Remembrance of the Life of Sister Mary Louise ‘Billie’ Vandover SL
Loretto Sister Mary Louise “Billie” Vandover SL, died Sunday morning, June 12, at the Loretto Motherhouse Infirmary in Nerinx, Ky., in the company of close friends, including Marie Lourde Steckler SL and Cathy Smith SL. Billie, 85, had just celebrated the 60th anniversary of her life in Loretto.
This remembrance is in Billie’s own words, drawn from her 1961 autobiography submitted with her application for admission to the Loretto novitiate, and from her essay in the booklet “Voices from Silence” compiled by her novitiate class for the Loretto bicentennial.
Excerpts from Billie’s autobiography, 1961
“I was born in the City of St. Louis in 1937, started school in Oklahoma City in 1942 and returned with my family to the St. Louis area in 1946. Most of my growing up was done in Webster Groves where I graduated from Holy Redeemer grade school, Nerinx Hall High School, and Webster College, all on the same street within an area of four blocks.
“… My immediate family is small. I have a younger brother [who attended] St. Louis University. My mother and father received their high school and college education in the St. Louis public schools and at Washington University. However, my mother was a student at Loretto Academy [on Lafayette] for a while when she was in grade school.
“… I have held a summer job every summer since 1954. The work has ranged from clerical work in an office to work which involved dealing with people. Everywhere that I have worked, I have found that I liked my work very much, but there has been no job which has been as close to my heart as teaching.”
Excerpts from ‘Voices from Silence’
“My journey to the novitiate was a grueling tug-of-war with my father. I encountered many scrapped plans, lost scrimmages and dashed hopes along the way. When I graduated from Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves, Mo., I declared to my parents that I was ready to go to the Motherhouse in Kentucky. My Dad, Lewis, a seasoned FBI agent, put a swift halt to my announcement. Being very suspect of a tiny place called Nerinx somewhere in the hills of Kentucky, he doubted its very existence; it barely claimed the smallest dot on the map. “You’re way too young,” he pronounced with absolute authority. “You will attend at least one year of college.” I dutifully enrolled at Webster College in Webster Groves.
“I always suspected that my mother, Mary Lou, pleaded my cause with my father, but to no avail. Upon completion of my freshman year, my plan for joining the Sisters of Loretto surfaced again. My request was quickly squelched, and another year of college was the only option for the future. The same scene was re-enacted at the end of each school year until graduation. My father had no quarrel with the education I received from the Sisters of Loretto, but thought I was ‘still too young to throw my life away.’ A major battle occurred between me — the determined daughter — and my steadfast father a few days after I finished college. It was apparent that at least one year of work experience would be required before the trip to Kentucky could be taken. I refused, and my father threw down an almost impossible ultimatum. ‘If you leave this house, you may never return,’ he proclaimed.
“Unable to imagine such a future, I conceded to find employment for a year. Fortunately, Sister Joanna Marie Steely SL, who had been walking the journey with me, invited me to teach at Nerinx Hall. I was teaching with the sisters, and my inability to join them was almost unbearable. Finally, in 1961, at the end of my second year of teaching, the arguing and compromising came to an end when I, then 24, declared that I would leave for Loretto in September. Several of the graduating seniors and even some alumnae were planning to enter the novitiate at the same time. The prospect of “becoming a nun” with their teacher created a joyful wildness among those going to the Motherhouse. However, there was little joy at the Vandover home when the departure day dawned. To our family’s surprise, Dad drove us to the airport and accompanied us to the gate. When the last boarding call was announced, I almost ran down the final distance to the plane. I was getting settled in my seat when I heard my father’s voice as he made his way down the aisle: ‘Step aside, FBI, I have official business on this plane.’ There was immediate silence, and I sank into my seat, frozen with apprehension. However, I slowly revived as my father made sure that my luggage was correctly stowed in the overhead bin and that my seat belt was properly fastened. He left me with the words, ‘Honey, if this whole idea doesn’t work out, you just call me, and I will come immediately to fetch you home.’
‘Many years after my final vows, I underwent a devastating surgery to remove a large brain tumor. Sometime after the 15-hour surgery, a multitude of difficulties ensued. My sight, mobility, and thought processes were all compromised. The Motherhouse seemed the best and safest place for me to spend at least two weeks — which has turned into 40 years.
“Many of the dismal predictions of the medical profession were not realized due to the determination and healing power of the Community at Loretto, especially the tireless work and prayers of Sisters Marie Lourde Steckler, Kay Carlew and Alban House. The years have been painful and full of difficult therapy, but I’ve reached a high degree of daily function.
“When my parents visited in the fall of 1981, [not quite a year after my surgery], I finally heard my father utter the words that I had been longing to hear since high school: ‘Well, my girl, I believe you are in the right place.’
Please keep Billie, her family and all her loved ones in your prayers. May she rest in peace.