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SMC celebrates heritage with historic dinner

Nicole Zook | Monday, January 30, 2006

The dress and conversation were different from events held in Stapleton Lounge centuries ago, but the atmosphere was the same as members of the Saint Mary’s community gathered there Friday night to celebrate the culmination of the College’s first Heritage Week with a dinner reminiscent of days gone by.

Stapleton Lounge – the room where famed former College president Sister Madeleva used to gather students to read poetry by the fire, where the College community waited for her body to arrive and held her wake and where the 1971 agreement to merge between Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame was signed – proved to be the perfect historical setting for the event.

Students, alumnae, faculty, administrators and Sisters of the Holy Cross mingled and dined together in Stapleton during the event, which both showcased the rich history of the school and connected students of today to Saint Mary’s women of the past.

The dinner was one of several events held for Heritage Week, including a scavenger hunt, two lectures, tours of historical campus landmark Reidinger House and a showing of “The Bells of Saint Mary’s.”

Student body president Kellye Mitros – who along with several other students was decked out in a vintage dinner dress – was one of the chief forces behind the initiation of Heritage Week, and during the event’s opening said she was pleased with the week’s success and the dinner itself.

“I cannot believe this week has come together so well,” Mitros said.

After the family-style dinner – served by student hostesses, just as in the past – College missions commissioner Jenny Robbins invited several Sisters to share their favorite memories of their time both studying and teaching at Saint Mary’s.

“It is really a joy for me to be here and see so many people celebrating the heritage of Saint Mary’s,” Sister Ruth Marie Knickerson said. “The heritage of Saint Mary’s is really the heritage of the Sisters of the Holy Cross.”

Having joined the convent in 1961 straight out of high school, Knickerson was not permitted to speak with the undergraduates with whom she shared the Saint Mary’s campus. She recalled seeing Sister Madeleva tending flowers while on her way to class, and how the entire student body gathered in Holy Spirit Chapel in Le Mans hall following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Despite the tight rules, Knickerson said, she and the other novitiates enjoyed some humorous times – including throwing parties in the old College clubhouse and enduring pranks from Notre Dame men.

“My first fall here we had about three panty raids,” Knickerson said. “You would hear this roar coming up The Avenue and they would decide what they were going to do with us and they decided to put us in the chapel.”

Other sisters shared stories of the Saint Mary’s/Notre Dame merger that almost was, student-Sister relations and student pranksters – including themselves.

“I didn’t enter the Sisters of the Holy Cross until after I graduated [from Saint Mary’s], and until the day I die I will be grateful because I had four very wonderful years and I loved it all,” Sister Elena Malits said.

Malits recounted how she and a group of classmates wrote and produced musical comedies at Saint Mary’s in the early 1950s. Her senior year she was responsible for the choreography and invited friends to a dress rehearsal to get feedback on the show. After being told the second act fell a bit flat – with only 24 hours to makes changes -Malits took matters into her own hands.

“I decided the easiest thing was to do it [myself],” she said. “So – I don’t know where I made this up – but it was to be a sort of wild Indian dance.”

In full native garb and gritting a rubber Indian knife in her teeth, Malits leapt onstage in a mid-air split and performed an energetic but “respectable” dance that “brought down the house.”

“The next morning I had a telephone message from Sister Madeleva’s secretary saying that Sister Madeleva would like to see me in her office,” Malits said. “And as a senior, I knew Sister Madeleva did not invite you to her office to compliment you.”

After berating her for the dance, which Sister Madeleva thought was unbecoming of a Saint Mary’s woman, the College president paused to give Maltis an opportunity to apologize. The student, however, wanted to stand her ground for what she thought was a respectable performance.

“Sister Madeleva, I am sorry – and I paused – that you didn’t like the dance,” Malits said to a roar of laughter from the guests.

The last speaker of the evening was 2004 graduate Kym Dunlap, who recently published “Her Memories Beyond the Avenue,” a collection of stories by Saint Mary’s women throughout the years.

Dunlap, who signed copies of her book earlier in the day during the Reidinger House tours, read excerpts of the book to the dinner crowd – including one poem written by a Saint Mary’s senior in 1946 that asked future students to remember those women who had gone before them.

Many seniors attended the event and remarked that the poem and dinner resonated with them.

“We feel a connection to the women before us, because obviously a women’s college isn’t for everybody, especially nowadays,” senior Jenny Nugent said.

“As a senior, [the dinner was] a nice time to gather with friends,” senior Mary Buell said. “It just really solidifies us as Saint Mary’s women.”