Remembrance of the Life of Sister Mary Kenneth Lewis SL
Loretto Sister Mary Kenneth Lewis died May 20, 2023, surrounded by the Loretto Living Center staff who had cared for her for many years. Mary Ken celebrated her 80th year as a Sister of Loretto on April 25. She had been Loretto’s “Sister Eldest” for several years and would have turned 99 June 15.
Mary Ken left us a wonderful account of her life titled “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” The following passages give a taste of what she called her “spiritual autobiography”:
“Once upon a time … June 15, 1924, I was born, the third child of Ella and Kenneth Lewis, in Denver. There were about 18 months between each of the first three children, and our youngest sister, Mary Ellen, was born 11 years after me. [We also have an older half-brother, Charles.]
“… My mother was a school teacher; she met my father when he was working in a mine and also playing professional baseball. He had been married before and divorced, and because of this he had to court my mother for five years before she finally agreed to marry him. … I can remember asking her why she did not go to Communion with us, and she told us that she was “married out of the Church.” Among other things, this has given me a great empathy for separated and divorced people, and for children whose parents are divorced.
“… It was a great day when my mother asked my father one more time if we could go to St. John’s School, and this time he said, ‘Oh, I guess so.’ … My father had grown up as a Methodist; he was not really prejudiced against Catholics, but tuition in the Catholic schools was challenging for us. … I don’t remember that we ever talked about being poor, but at this time, my father was a chauffeur and worked for two elderly women, and we lived very simply.
“…When we started at St. John’s, I was in sixth grade, and my memories include puzzlement about diagramming sentences, chagrin because no matter how hard I tried that year I could not get a Palmer Method writing certificate, and profound gratitude for Sister DePazzi, who made all things easy. It was in the sixth grade that I began going to daily Mass, reading as many books as I could find about saints and holy people, and I firmly decided that I wanted to be a Sister of Loretto.
“… A scholarship to Cathedral made it possible for me to go to a Catholic high school. … My four years at Cathedral were good ones. I continued daily Mass, visits to the church, prayers for perseverance in my vocation and still had an active social life with school dances, pep club, football games and speech meets. Communism was a much-talked-about threat during my high school years and a frequent topic of conversation in Father Joe Walsh’s religion class. So, a group of us — three girls and three fellows —started an anti-Communist Club …[which grew and continued to meet for three years].
“My family knew that I was really serious about ‘going to the convent.’ … My 17th birthday came shortly after I graduated from high school, but I had to wait until I was 18, before my mother would consent to my application for Loretto. I was fortunate to be able to spend that year at Loretto Heights, where my desire to become a Lorettine flourished, and where I also became really interested in sociology. Sister Felicia was our teacher. Social justice became a catchword, and I would probably have declared sociology as my major if l had continued at the Heights.
“…World War II began in December, … and I dated a man in the Air Force who was stationed at Lowry Field, until I realized that since I really intended to become a Sister, it would be better to tell him and go our separate ways. This was a significant step for me and one which convinced my parents (and myself, for that matter), that I really wanted to be a Sister.
“On Oct. 25, 1942, I went to Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky; received the habit April 25, 1943; and then made first vows April 25, 1945. The novitiate training was challenging, but it was there that I discovered silence, meditation, spiritual reading and eight-day retreats, all of which I loved. … It was there, too, that I found myself writing a lot: journaling (although I don’t think I called it that) as a form of prayer and making what we used to call a “Poverty Prayerbook”: a little notebook with favorite quotations, prayers and responses/reactions to spiritual reading. … I discovered that writing helps me focus on the things I am reading, or reflecting on, and I still do this a lot.
“My first ‘mission’ was teaching in grade school in Kankakee, Ill. My first superior was Mary Luke Tobin, who was only in her late 30s then. I was the only Sister (among about 23) without final vows in the house, and Mary Luke took me faithfully for ‘class’ every Sunday afternoon for the two years I was there. I know that I was blessed by this attention to my spiritual life, but I have to say that this was more challenging than the novitiate. … We read the latest in spiritual reading and discussed what we read. There was also an emphasis on eradicating faults and imperfections and continuing explanations on the vows and prayer. … About [a decade later] Mary Luke wrote an article in a publication for religious in which she said that affirmation and encouragement for young Sisters was essential — in fact, long overdue. I can remember reading this and wishing that it had come sooner.
