Spur-of-the-moment decision led to 60 years of service

Sister Rose Martin works with those who are overlooked by society.


Martha Morand was having an exit interview with the principal, a nun, at her Catholic school in 1954, when she was asked what she was planning to do after graduation.

Marty, as she was called back then, had secured a scholarship to Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati and wanted to be a social worker.

But that’s not what she told her principal. Instead, she said, “I think I’ll be a nun.”

“She said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know why I said that,’” recalled Morand, who followed through on her spur-of-the-moment decision and eventually took the religious name Sister Rose Martin after two Peruvian saints.

The decision launched Sister Rose on a path that includes more than 60 years of service as a Sister of Charity, stints as a teacher, principal, social worker and nursing home administrator and three Master’s degrees along the way.

Sister Rose, the youngest of eight children, already had a sister who was a nurse and a Sister of Charity but the decision surprised even her.

Today, the 78-year-old is “retired” but hasn’t slowed down. She participates in peacemaking circles with women in the Montgomery County Jail, volunteers for the Prostitution Intervention Collaborative task force in the Dayton region and the Healthy Moms and Babes ministry in Cincinnati.

“Sister Rose radiates hope,” said Lynda Cohen, a longtime friend, who nominated her as a Dayton Daily News Unsung Hero. “(She is) always positive, whether helping unwed mothers, the elderly, or victims of human trafficking, or teaching adult literacy, she brings compassion, understanding, and a wealth of experience to those in need.”

Ann Hurley met Sister Rose several years ago while participating in peacemaking circles at Queen of Apostles in Beavercreek.

The circles consist of groups of people who share experiences in a respectful, non-threatening environment.

“I view Sister Rose as an Unsung Hero for the love she spreads in quiet ways, in unknown corners, and in the countless unrecognized, uncelebrated acts of charity and compassion that are changing this community one heart at a time,” Hurley said.

‘I was going to save the world’

Helping others comes naturally for Sister Rose, who grew up the youngest of eight children in Hyde Park in Cincinnati.

Her father, Martin, died when Sister Rose was just 4 years old and she was raised by her mother, Helen Lehmkuhl Morand, in a two-bedroom home along with her four sisters and three brothers. Her mother only went to the third grade, and the family grew up on Social Security. Helen kept a ledger of how much she spent on everything, Sister Rose said.

Despite living so frugally, Helen Morand stressed the importance of education and giving. “Education was very important and we were expected to do well,” Sister Rose said.

Her family lived near the railroad tracks, and the hobos who rode the rails must have marked their house, Sister Rose says, “because my mother always had on the stove a pot of vegetable soup. It was always there and coffee and bologna. We would have these men come to the back door and we were always told, ‘Give them as much soup as they wanted, as much coffee as they wanted and two sandwiches.’”

A precocious child, the young girl asked one day why she had to keep feeding the men. Her mother said, “Oh Marty, one of those could be St. Joseph. So I always helped.’”

She entered the convent at 18. “I was going to save the world,” she said.

Her sister, a registered nurse, also was at the convent and was sent by the Sisters of Charity to Peru in 1961. Sister Rose was sent to Kensington, Md., and taught fifth, seventh and eighth grades and then became a school principal.

She got a master’s degree from Xavier University and, later, a master’s in social work from St. Louis University. Always a student, she received a third master’s — in gerontological studies from Miami University — after she was tapped to be the administrator for the St. Joseph Infant and Maternity Home, which deals with single, pregnant women and severe, profound, multi-handicapped children.

Her dedication to service included everything from running Altercrest — a residential treatment center for adolescent young felons between the ages of 12 and 17 — to doing mission work at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield.

“If anybody needed anything in the hospital, I was there to help,” she said. “And I loved that.”

During her “retirement,” she helped a friend running St. Vincent de Paul in Dayton and then did training on how to develop peacemaking circles with Father David Kelly, a Precious Blood priest. She embraced the circles and started working with a group of women to create them locally.

