Remembrance of the Life of Sister Mary Katherine Hammett SL
A year ago, Mary Katherine Hammett’s younger brother, Johnny, wasn’t able to attend her 75th jubilee. So Johnny and his wife, Lois, wrote out and sent a collection of their memories and these give us the beginning of the story of Mary Katherine’s life.
Mary Katherine was born on May 20, 1925, in Colorado Springs, Colo., to proud parents Katherine and Walter Hammett. Mary Katherine’s grandparents on both sides were Irish immigrants. As the Irish Catholic family grew, Mary Katherine became the oldest of four brothers and a sister: Walter, Johnny, Robert, Rita and James. All have passed on now except for Johnny, but there are still nieces and nephews charmed by Mary Katherine’s life and mission.
The Hammetts moved to Ft. Collins, Colo., in time for Mary Katherine to begin school with the Sisters of Loretto at St. Joseph’s. A favorite family story of this era tells of one 4th of July, when the family all went out to the country to shoot off fireworks. Mary Katherine lit one and threw it but it fell out of her hand and landed on top of their car which was a four-door 1930 Star with a cloth top. It blew a hole on the top of the car. End of fireworks!
Music has always been a huge part of Mary Katherine’s life. Her family was very musical. Dad played the violin and four of her siblings played a musical instrument. Her baby brother James was an avid tap dancer. Mary Katherine played the organ and piano. She was very active in her parish, playing the organ while her brothers served Mass at St. Joseph’s Church.
Mary Katherine has told her family that she knew in second grade that she wanted to become a nun because she was so inspired by her teacher perhaps Sister Sabina — at St. Joseph’s in Fort Collins. At 17 Mary Katherine made the first step in fulfilling her dream to become a Sister of Loretto. The family all piled into the car and drove to Denver to put her on the train bound for Nerinx, Ky., where she began her studies, and commitment to the Lord and the Sisters of Loretto.
A niece recalls, “When I was a kid, my aunt went by the name of Sister Mary Odile. Then, at the first sign of change in the Church, she (like many others!) dropped the full habit and her professed name of Odile; she went back to her given name of Mary Katherine — which always sounded like a perfect nun name to me.”
Mary Katherine herself picks up her story in her 1976 autobiography: “This Bicentennial year finds me in my fifth career, all of which have been learning and growth experiences. My first four years on the missions were in primary grades as a classroom teacher in Pueblo, St. Louis and Denver. Then I was transferred into teaching piano music to beginners. [I started] at Holy Family, Denver. Sister Theresa Marie Hentzn was of such great help to me in this field. I went to Holy Family in South Pasadena for nine years, where I taught music; on Saturdays I taught religion to the public school youngsters.
Nativity in Los Angeles was my next move, where I did piano teaching, various substituting in the grades and helped to save Sister Patrice Sweeney’s music class at Holy Name in Los Angeles. I might add here that Sister Patrice was my first piano teacher at St. Joseph’s School in my home town of Ft. Collins. During this time of my residence at Nativity, I also spent two years helping keep a music class going at Divine Savior in Los Angeles.”
Mary Katherine doesn’t say so but in this same time at Nativity she completed her bachelor’s in applied music at St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles.
Mary Katherine continues in her autobiography, “In 1965 I was transferred to St. Michael’s in Houston, as piano instructor. While there I went to St. Raphael Mission on Sundays where I helped teach religion and furnished the Church music. [Eventually], I asked to do full-time work at the Mission, which included religious instruction for the children; establishing a pre-school by training some of the mothers to be instructors; preparing and playing for the Liturgy; and keeping some of the parish records.”
Mary Katherine’s colleague at St. Raphael, the Rev. Joseph Christensen, wrote an article for Loretto Magazine at this time detailing just how engaged and how essential Mary Katherine was at St. Raphael’s. He concluded his lengthy article saying, “The spirit working through Sister Mary Katherine does more to create a friendship community than her many jobs and accomplishments do. Willing, ready generosity gives birth to a relationship of trust in those with whom generosity is shared. That is incarnation. From my viewpoint a person like Sister Mary Katherine is a sacrament.”
Mary Katherine moved on from St. Raphael’s when a new priest declined to continue the programs she headed. It was 1970 and she returned to California, to South Pasadena where she began yet another career, this time as full-time religious education coordinator for a series of parishes, while also completing her master’s in religious studies at Immaculate Heart College. By time she reached her final parish job, at St. Alphonsus in Los Angeles, it was 1986 and her title had changed to director of religious education. Mary Katherine had been engaged in parish work for 40 years.
She wasn’t ready for retirement yet, so she changed venues and applied for a job as maintenance clerk for a pipe company. Her brother Johnny said, “The other employees at the plant didn’t know that she was a nun, and she didn’t know what their religious background was, but she said they sure used Jesus’ name a lot. Mary Katherine was like that. Another time, during one of her last family visits to northwest Montana we were out having lunch when our waiter appeared with an obscene word pasted across the front of his T-shirt. Those of us with her were appalled!! Mary Katherine in her smooth, calming, and nonjudgmental voice simply stated, “This could be this man’s only shirt.”
The pipe company job lasted four years, then Mary Katherine moved to Texas, to Loretto Academy in El Paso, tending the Academy chapel and then the Nazareth Hall chapel for a half-dozen years. She made another move to Loretto Center, St. Louis, as a driver and Community member and, finally, retirement in 2004 as a charter member of the St. Louis Sarah Community’s Naomi House for independent living. A serious fall in February 2012 forced Mary Katherine’s final move to Loretto Motherhouse Infirmary where she embraced her final career, as supervisor of the dining room. Until the Covid virus confined her to her room, Mary Katherine was present with cup of coffee and cookies through most of each day. Loretto Co-member Barbara Hagan said, “I think Mary Katherine missed the dining room so, so much that she slowly slipped away from us into God’s hands!”