Sisters preserve heritage, charisms of universities founded by orders

| Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans | March 29, 2017 | 0 Comments

ReBecca Roloff, president of St. Catherine University, poses for a selfie with students at a “Meet the President” event in 2016. Roloff was introduced to the community as the university’s next president. CNS photo/Rebecca Zenefski, courtesy St. Catherine University

Catholic women religious, intent on opening new frontiers for the children of immigrants, laid a foundation of convent schools and academies to educate girls.

But when they launched colleges off that base in the 19th and 20th centuries, they helped change the face of American higher education for a new generation.

Like Protestant educators and the founders of religiously unaffiliated colleges, sisters were part of a growing American movement to provide educational equality for women. At the time, colleges were almost exclusively male.

Catholics who opposed higher education for women thought it might encourage them to seek professional careers or remain single, but women religious and some sympathetic bishops bucked the tide of disapproval, Mary J. Oates wrote in a 1988 essay, “The Development of Catholic Colleges for Women, 1895-1960.”

Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, Illinois, was a strong supporter of Trinity College for women when it opened in Washington in 1900. Oates wrote: “If women seemed to lack capacity for work beyond the domestic, he argued, it was only because men had refused them entry into wider spheres of action. The sphere of woman was ‘wherever she could live nobly and do useful work.'”

Now in 21st-century America, at a time when faith-based colleges themselves compete for students and dollars, the women religious who stand in the shoes of their innovative and persistent forebears find themselves with an ongoing challenge: how to ensure that they have created a distinctive religious heritage that endures — even when they may not be around to nurture it.

Strategies include governance changes, such as rewriting covenants to make sure that the priorities of the religious community are explicitly part of institutional structure, or by appointing mission officers. But some religious communities also try something a bit less formal, encouraging students to visit retired sisters living nearby, initiating prayer partnerships, or providing ways for them to participate in social justice activities.

“Women religious would seem to be the likely group to found these colleges. If you go back to the Middle Ages, they were scholars and intellectuals. That interest was present long before they came to America,” said Sister Mary Reap, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister and president of Elms College, founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Chicopee, Massachusetts (with the Springfield Diocese and formally called College of Our Lady of the Elms). Sister Reap plans to step down as president at the end of this academic year.

“From the beginning, most of the women who came to us were from first-generation families who wanted them to have a well-rounded education but also to be employed, (though) careers for women were very limited,” she said.

The story of the women who launched a Catholic education movement in late 1800s and early 1900s America hasn’t been told enough, said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. If you were to chart a group of leaders before women got the vote or worked in the marketplace, he said, “you would have at the top of that chart women religious. … They were the first women to have those roles. They led the way.”

St. Mother Theodore Guerin, a French immigrant and founder of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, founded the academy that became St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana in 1840, within a year of her arrival. Sister Mary Pauline Kelligar, a Sister of Charity (the order begun by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton), was the first president of New Jersey’s College of Saint Elizabeth, opened in 1899.

“According to Women in Higher Education: An Encyclopedia” by Ana M. Martinez Aleman and Kristen A. Renn, Trinity College in Washington (now Trinity Washington University), was the first Catholic women’s college not to be preceded by a secondary school. And Notre Dame of Maryland was the first Catholic women’s school to award the four-year baccalaureate degree.

As leadership is increasingly transferred to non-consecrated people, the entire community has a responsibility to ensure that the mission, or “charism,” of the founding congregation is carried on in the context of an overarching Catholic identity, said Mary Pat Seurkamp, the retired president of Notre Dame of Maryland University who now works with MPK&D Consulting, a higher education strategy firm.

“Figuring out what those structures and processes are is very much evolving,” she in an interview with Global Sisters Report. “Places are experimenting with a number of things. We are learning what works and what doesn’t.”

ReBecca Koenig Roloff is the 11th president of St. Catherine University, or “St. Kate’s” — the largest American Catholic college for women. She takes the mission of the founding Sisters of St. Joseph to heart.

“I believe that my job is to make them (the Sisters of St. Joseph) visible in the community, and I want them to be there. Infusing their spirit in the institution … requires attention,” said Roloff, who last summer succeeded Sister Andrea Lee, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who is now president of Alverno College in Milwaukee.

A thousand miles away, Sister Carol Jean Vale, a Sister of St. Joseph, is approaching her sixth and final term as the president of another order-founded school, Chestnut Hill College, originally called Mount St. Joseph College.

Nestled in the picturesque environs of one of Philadelphia’s historical neighborhoods, the college still has a substantial number of sisters on the staff — 41 to be exact.