Those who know her marvel at her heart.

“Sister Rose’s generosity in the Dayton area know no bounds,” said Hurley. “Her schedule would daunt many people half her age, and yet she consistently arrives on the scene with a smile and a spark that brings joy and love to those she encounters.”

‘Heal the harm’

Sister Rose’s work with female jail inmates focuses on healing rather than punishment.

“The mission (of circles) is really to support and encourage people and to respect their dignity as human beings,” she said. “We’re also talking about restorative justice rather than retributive justice. Restorative justice is trying to heal the harm, rather than punish the perpetrator. And to heal that relationship takes time and humility and to know that it can be done, so it’s relationship building.”

Today, Sister Rose works with a group who visit the jail every week. The women go in two-by-two and also have peacemaking circles outside of the jail at the Baha’i Center on Salem Avenue in Dayton. The center provides “a warm, friendly environment” that is also on a bus line.

At the start of the circle, the group welcomes each other and does a relaxation exercise. The support circle is structured. Questions get asked, but the women don’t have to speak if they don’t want to. The women are instructed on the concept of active listening and conflict resolution.

Why work with criminals?

“I really have a great love for those women who have been challenged in their life,” Sister Rose said. “They can buy drugs on the street and they can go to the jail. They think they are terrible people. They’re not terrible. They’ve made some really inappropriate choices but somebody has to tell them they are good people and there’s hope for them.”

Some of the women have been abused or experienced some kind of trauma when they are young. They don’t know what it’s like to come from an intact family and sometimes drugs give them hope, she said.

Larry Lane, community resource officer for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, said the circles give women inmates a safe place to talk. Lane was director of programs at the Montgomery County jail until a year and a half ago.

“Some of the women, their journey has been very difficult,” he said. “This is a place for them to kind of unpack their baggage in a very non-threatening way where everybody is respected. They can talk through all of the pains that they have.

“I think it’s one of the best things we do.”

In the jail, Sister Rose and her group of circle leaders do what they can to provide a peaceful place in an environment that is normally loud and bright. They dim the lights. Sometimes they play classical music.

“They always appreciate that,” she said. “It gives them time to think about themselves and what they want. Many of them have children and they want the best for their kids. They have to do a lot of introspection and sometimes that’s very painful. It’s painful for me.

“What we’re trying to say, what are your goals when you leave the jail? Who is there the support you?”

Linda Folmer, who has worked with Sister Rose on the peacemaking circles since 2010, said she is “an affirming and loving presence” who has dedicated her life to helping and encouraging those “overlooked by our society.”

Those overlooked by society women are welcome in the circles no matter what they have done or how often they have re-offended, Sister Rose said.

“It’s that welcoming always to somebody who is in need,” she said. “We certainly provide support…but I grow too. I look at my own behavior and think, gee, I’m not always making good choices either.

“And I suffer. And I cry and I experience loss, but their stories help me. It’s a time when they can tell their stories and nobody is going to cross-talk. We listen. They help themselves.”

‘I feel real blessed’

Sister Rose is quick to say that she is able to do her work because of the team of people with whom she works.

“Nobody does this alone,” she said. She pointed to a woman who lives on Salem Avenue who brings in women who are out of jail to live with her and the other women she works with who also volunteer their time in the peacekeeping circles. “It’s those simple acts of kindness that doesn’t cost you anything,” she says.

As for that spur-of-the-moment decision in 1954, “Over the course of 60 years, I’ve changed my mind a million times,” she said.

If she hadn’t gone to the convent, she said she probably would have gone to Mount St. Joseph, gotten a degree and married.

There is no question, though, that she would have helped people. It’s who she is.

“I believe if we can help one person…you know that story. We don’t know what influence we have on others,” she said. “It could be that you smile at somebody and they were thinking about doing themselves in and because you smiled and said thank you, that changed their whole life.”

It’s not entirely selfless.

“I feel real blessed. I enjoy living,” she said. “But the whole thing is, in helping others, I’m helping myself.”



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