I am currently the headmaster at JPII in Nashville. My deepest thanks for all your order has done for the Catholic community of Montgomery, Ala., and for Catholic schools across the nation.” Read his tribute to Sister Martha and the Loretto Sisters here.
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