By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor
Sister of Mercy Mary Prisca Pfeffer knew she would devote her life to God 93 years ago. She was four years old at the time, living in St. Louis and called by her given name, Ruth.
Sister Pfeffer’s vocation began when she was tagging along with her older sister Mary Margaret to a school run by the Sisters of Loretto. Little Ruth Pfeffer saw a book that showed a child dressed as a nun. The caption read, “I want to be a sister.”
“Something struck my heart then and there that God wanted me to be a sister — not that I wanted to be one, but that’s what God wanted me to be,” is the way she remembers the moment.
Sister Pfeffer, who has educated thousands of young women in Louisville during her lifetime, related an array of stories from her life during a wide-ranging interview Sept. 27 at her home, St. Catherine Convent on Tyler Lane. The interview centered on her selection as a recipient of a papal honor — the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, which will be presented next month.
Born in February of 1916, Sister Pfeffer spent a childhood in poverty, like many families at the time. But her parents were devoted to her education and demonstrated for their children how to love, sacrifice and work hard.
She recounted a very happy childhood that began in St. Louis with two siblings — Mary Margaret and her younger brother Gene. At age 6, she and Mary Margaret, 16 months her elder, quickly “grew up” when their mother had twins, Edward and Esther (who were always known as Bud and Sis). Twenty months later, they welcomed — and cared for — another set of twins, Gracie
This sudden family of 9 struggled to make ends meet. Her father was a streetcar conductor originally from Bardstown, Ky. He sent his family to Louisville when Ruth was 8 years old. A “maiden aunt” promised to help them while her father stayed in St. Louis where he could count on his job,
Sister Pfeffer said.
The family bought an old farm house in Anchorage with 40 acres of land where they could grow their own food.
“We were really pretty desperate,” she said. “That farm house was the best thing that ever happened to us because we could grow some things.
“Mother said, ‘If you’re willing to work and you live on a farm, you’re not going to starve to death,’ ” Sister Pfeffer said,
adding, “You might not have shoes, but you won’t starve.”
“My mom went through a lot,” she recalled. “She was a strong, strong lady. God gives people grace when they cooperate with it.”
It was well more than a decade before Sister Pfeffer’s father joined his family in Louisville. By then, she had joined the convent.
In the meantime, Sister Pfeffer and her siblings helped their mother wash clothes on a washboard and retrieved all of their water from a spring. They had no electricity and sacrificed any minor luxuries they might have afforded to attend Catholic schools.
Sister Pfeffer attended St. Aloysius School in Pewee Valley, Ky., and Mercy Academy. During those years, she said of her vocation, “I kind of forgot it and grew up.”
When she graduated from high school, she earned a scholarship to attend Nazareth College. But as her second year began, she needed $100 for books. Her family didn’t have the money.
“I walked out the back door (of the farmhouse) and into the fields. I walked around the end field three or four times,” she said. Then, “I sat down and wrote a letter to the sister who had always befriended me, Sister Mary Camillus, and told her I wanted to be a sister.”
Sister Pfeffer said she calls it “My $100 vocation.” And now, she says, “It’s priceless.”
She was given the name “Mary Prisca” as a novice. It was a name she didn’t like at first and one she’d never heard. St. Prisca’s feast day is Jan. 18. The name means “old, former or ancient.”
After her formation, Sister Pfeffer began her ministry of education that lasted five decades. She served as an English and Latin teacher and spent more than 20 years as a principal — first at her alma mater, Mercy Academy, and later at Assumption High School. She was that school’s first principal.
To the thousands of young women she educated at Mercy and Assumption, she said she tried to be firm but fair.
Since her retirement, Sister Pfeffer, who will turn 98 on Feb. 15, has been a powerhouse of activity. Today it’s not unusual to see her at various Masses, devotions and benefits around town. She has spent hours rocking in a rocking chair during the annual Walk for Life, held each September at St. Martin of Tours Church.
Every moment has been a joy, she said.
“I’ve been happy all my life,” she said. “I’m so thankful I’m a sister. It hasn’t been difficult at all. I belong here. I’ve never been lonely; I’ve never been unhappy. I’ve just done God’s will.
“It must be terrible not to answer the vocation God gives you, because a vocation is so precious,” she added. “God has been so good to me.”