I met Sister George Mary Hagan in 1988 when I began working at the Staff Chaplain’s Office at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Sister George Mary was the Director of Religious Education, a position she held from 1984 until her retirement in 2004. Sister and I became fast friends as well as co-workers. I am not of the Catholic faith but I did have some knowledge of it as I had a grandmother who was Catholic and friends who were Catholics. I learned a lot more about the Catholic faith as well as other religions when I went to work at the chaplain’s office. Sister George Mary became a cherished friend to me and my family. Along the way, she gained the reputation for knowing just about everyone so I am sure that many people in Meade County may know her as well.
When Sister retired from her position at Fort Knox, she went to live at the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph Motherhouse at Maple Mount, Kentucky, which is only about 10 miles from Owensboro. She worked part-time as the Director of Religious Education at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church which is located across the highway from the Mount Saint Joseph Motherhouse from 2005 to 2009 and served as the driver to take the Ursuline sisters to doctor appointments and other errands. When she joined the Noviate nearly 50 years before, she had attended Mass at St. Alphonsus. When she walked back in as the Director of Religious Education, she said she felt as though her entire life had passed by since she first walked through those doors. In 2009, Sister left her ministry at St. Alphonsus but continues to serve as a driver.
Working in a distillery for a year and spending 20 years on an Army base at Fort Knox is not on the typical resume of an Ursuline Sister, but then again, there’s not much typical about Sister George Mary Hagan. Sister George Mary was born Francis Lucille Hagan in the area of bourbon makers, train whistles and scenic beauty at New Haven, Kentucky, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Sister was called Trudy by her whole family. The story goes that her namesake, Aunt Lucille, took one look at her and said, “Oh she’s a Trudy” and the name stuck.
When she joined the Ursuline Sisters in 1955, it was customary for a Sister to take a parent’s name as her own and since her father was George and her mother Mary, that became her name. After Vatican II, sisters were allowed to return to their baptismal names if they chose, but Sister did not have a reason to since no one called her Frances or Lucille.
Her father was a telegraph operator for the L&N Railroad for 50 years in New Haven. It was a thrill for Sister and her siblings to get a pass to ride the train to Louisville. Her mother raised eight children, two of whom died when they were small.
After graduating high school, Sister went to work as a secretary at the J.W. Dant distillery in Gethsemane and worked with a lot of different type people there. When the distillery closed after a year, she started taking classes at Ursuline College in Louisville on weekends and began teaching at St. Joseph School in Bardstown. She enjoyed teaching and decided she wanted to do it for the Lord. She said she had been thinking of becoming a sister her whole life and being taught by the Ursuline Sisters for 12 years in New Haven led her to choose the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Sister was almost 21 when she joined the novitiate, just a few years older than her classmates just out of high school. She said she was glad to have the extra years to mature and have more life experiences, which she believes gave her more confidence that she was making the right choice.
Her first teaching job as an Ursuline Sister was in 1958 at St. Peter of Alcantara in Stanley, Kentucky. She spent a year there and over the next 11 years would teach at five other small schools in Kentucky, most of them within an hour of the Mount. She played the organ so she said they were always moving her around. She then taught at St. Anthony School in Axel, Kentucky. After leaving St. Anthony, Sister George Mary found a home teaching at Blessed Mother School in Owensboro where she served from 1970 to 1984. In 1984, she knew she need a change from teaching so that’s when she began her 20 year odyssey at Fort Knox. She replaced her cousin, Sister Jeanette Bowling, who had been at Fort Knox for 16 years. She says those years at Fort Knox were some of the happiest years of her life and many of connections she made to people she met there are intact to this day. She cried all the way from Owensboro going to Fort Knox and cried all way from Fort Knox to Owensboro when she left 20 years later.
At Fort Knox, she was the Director of Religious Education for both Protestants and Catholics. She conducted teacher training classes, adult education, and coordinated all the functions of religious education. She also ministered to soldiers in the confinement facility and helped Hispanics to get jobs at the post. She said she learned so much at Fort Knox. The insistence on planning, attending to detail and doing things correctly still resonate with her today.
She had many experiences which were unusual for an Ursuline Sister. She took the officers’ wives club on a tour to Nelson County, to Bardstown, to Gethsemane, and to the Maker’s Mark distillery. She was invited to many upscale functions, to include the quarters of officers and generals. Friends often invited her to visit them in in such places as Paris, Germany, and Puerto Rico. She says it was such an enriching experience to meet so many people from all over the world. She sometimes felt like she was in another country instead of being in Kentucky.
