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Sister Mary Cletus Hehman

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'Sister Cletus' was Montessori pioneer in Central Kentucky

By Jennifer Hewlett of the Lexington Herald-Leader

Sister Mary Cletus Hehman, a Roman Catholic nun who enjoyed wearing nice clothes and driving her little white sedan and whose life revolved around children, died Monday at Holy Family Retirement Center at St. Anne Convent in Melbourne. She was 76.

An educator for 55 years, "Sister Cletus," as she was called, co-founded Lexington's Providence Montessori School and started a training center at the school that teaches teachers Montessori methods.

Sister Cletus and Sister Marcia Jehn founded Providence after serving as co-directors of St. Peter Claver Montessori in Lexington.

"They were the groundbreakers, went up against all sorts of odds" to establish Providence, said Sarah Katzenmaier, a former president of the school.

The nuns, members of the Sisters of Divine Providence, came to Lexington to teach at the St. Peter Claver parish school in the 1960s. In 1983, a new priest arrived at the church and kicked the nuns out. So the nuns established Providence Montessori.

Katzenmaier said her fondest memory of Sister Cletus was watching her read a book about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a group of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.

"When she would sit down to read there was just dead silence in the room, and the little ones were just fascinated," she said.

Katzenmaier also recalled that Sister Cletus would send notes home with children advising their parents of things they needed to do to help their children. She said one such note she received asked her to give her son Kagen smaller apples — ones that he could get his little fingers around — to take to school.

"She was one of the people that touched my life and changed my belief system," Katzenmaier said.

"She had a reason for everything, and she usually didn't have to ask twice or give you a suggestion twice," said Jo Ann Huntzinger, who once taught full-time at Providence Montessori and now works there in various capacities. "The children are what she did this for. It wasn't about the adults. It was always about the children."

Huntzinger said the pupils at Providence loved Sister Cletus, who was "very gentle, but commanded respect in a very kind way."

Retired Providence director Kathy Regan recalled a time that Sister Cletus called a parent to tell her that her daughter had put a small bead used in teaching mathematics up her nose. When the mother arrived at the school, she found her daughter lying across a desk, with Sister Cletus prying the bead from her nose with a crochet hook.

"She literally popped it out with a crochet hook," Regan said. "She had a solution for everything. She was pretty comfortable to do something like that."

Sister Cletus, she said, was accomplished in many areas, including cooking, sewing and gardening, but she loved teaching best.

Sister Cletus, a native of Southgate, taught in schools in Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, in addition to Kentucky. She was trained in the Montessori method at Xavier University in Cincinnati in the 1960s and went on to found the St. Anne Montessori program at St. Anne Convent in Melbourne. After co-founding Providence Montessori, she began sharing her passion for Montessori with other educators, becoming involved in training programs in Fayette County public schools and Raleigh, N.C., schools and starting the teacher program at Providence.

She returned to St. Anne Convent, which she first entered in 1949, in 2006 because of illness.

Survivors include two sisters, Betty Welling and Margaret Schwalbach; a brother, Wayne Hehman; and nieces and nephews.

Services will be at 4:30 p.m. Friday in Sacred Heart Chapel at St. Anne Convent in Melbourne. Visitation will be after 3 p.m. Friday at the convent chapel.

Dobbling, Muehlenkamp-Erschell Funeral Home in Bellevue is handling arrangements.

Published in Lexington Herald-Leader from July 28 to Aug. 2, 2009
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