sister martha smith


September 7, 1928 - May 9, 2011

Inspiring teacher, outstanding historian

How to begin to touch into the life of Sister Martha Smith? She was born in Kansas City, where she and her two sisters attended Redemptorist Grade School. St. Teresa's Academy was her high school alma mater. At her expressed wish to become a Sister of St. Joseph, she overcame her mother's objections and pursued her early dream of entering the convent. She lived a dedicated, full life as a Sister of St. Joseph and poured herself out in assignments that brought out the best in her.

It was September 1947 that she, Peggy Jones, Madeline Fronke, Mary Helen Winemiller and Rosemary Flanigan boarded a plane for St. Louis from Kansas City to become Sisters of St. Joseph. Through the intervening years after profession in 1950, S. Martha taught in elementary schools and St. Joseph's Academy in St. Louis and at Sacred Heart High School in Indianapolis, where she taught American and European history. S. Martha was a wonderful mentor to younger, newly assigned teachers, explaining procedures of the school schedule, alerting them to and preparing them for upcoming school events, and helping with lesson plans.

S. Martha received her master's degree in history from St. Louis University in 1959. Her exceptional giftedness as a history teacher prompted province leadership to assign her as faculty member at Fontbonne College. The following years were alive and exciting for her in the wake of Vatican II. 

After receiving her doctorate in history from St. Louis University in 1965, S. Martha was assigned to Avila College in Kansas City, a great joy to her family. For the next 30 years she "taught, molded, befriended and inspired" many Avila students. Sister Marie Joan Harris, then academic dean, and many of her colleagues named her a "Renaissance Woman." She committed herself to molding her students into better writers, researchers, and critical thinkers by incorporating those skills into her classes. According to S. Marie Joan, S. Martha influenced thousands of individuals with a greater appreciation of history and a better understanding of themselves. Ever the mentor, during summer sessions at Avila, S. Martha readily helped teachers find sources to supplement their instruction.

For her outstanding scholarship, S. Martha received many honors and awards: the Fulbright Fellowship sponsored trip to India in 1965; the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Fellowship in 1984, and the Sears Award that recognized her "Excellence in Teaching and Academic Leadership" in 1990. Avila presented her with its distinguished Medal of Honor.

In collaboration with Carol K. Coburn, her scholarly traits found their most excellent expression in Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836 - 1920. In the preface to that book, they write that they spent years immersed in research and thousands of hours in conversation, all of it moving toward their shared goal: "to place Catholic sisters within the mainstream of American history and women's history, and show the sisters' lives and activities to be as complex, varied and interesting as the lives of their Protestant and secular peers." The two accomplished this and more as they ultimately showed the impact sisters have had on the shaping of American culture.

Upon retiring S. Martha continued at Avila until her health began to fail her and she eventually moved to Nazareth Living Center. S. Martha once said that religious life was the only life that held meaning for her. She was faithful as a Sister of St. Joseph. May she now be blessed with eternal joy.

S. Rita Louise Huebner

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