Sister Fran Wilhelm, who made it a mission to support and be an advocate for the region’s growing Hispanic community, was remembered Thursday for her decades of service to others, particularly through her work with Centro Latino.

“She was kind of a gentle giant,” said Susan Montalvo-Gesser, an Owensboro attorney who is the head of Catholic Charities of Owensboro. “We called her the Mother Teresa of Western Kentucky.”

Wilhelm, 91, was a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph. Wilhelm died early Thursday morning.

After postings as a teacher in New Mexico, California and Kentucky, Wilhelm traveled to South America, where she taught for seven years at schools in Venezuela and Chile. Wilhelm returned to the United States and had several posts before she returned to Kentucky in 1983.

Sister Rosemary Keough, who worked with Wilhelm and was a close friend, said a chance encounter with a Hispanic woman in an Owensboro grocery store led Wilhelm to being the first director of what became Centro Latino, an expansive Hispanic ministry that provided Hispanics new to the community with a place to stay and assistance as they built their lives.

“Sister Fran realized we really needed to have a ministry for Hispanics,” Keough said.

What became Centro Latino first operated out of an empty school building at St. Peter of Alcantara Catholic Church in Stanley.

At the time, in the early 1990s, there weren’t many services for Hispanics new to the Owensboro region.

“That’s why Sister Fran was a pioneer,” Keough said. The school became an “oasis” for the Hispanic men, and eventually the families the men brought with them, Keough said.

“When the families began to come, she was very much into helping them,” Keough said.

At times, Wilhelm would act as a translator for Hispanic newcomers, as they obtained leases from landlords or with doctor appointments.

“Gradually, the Hispanic community began to be enveloped into the community and became part of us,” Keough said.

Wilhelm was also good at eliciting help from her fellow Ursulines and from the community.

“She had a wonderful way of getting people involved,” Keough said.

Montalvo-Gesser, who was urged to pursue becoming a lawyer by Wilhelm, said Wilhelm once called her to translate, and to hold the hand, of a Hispanic woman in labor at the hospital.

“You can’t say ‘no’ to Sister Fran,” Montalvo-Gesser said. “... You knew when you were around her, you were around a living saint. She was a wonderful human being, who taught the rest of us how to love people. She had a heart to serve, and thought of everyone else first.”

Wilhelm remained active as director of Centro Latino until her retirement in 2018. Even after her retirement, clients she had once helped through Centro Latino would come to visit her, Keough said.

“She was wonderful. People considered her like a mother,” Keough said.

Montalvo-Gesser said, “She was the gentle giant in our community of welcoming the stranger … It’s not just a loss for the Ursulines, it’s not just a loss for the church. It’s a loss for the entire community.”

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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