Gemma was born and raised in Bardstown,
Kentucky. Her parents were downtown merchants, so she grew up in retail sales. As a small child, she met
Thomas Merton, who came into the family business to have keys made for the Abbey of Gethsemani. Merton also taught her
the first part of the Hail Mary, much to her Baptist parents' chagrin. For all the talk of Merton's fame and writings,
Gemma admits to being disappointed when she "didn't see him surrounded by light."
Her elementary school years were punctuated by interactions with her Catholic friends, trying to learn more about their
faith; the call to serve God in some capacity; and abuse at the hands of a family friend. At age 6, she nearly
died of food poisoning, and credits her cure to praying the first part of the Hail Mary. It was at this time that she
received her mission on Earth which would deal with Catholic vocations.
Sometime later, while she was in the school nurse's office, she saw strongly in the mind's eye something she did not
understand at the time: a woman dressed in blue who wore a funny white hat. A voice within her said, "Smaller" as her
attention became riveted on the white hat. Then she saw a group of people dressed like old-time farmers who were the
During her childhood, the sisters from three local motherhouses historically situated in Bardstown's vicinity intrigued
her. She felt particularly drawn to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, especially after experiencing the presence of
Christ at their motherhouse during a reception.
From her public schoolhouse window, Gemma could see the back of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, and the apse of
the church was constantly intriguing her.
In high school, she spent time on horseback, with the goal of becoming a Thoroughbred racehorse jockey. However,
she couldn't reconcile the growing desire to be a nun with that of riding racehorses for a living, and actually entertained
the thought of doing both, since the sisters were basically "doing their own thing" in the wake of Vatican II.
Then her best friend quit high school; the funds for Gemma's riding lessons became simultaneously exhausted;
and other outlets of recreation ceased to exist, so she withdrew and started praying more. The call to become a Catholic
nun would not go away, nor the desire to convert. After great misunderstanding and persecution due to her
desire to become Catholic, her parents relented and permitted her to enter the Catholic Church on February 17, 1980, at the
age of 16.
After high school, she attended Spencerian College in Louisville, Kentucky, where she majored in practical nursing.
She continued her discernment to the religious life, and discovered Elinor Tong Dehey's "Religious Orders of Women in the
United States" at the local library. Due to the college increasing tuition, she had to leave and seek education
elsewhere, despite being only three months away from graduation. In the fall of 1982, she started as a nursing major
at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. When she burned out in 1985, she took a leave-of-absence, and returned
as an English major.
Gemma graduated in 1987, then sought employment in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area, where she has family. She
worked as a temporary secretary for Manpower, then was hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority as a clerical pool worker.
After short stints in the Citizen Action Office; Industrial Development; and Personnel Security; she was eventually hired
by her last assignment, Community Resource Development.
During this time, Gemma was deep into discernment of her vocation. After graduating college, she had experienced
a vocation retreat with the Visitation nuns of Toledo, Ohio. It was during the post-retreat discernment years that she
started the Society of Our Lady of the Cloister (now Cloister Outreach) with other contemplative discerners. The cloistered
nuns loved the idea.
Being a Lay Dominican at the time, Gemma attended Jesu Caritas retreats at the St. Cecilia Dominican Motherhouse
in Nashville, Tennessee, discerning a possible call to their congregation. The charism for the Cloisterites was also
resurfacing, and she sought the assistance of not only the Visitation nuns, but the Passionist, Dominican, and Discalced Carmelite nuns
of her acquaintance as well. She began to commit the Rule to paper.
Gemma began having memories of the abuse suffered as a child. She sought help, because she knew that some of the
attractions she was having were not morally right. Her health also failed around the same time, nearly costing her her
job. She knew that the only way to heal the memories was to get married. She met her husband at Holy Ghost Catholic
Church in Knoxville during Lent of 1990. They married on October 13, 1990, and he was almost immediately called up for
Gulf War I. Her father-in-law died of liver cancer at about the same time.
Upon the return of her husband from the war, they set about trying to find an engineering job for him. After the
birth of their first child in 1992, he landed a job with a fire truck manufacturer in Alabama. Their second child came
along during that time. Two years after his hire date, he was hired by the now defunct Snorkel in St. Joseph, Missouri.
During their 17 months there, Gemma started the vocations committee at her parish. With her father's health failing,
she prayed for a stable job for her husband closer to Kentucky. Another engineering job was found in North Carolina
in 1996. Her father died soon after.
And now, ten years later, with the foundation of their eremitical community, the Cloisterites, comes also the call
to renew the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, and to console the grieving laity by bringing back the white-winged cornette while
engaging in unique apostolates. Please keep this project in your prayers.
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