“We already have a very robust program. However, we must consider a different approach going forward, because so much of the understanding that our lay colleagues acquired about the charism, spirituality and mission was actually ‘caught’ through daily interaction with the sisters,” Sister Vale said.

Catholic colleges founded by women religious have been affected by many of the same trends challenging other schools, including lower graduation rates, student debt, compliance with federal mandates, and the maintenance costs that go with brick-and-mortar institutions. Successful recruitment of students in part depends on having a distinctive identity.

While women religious founded as many as 212 colleges, 80 had closed as of 2002, with eight more legally separated from the Catholic Church and another 20 acquired, merged with or incorporated into other institutions, according to Catholic Women’s Colleges in America, edited by Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett.

Currently, 104 colleges and universities founded by religious women remain, according to association statistics. Of these, 24 have religious as president, including four men.

Lay involvement in schools’ administration started to climb during the 1960s, with boards taking over the supervisory responsibilities that were once the sole province of sisters, according to Schier and Russett’s book.

Yet, sisters are very much in evidence on college and university boards, showing a keen interest in defining and shaping the way their charism is passed on to future generations.

Sister Jean Wincek, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul province, serves as vice chair of the board at St. Catherine University. About eight years ago, she said, the school launched a new governance model, creating a sponsorship council to oversee both possible changes to mission and the nitty-gritty of bylaw revisions, property transactions and potential mergers or closings.

“We wrote a document called a covenant to inspire and guide the board of trustees about how we work together. That core relationship is what helps to shape the university’s future,” she said. The school has three mission directors to oversee that the three fundamentals — Catholic, women and liberal arts — are woven through the fabric of the school. Seven sisters out of 30 sit on the board of trustees.

They also focused on concrete ways to further link sisters with students. Sisters signed up to be prayer partners. Each fall, the sisters host a picnic and a tour for new students. At the beginning and end of their college careers, students take a course intended to strengthen the commitment to Catholic teaching on social justice so crucial to the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

“We have huge community involvement with all of our students,” said Roloff, pointing out that St. Catherine University has a Center for Community Work & Learning. “I believe that the role of the women’s college, and, even more so, a Catholic women’s college, has never been more important than right at this moment.”

While in 1905 the school welcomed immigrant daughters from the prairie, this year the freshman class will include 44 percent women of color, she said proudly. “The charism of being a Catholic, liberal arts and women’s institution guided us for the first hundred years, and (continues) to carry us into our second.”

Senior Shannon McKeever, student senate president, said that she was drawn to the school by its focus on equipping women for leadership through education. McKeever, who hopes to work for a nonprofit when she graduates, acted purposefully to connect with the sisters through her work on human trafficking.

“You definitely have to be intentional to make those connections, because they aren’t as visibly present anymore,” she said.

“The sisters made a point when they founded the school that it wasn’t a finishing school but a college. That’s been very present throughout its entire history but it’s especially current,” said McKeever. “Students are expected to develop their leadership potential in the classroom, on and off the campus.”

The tradition of hospitality practiced by the Sisters of St. Joseph also permeates the campus, she added.

The fifth lay president of Marian University in Indianapolis, Dan Elsener, is going into his 16th year at the helm. Elsener said his university has worked hard to ensure that the mission of the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana, who founded the school (originally Marian College), is integrated consistently throughout the school, including the details of the handbooks and the constitution.

At Chestnut Hill College, Sister Vale is acutely aware of the need to prepare for a future with many fewer sisters on staff.

“In all too short a time, we won’t be around in large numbers to witness to the essence of what it means to be a Sister of St. Joseph, so it is imperative that we develop a plan to provide both experiential and theoretical education,” she said.

Those plans include an associates program that educates faculty, staff and administrators about the charism, mission history and spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph, as well as other lay formation programs. Students also are offered many chances to experience the values of the order, including service trips to Camden, New Jersey, the Appalachia region and Tanzania.

Noting that she is the only Sister of St. Joseph left heading one of the order’s colleges and universities, Sister Vale said: “This fact is indicative of the present time and foreshadows the time when none of the presidents will be Sisters of St. Joseph. I feel the deep and costly loss of a treasured and trusted presence in Catholic higher education.”

Now and then, said Vale, a convert herself, she takes a moment to distance herself and “consider those extraordinary women who have been quiet giants among us as they fearlessly built huge institutions to serve the people of God. I am in awe of these women … long before feminism, they witnessed the way forward for women. I am humbled,” she concludes, “and blessed to walk in their footsteps.”

Eisenstadt Evans is a religion columnist for Lancaster Newspapers Inc. and a freelance writer.

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