Despite the difficulty in leaving Fort Knox, she knew it was the time to go back to the Mount. It was a big adjustment for her because she had changed so much. But she knew that life changes all the time and it was the right time for her to move on.
Sister and I have always stayed in touch. We have seen each other countless times over the years since she went to the Mount. I have met her for lunch in Radcliff, Elizabethtown and Owensboro. I have been to the Mount for the “grand tour” *(as Sister calls it), several times, taking different family members and friends with me. She has loved our daughter from the time she was a child and attended Vacation Bible School at Fort Knox. My husband, daughter and grandchildren have all visited her at the Mount and in Owensboro. And that “grand tour” never ceases to fill me with wonder. Maple Mount is a majestic place with glistening halls and rich in history and tradition. The grounds in the spring and summer are overflowing with flowers and greenery. The vibrant colors and beauty reminds me of the Land of Oz in the Wizard of Oz. Each beautiful stained glass window tells a story of the Catholic faith. I learn a little more every time I go. There is a museum and a quilting room, and a dining room which can accommodate visitors. There is also a conference center with rooms for guests. The first time I took my mother there, she was so impressed she told Sister George Mary she wanted to live there. We all laughed and told her we thought it was a little too late for her to become an Ursuline Sister!
Sister has also been there for me during personal trials and tribulations. She is the first person I call to ask for prayers for my family and friends. She sustained me through the deaths of my mother, my sister, my father, my sister-in-law, and one of my very best friends in the world, MSG (Retired) Lori Perry, who I also met in 1988 at Fort Knox when she worked with Sister and me. Those deaths took place within a period of two years so it was a little daunting for me. I firmly believe her prayers helped me to cope.
Life changed again for Sister George Mary and her fellow Ursuline Sisters in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. This adjustment has probably been the hardest one yet. She and the other sisters have basically been in lockdown since March 2020. Before that, Sister enjoyed lunches with friends (such as me), water aerobics in Owensboro, numerous outings and visits with her family and friends, and visits from friends and tour groups at the Mount. This is the first time since 1988 that I have not seen Sister George Mary Hagan for a year. Most of the time I see her several times a year. Some of the workers and sisters at the Mount came down with COVID but so far Sister George Mary has escaped the illness. Every time I talk to her, she says she feels like she is in “jail” but is thankful that she has not been sick and still tries to see her life as the glass half full.
The Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph have a rich history that goes all the way back to the 16th Century when Saint Angela Merici started the Company of Saint Ursula in 1953 in Brescia, Italy. In 1858, Bishop Martin John Spalding invited the Ursuline Sisters from Straubing, Bavaria to establish a foundation in Louisville, Kentucky. At the request of Father Paul Joseph Volk, five Ursuline sisters traveled from Louisville in 1874 to establish a school in Western Daviess County on the site that is now Maple Mount, Kentucky. Maple Mount is the Motherhouse of these Ursuline sisters who proclaim Jesus to all people through the ministry of education and Christian formation. Ursuline Sisters minister in Kentucky, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Washington, D.C. and in Chile, South America. The first building at Mount Saint Joseph was the first Motherhouse for Roman Catholic sisters in Kentucky west of Louisville and the oldest girls’ Academy in Daviess County. By 1912, 78 girls had graduated from the Academy and 89 Ursuline Sisters had lived and worked there. In 1925, the Sisters continued their dedication to education and opened Mount Saint Joseph Junior College for Women. The location was transferred to Owensboro in 1950 where it became co-educational and changed the name to Brescia College, now Brescia University. By the time of its centennial in 1974, over 1,600 women had attended Mount Saint Joseph Academy but demands for services were changing. After 109 years of service, Mount Saint Joseph Academy closed in 1983. The original building still stands today and is now being used for the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center, a center for spiritual, cultural and educational enrichment.
When the pandemic is over and it is safe to do so, the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph at Mary Mount will once again open their doors to the public. If you would like to visit Mount Saint Joseph at Mary Mount and meet the Ursuline sisters, reserve a meeting room or gymnasium, or spend the night, you can call (270) 229-0206, or email email@example.com. Or you can always ask to speak to or leave a message for Sister George Mary Hagan. I know she will gladly make arrangements to give you the “grand tour”! A visit to the beautiful and peaceful Maple Mount is something we could probably all use. I know I certainly could.