by Doug Weller
Special to The Leaven
WEA — Loretta Wiseman’s encounter with the Ursuline Sisters at Queen of the Holy Rosary School here in 1939 left a lasting impression.
Now, 78 years later, she will join the faith that was at the core of those Sisters’ devotion.
Loretta, 83, and her husband Toby, 88, are among 13 members of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults class at Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in northeast Miami County. They are likely among the oldest of the thousands of converts nationwide who will join the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil this year.
Loretta said she always has remembered the generosity and love the Ursulines showed her, and, in times of need, she returned to pray at the church in tiny Wea, located about 16 miles northwest of the couple’s home in Freeman, Missouri.
“All through my life, every time someone was ill, I was here praying in this church. As I grew older, I just knew I had to become a Catholic. It was something I had to do,” she said.
The only thing unusual, said Toby, was that it took this long.
“I was surprised she wasn’t a Catholic by the time she was out of elementary school,” he said.
“I think my mom was afraid I’d become a nun,” Loretta explained.
But once she decided, Toby was in lockstep beside her.
“Mine’s a lot shorter story,” he said of his conversion journey. “If she was going to become Catholic, I had to be, too.”
Loretta’s conversion story begins when she was 5 years old. Ready to begin classes but turned down by the local public school because she wasn’t yet 6, her father learned of the Catholic school in Wea and asked if the Sisters would take her.
Not only did principal Sister Ursula Mertz agree to, but, when her father’s precious job with an oil pipeline company during the Great Depression required him and her mother to spend long days away from her, the Sisters offered to board Loretta at their convent.
All through elementary school, Loretta lived weekdays with the Ursulines, learning to cook, garden and raise chickens, as well as attending school.
After graduating from a public high school, she enrolled at Ursuline College in Paola, where she earned enough credits to obtain a teaching license and, eventually, a bachelor’s degree.
She went on to teach school for 40 years, most of it in Grandview, Missouri, while Toby worked for 43 years for the same oil pipeline company that had employed her father.
They’ve lived at her parents’ place for most of their 60 years of married life.
The Ursulines’ kindness and devotion stayed with her always, she said.
“I can’t ever begin to tell you how good they were to me,” she said. “No one could have had a better childhood than I.”
She stayed in touch with the Sisters long after they left Wea and eventually retired at the Ursuline convent in Paola. And when Loretta received an excellence in teaching award in 1988, she told the crowd during her acceptance speech that the honor belonged to those Sisters at Queen of the Holy Rosary School.
Last year, she decided it was time to join the church and met with Father Gary Pennings, pastor of Wea and vicar general of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
At their first RCIA gathering, headed by Deacon Tom Rothermich, they met his wife Kathy, who agreed to be the Wisemans’ sponsor.
“It was lucky for me,” said Kathy. “I just happened to show up at RCIA. I had been a teacher, too. We’re so compatible.”
Loretta said Kathy and the parish helped ease their concern about becoming Catholic at their age.
“Here we are, so elderly,” she said. “I was worried I didn’t have anything to offer the church. But we’ve learned there are things we can do.”
Father Pennings said that, given the couple’s ages, he had planned to have them start RCIA, provide some private catechesis and then receive them into the church well before Easter. But the Wisemans said they enjoyed the RCIA class so much they wanted to continue.
However, in January, Loretta was hospitalized, and Father Pennings suggested they be received into the church at that time. A longtime friend of the Wisemans, Father Vince Rogers — who is pastor of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Gladstone, Missouri — then offered the couple the sacraments.
Father Pennings said he plans to give the Wisemans a special blessing during the Easter Vigil in Wea.
“They’re a wonderful, dear couple,” Father Pennings said.
Father Rogers said he met the couple about 20 years ago and was pleased that Father Pennings allowed him to offer them the sacraments.
“They’re super, super people,” he said. “They’ve been Catholics in their hearts. It just took them their whole lives to get to it.”
Loretta said her conversion has brought her full circle and knows her Ursuline benefactors would be pleased — and not the least bit amazed.
Sister Ursula “wouldn’t be surprised,” Loretta said. “I have felt her presence when I’d be praying to the Virgin Mary. I always felt she was up there in heaven beside the Virgin Mary.”