Two friends receive highest papal honor

By Glenn Rutherford and Marnie McAllister, Record Staff Writers

Sister of Mercy Mary Prisca Pfeffer (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)
Sister of Mercy Mary Prisca Pfeffer (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)

Norma Merrick, vice-chancellor of the Archdiocese of Louisville, and Sister of Mercy Mary Prisca Pfeffer have a mutual history that extends farther back than many people would care to remember.

Merrick easily recalls the days when Sister Pfeffer, now 97, was her principal at Mercy Academy. And Merrick remembers the years she worked as her secretary.

Sister Pfeffer speaks of Merrick as a dear friend and remembers her as “a wonderful secretary — Norma thought for you.”

Norma Merrick (Record Photo by Glenn Rutherford)
Norma Merrick (Record Photo by Glenn Rutherford)

Merrick’s quick to note the effect Sister Pfeffer had on her life — all of it, not just those early high school and first-job years.

“I tell her all the time that she made me who I am today,” said Merrick, who will retire at the end of the year after three-and-a-half decades of service to the archdiocese.
“I tell her, ‘You formed me; because of you I am what I am, whether you like it or not.’ ”

Now the pair’s history is joined again — this time by an event that radiates both their friendship and their faith — all the way from Rome and Pope Francis.

Both Norma Merrick and Sister Mary Prisca Pfeffer will receive the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross, the highest award given by the Holy Father to the faithful. (Seven others will receive the Benemerenti Medal for their dedication to the church during a ceremony in November.)

Sister Pfeffer says no one deserves the award more than her friend; Norma Merrick says the same thing.

Sister Mary Prisca Pfeffer — Sister Prisca as she’s known by thousands of former students and admirers — knew she was born to serve the church at age 4. She joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1935, at age 19, and has served faithfully ever since as an educator, volunteer and prayerful presence.

Despite having spent her life in service to the church, Sister Pfeffer said she was amazed to be selected for the papal award.

“The archbishop came to tell me about the award,” she said. “I don’t think I looked very enthusiastic because I was kind of stunned.

“I used to hear people say, ‘I’m very humbled by this or that award,’ and I thought they were just saying that,” she said during an interview at her home, St. Catherine Convent on Tyler Lane. “But you really do feel humbled. You feel you’re not up to it.”

Sister Pfeffer served in education for more than 50 years and led two of Louisville’s Catholic high schools — Mercy Academy and Assumption High School, where she was the founding principal.

She retired from her duties as an educator decades ago. But she’s remarkably active today, attending special Masses and devotions and fund-raising events, always with a serene-looking smile and a warm hand ready to clasp those within reach.

“If anyone asks me to do anything, I’m going to do it. It’s the least I can do,” she said of her busy schedule. “I’m always on the edge — you never know what’s going to happen. Something comes up and you do it. Trust in God is the main thing.”

Sister Pfeffer said none of her service in the church has been difficult. Rather, she’s filled with gratitude for her life as a religious and the opportunity to serve the people of God.

“I’m so thankful I’m a sister,” she said. “I would have been miserable, miserable, miserable my whole life if I hadn’t lived my vocation.

“God has been good to me,” she added. “I have a strong vocation — no wavering. Ever since I was 4-years-old I knew it. That just goes to show how good God has been to me. I’ve been happy all my life.”

And she couldn’t be happier that her friend Norma Merrick is sharing the honor from Pope Francis.

“I am so glad she is getting that award,” said Sister Pfeffer. “If anyone deserves it, it’s Norma Merrick.”

Norma Merrick said she’s been serving the Archdiocese of Louisville for “35 lucky years.”

When Merrick was just nine years old, her father died, and eight years later, her mother passed away.

Her mother had remarried, Merrick explained, and when her stepfather was a young man, he was killed by a drunk driver.

That left Norma Merrick with the task of raising her brother, who was nine. Yet despite the hardship and tribulations, Merrick still considers herself among God’s most fortunate servants.

“For everything that was taken away from me, it was given back double by God,” she said. “For the past 35 years, I’ve had a really big family — the archdiocese.”

She said she learned that she would be receiving the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, and it “naturally came as a tremendous surprise.

“I learned about the award on the 29th of August when the archbishop said ‘can you come and see me?’ ” she said. “And I thought ‘what must I have done now?’ ”

Then when the archbishop told her to sit down while he closed his office door, her apprehension grew even greater.

“Then he told me about the award, and when I learned that Sister Prisca was also getting it, I was thrilled tremendously,” she said. “I couldn’t have been more delighted.”

Merrick, who served with the late Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly for a quarter century, said she’s always believed that working for the archdiocese and its archbishops “was my vocation.”

“My mother always told me to treat others well,” she said, “because some day you may need them to treat you well, too. So I’ve tried to remember that.

“One thing about this award. … I hope I’ve made my parents proud of me,” she said softly.

She’s also humble when it comes to acknowledging that she’s going to be receiving such a high honor.

“I tell people — and I mean it — that I alone certainly didn’t deserve this award, this great honor,” she explained. But I will accept it in the name of all those people I’ve worked with in the 35 years I’ve been here. They’ve all earned it; I’ll simply accept it for them.”

Merrick is scheduled to retire at the end of the calendar year “if everything goes as it should,” she said. After that, she hopes to “help Father Dale (Cieslik)” with the archdiocesan archives. And she’ll be making her baseball trips.

So far, she’s been to 20 major league ball parks — “Which is the best?  Oh, my, Fenway. I just loved Fenway Park.”

Minute Maid Park in Houston was also a good one, she said, and at Arlington Park in Texas “they gave away cat food the night we were there, and I made the mistake of taking some home,” she noted.

It’s expensive, she said, so naturally her cats love it.

While talking about the honor she’ll receive at a special Mass Nov. 24, Merrick said she knows exactly what she’d say if she had the chance to speak to God.

“I’d like to say ‘thank you’ for letting me be the presence of Christ to these people I’ve worked with and met,” she said. “And I’d tell him that I hope I’ve been of service.”

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