All roads lead to Rome, even those that start in Kentucky. After a lifetime of living and working in the Commonwealth, Sr. Mary Shauna Bankemper now finds herself in the historical heart of the Catholic Church as a newly elected general assistant to the Generalate of the Sisters of Notre Dame.
Sr. Shauna’s path to Rome began when she was a high school student at Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills, Ky. As a service project, she ran a Bible school in the mountains during her junior and senior years and discovered she had a knack for teaching. “I loved being a teacher partly because I love drama, and I’m in front of an audience every day. There’s nothing like education to transform the world.”
After graduating in 1965, she entered the convent and began a career as an educator, first as an elementary school teacher and then as a principal. Along the way, she earned a master’s in education at Xavier in 1979 and a certificate in administration, which led to her becoming superintendent of the Lexington diocese, Provincial Superior of the Kentucky province and, for the last six years, president of her alma mater, Notre Dame Academy.
Then last November, she was handed her greatest challenge when she was elected to represent her American sisters in Rome. The order has communities in Cleveland, Toledo, Ohio, Covington, Ky., and Los Angeles with about 800 American sisters, and also in Germany, Korea, India and Brazil. Every six years, it sends representatives to Rome to elect five new members to the Generalate who live and work in Rome until the next election.
“It was quite a surprise,” she says. “I was really trying to avoid it, but then my name came up from the floor the day before the election, and I knew this was what God wanted me to do.”
She’d been to Rome before, but always with a return ticket. Now, she lives on Via della Camilluccia and passes the Vatican “like it’s the house next door” on her way around the city. Her work involves meetings and planning trips to the different communities around the world to help them implement the order’s focus areas—social justice, sustainability, formation, charism, mission and spirituality, and being financially responsible for the future. There will be a lot of travel, and at age 63, she’s up for it. The first trip was to Germany in April, followed by Brazil and India.
But ending up in the “dream job” is something the young girl from Kentucky never, frankly, dreamed of. But her colleagues recognized her talent for facilitating. “I don’t always know I can do the job, but I always know I can love the people. No one wants you to solve their problems, but sometimes they just need a strong shoulder to lean on until they find a solution.”