“I taught in both grade and high schools for the first 25 years of my Loretto life. Some of that time was spent in the Southwest, where I developed a great love and appreciation for Hispanic people and for their culture and deep faith in God.
“… Mary Luke Tobin was an observer at the Vatican Council, and as our Mother General, she called us to move very swiftly with the changes. One of the most daring things we were asked by our leadership was, ‘What is it that you really want to do?’ And then we were told, like the Nike ad, ‘Just do it!’ … In 1970, I was invited to be a DRE in a parish. Once I found out what a DRE was [director of religious education], I jumped at the chance. I had always longed to take courses in theology and Scripture. … So, I left the classroom, left the high school English, film study and journalism classes and went off to a parish where the pastor, Father Patrick Kennedy, said he didn’t want a theologian; he just wanted a teacher. Fortunately, he was well-read and really into the changes in the Church, so we managed, and I supplemented his reading suggestions with a three-summer program at Seattle University to get an MRE.
“In my 23 years in parish religious education, I continued to study Scripture and theology. I led the RCIA process for most of that time, gave retreats and days of reflection and taught classes for parents of children in sacramental preparation, and loved all of it. It was inspiring and heart-warming to be with so many dedicated and active parishioners during all those years.
“It was in 1990, and again in 1993, that I was privileged to go to Ghana, in West Africa, for six weeks each time. Marie Ego SL, who had been in Ghana and had attended a Conference of Mothers General there, asked if they had any special desires for something that a Sister of Loretto might do for them. It was unanimous that they wanted a course in ‘Conscience Formation’ for their novices and new members. … So, I put together a course which really seemed to work — based on [their] values and customs … [with] steps in forming our consciences as a response to God’s unconditional love for us.
“The Church is alive and well in Ghana, and vocations are thriving; it was one of the greatest experiences of my life to spend time with these enthusiastic young people. In 1993 I returned, with Father Marty Lally, [with whom I] have been good friends ever since he was my student at Holy Family. We team-taught a course on the Sacraments. I did the history and Marty did the praxis, and it was a very special time.
“I was invited to begin the Loretto Spirituality Center in Denver, in 1993. … I have also been pleased to be asked by the Loretto Community to give retreats (with Marty Lally), and to offer classes in Scripture and theology in our larger houses. [In 2000 I participated in a] program in spiritual direction to learn what it means to direct and to be directed, to share and to grow, to affirm and to be affirmed.
“… Probably the greatest religious experience I have ever had took place during a class with Franciscan Kenan Osborne. He kept saying throughout his classes, ‘God loves you, and you and you (pointing), each of you by name, with an unconditional love. God doesn’t love you if … or only when … or only because of what you do! God simply loves you, without conditions, just because you are!’ I think maybe I knew this intellectually, but I really experienced an overwhelming feeling of God’s love right there in class. … It was a wonderful experience, and I have never forgotten it. Unconditional love by God has been a constant theme in my teaching and retreats, and I have often said to people, ‘If you don’t remember anything else from this … do remember that God loves you, by name, without any conditions, and all we are called to do is live our lives in response to that love.’
Mary Ken’s funeral Mass was celebrated May 30 in the Church of the Seven Dolors, Loretto Motherhouse, Nerinx, Ky. Mary Ken’s former student and close friend Loretto Co-member Father Marty celebrated the Mass. Burial was in Our Lady of Sorrows Cemetery on the Loretto Motherhouse grounds.
Preceding Mary Ken in death were her parents and her siblings, Charlotte Elkins, Kenneth Lewis Jr. and Mary Ellen Lewis. She is survived by nine nieces and nephews.
Please keep Mary Ken, her family and all her loved ones in your prayers. May she rest in peace.