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SMC kicks off Heritage Week, honors Sr. Madeleva

| Monday, February 3, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series exploring the unique characteristics of the Saint Mary’s alumnae, leaders and places on campus in honor of the College’s annual Heritage Week.

This week marks Saint Mary’s annual celebration of Heritage Week, a time for students to reflect on the rich tradition of the College.

One of the most important figures in the College’s history is Sr. Madeleva Wolff, a woman who embodied the College’s four core values of spirituality, learning, community and justice, junior Grace McSorley said.

srmadeleva (nun)

McSorley, who has studied Wolff ever since she learned of her many contributions to Saint Mary’s, said she thinks all students should know her story.

“She is truly fascinating to me,” she said. “She was educated at Notre Dame, [the University of California] Berkeley, Oxford. She ran with an impressive literary circle, with friends like Edith Wharton and C.S. Lewis, and she published over 20 books in her lifetime.”

During her tenure as the third Saint Mary’s president beginning in 1934, Wolff headed the English department and introduced many distinguished programs, McSorely said.

“She formed a school of theology here that made Saint Mary’s one of the only colleges at the time offering graduate degrees in theology to women, and she also ordered the construction of the Moreau Center for the Arts, which was one of the first buildings in the nation to have galleries, theaters and classrooms for the pursuit of art,” she said. “One of my favorite facts about her, though, is her role in establishing the nursing program. As a nursing major, I don’t know where I would be without Sr. Madeleva and her accomplishments while president. She truly molded Saint Mary’s into the great place it is today.”

Sunday, the College held an event in the Student Center Lounge to celebrate her poetry and life.

English professor Sr. Eva Hooker selected and read nine poems from one of Wolff’s collections, including famous poems “Apology for Youth” and “Song of Bedlam Inn.”

“These nine poems in some way read Sr. Madeleva as I knew her through the years both as a student and as a young sister,” Hooker said. “She was president when I came here as a first-year student in 1958, and she retired from the College not too long after that. She would come over on Sunday afternoons and read poetry to us, and I got the privilege of walking her back and forth between one side of the campus and the other.

“She was always the person who best represented Saint Mary’s.”

After the reading, College archivist John Kovach shared a variety of memorabilia belonging to Wolff, including her college scrapbook, old photographs and many of her letters, McSorley said.

“John also played a recording of Sr. Madeleva reading her own poetry, which I really enjoyed,” McSorley said. “It was great to be able to hear her poems spoken by her own voice. I have always been a fan of her poetry, and I was glad other students could hear it, too.”

Saint Mary’s President Carol Ann Mooney said Wolff is still widely studied, read and even quoted today.

“She is truly legendary,” Mooney said. “She was an internationally acclaimed poet and brought a great deal of recognition to Saint Mary’s through her connections around the world. Many refer to those as the ‘golden years.’

“I was an English major during my years as a student and of course, I have read all of her books and biographies. I admire her work ethic and love for Saint Mary’s very much.”

Wolff set Saint Mary’s course as the leading Catholic women’s college in the country, and she truly cared about the students, Mooney said.

“In fact, she ate dinner with them in Reignbeaux Lounge regularly,” she said. “She is also rumored to have stood on her balcony (her bedroom was in the southeast corner of LeMans) to watch the young women coming home from their dates.

“She also was responsible for much of the beauty of our campus, working with the head gardener at the time to bring as many species of plants and trees to campus as possible. She was a believer in the presence of God in nature.”

Vice President of the Division for Mission Sr. Veronique Wiedower said Wolff is also responsible for inspiring students to expand their worldviews while remaining firmly rooted in the Catholic and Holy Cross heritage.

“Sr. Madeleva was, as she says of herself, a person who dreamed and then worked hard to make her dreams come to fruition,” Wiedower said. “She believed that women needed to be immersed in a global reality and worked hard to bring the world to Saint Mary’s.

“Her promise to the students of her day was one of discovering the universe and one’s place in it. That is still true for the College today.”

Wolff’s legacy can still be seen throughout the College, Wiedower said.

“[It’s in] the beauty of the campus, in the curriculum that embraces the liberal arts and professional arts, and in the excellence of our faculty; in our dedication to study abroad and global studies and environmental studies,” she said.

Wiedower said she hopes she can be equally committed to her ministry and find the time to nourish both her own religious life and love for music.

“The thing I personally find most inspiring about Sr. Madeleva was her ability to stay true to herself in whatever circumstances she found herself.

“She would have loved to focus solely on the artistic and aesthetic aspects of her life — her poetry, her love of nature, her delight in travel, her love of religious life — and yet she gave over 30 years to administration because she believed in the mission of education.”

Student body president Kat Sullivan said the students today acknowledge Wolff’s motivational legacy in many of the College’s courses and in daily life.

“I was a teaching assistant for an English class of mostly freshmen with Professor Laura Haigwood last year called ‘Saint Mary’s Women,’” Sullivan said. “We studied Sr. Madeleva’s biography and analyzed her poetry, and it was interesting to see how different she was from the other sisters of her time. She’s still very much a part of our curriculum and inspires our students to follow their beliefs, despite what anyone else says.”

For Sullivan, the greatest way to honor Wolff as a Saint Mary’s woman is to try to make a difference in the world.

“I think each student should model what they do on the mission statement.,” she said. “It’s no secret that Saint Mary’s women are prepared to make a difference in the world, and that’s an exact reflection of what Sr. Madeleva embodied.

“I think modeling yourself after the Saint Mary’s mission while also creating your own mission is what each student can do to honor Sr. Madeleva.”

Since 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Wolff’s death, Saint Mary’s professors Susan Baxter and Haigwood are currently working on a play showcasing her life and legacy, set to be released in March, McSorley said.

“In the words of Sr. Madeleva, ‘We [at Saint Mary’s] promise you discovery: the discovery of yourselves, the discovery of the universe, and your place in it.’” McSorely said. “Because of Sr. Madeleva, there is no place else in the world I’d rather discover myself.”

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About Kelly Konya

Kelly Konya is an English major bred on Catcher in the Rye and Roman cornettos.

Contact Kelly