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Sisters lead Saint Mary’s through the years

Kelly Meehan | Friday, November 17, 2006

When the Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Cross founded Saint Mary’s in 1844, they could hardly have fathomed what the College would be like in the year 2006.

For the sisters at Saint Mary’s – the first college the international Congregation established in the United States – looking 162 years into the future may have seemed like a challenge, but the decades passed quickly. Intense construction, dedicated educators and unrealized plans to become a co-educational institution marked eras of the College’s diverse history. But one thing has remained constant: the Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Cross’ unique presence on campus, guiding and influencing Saint Mary’s.

Congregation President Sister Joy O’Grady said what began as a “family business” of sisters who traveled to Notre Dame, Ind. from Bertrand, Mich. to educate women has flourished into one of the nation’s premier sites of higher education and a retirement home for Sisters who have completed their international work.

Over the years the Sisters’ leadership positions at the College have dwindled, but they have not compromised their stake in assuring that the “excellence of the [Catholic] Church is maintained and fostered within a holistic education,” O’Grady said.

The Sisters have gone from dominating the College’s presidential and professor positions to currently maintaining leadership roles behind the scenes as six or seven members of the Board of Trustees.

And while the majority of Saint Mary’s administration is laypersons, Sisters continue to fill the positions of vice president for mission, professors, director of space planning and assistant to the vice president for mission.

The majority of the Congregation, however, is constantly present at Saint Mary’s. Nearly 200 sisters call the College’s campus “home.”

With a median age of 74, they are over 50 years older than the 1,500 members of the student body, but they still play a vital role within the College community.

They reside in three locations – Augusta Hall, Saint Mary’s Convent and Rosary Hall – in the southwest corner of campus. The Sisters’ portion of the land-stake exceeds the 500 acres that belong to the College.

As a separate entity, the Congregation owns the vast majority of woodlands that run along the eastbound side of Interstate 80-90, the nature trails and most of the land in the front of Saint Mary’s along Route 31/33. It also leases the Belles’ athletic fields to the College.

This unique ownership of the land bordering Saint Mary’s gives the Congregation complete jurisdiction of its uses.

Most notably, the Congregation entered into an agreement earlier this year with the Holladay Corporation to build a Hilton Garden Inn and conference center, set to open before the 2007 football season, on the northeast corner of campus.

The decision to lease the land for the construction of this hotel and conference center, which took much of the student body by surprise in August 2006, was deemed a “formal business relation” by O’Grady.

“Negotiations were developed for some time,” she said, “and we kept the College apprised the whole [time].”

As the final decisions of the time and location of the construction were made, O’Grady and College President Carol Ann Mooney were engaged in close and careful consideration – a quintessential example of the working relationship between Saint Mary’s and its sponsor, The Congregation.

Mooney, who has been friends with O’Grady for “many years,” said the construction of the Hilton Garden Inn is the result of the Sisters’ role as “astute and careful financial planners” as they “find additional ways to bring in revenue” due to the shrinking number of their full-time employees in the United States.

“Utilization of their land holdings is one of the ways that they can do that,” she said.

While O’Grady said she did not “personally encounter concerns expressed” about the construction, she said feels the potential problems, which exist within any project, do not outweigh the benefits.

She said this project will “benefit the whole community” – one of the Congregation’s most noble aspirations.

“The relationship between the college we founded so many years ago and the congregation is closely connective and collaborative,” O’Grady said. “We see the changing needs of our time … and continue to commit to issues in the Church, world and society.”

O’Grady said the Sisters have watched the College greatly change over the years, and have worked to grow and adapt to the changes – issues that, regardless of the outcome, have “sustained [the Sisters’] significant influence [they] wish to maintain in the College.”

The two entities’ close relationship has maintained and fostered Saint Mary’s Catholic identity, both modern and historical.

“Now that [Sister O’Grady] and I also have a professional relationship, our friendship enables us to talk easily and openly about mutual concerns,” Mooney said.  “She and I have regular meetings and we make every attempt to cooperate and enhance each other’s mission.”

O’Grady said this relationship also includes the students – the vital link in pursuing and maintaining Saint Mary’s mission.

Students are welcome to engage in this “ideas exchange,” O’Grady said, and they often interact with sisters through the “Friends with Sisters Program” that pairs students with Sisters to foster a relationship through religious and social events.

Although the Congregation plays a large role in the College’s decision-making process, O’Grady said it is important to remember they “want to be supportive and collaborative.”

“It is our heritage too,” she said. “We have watched this school grow, and we are proud of this high quality school.”

The student body has come to recognize this through their recent appreciation for the history of the College displayed during the first ever “Heritage Week” last January.

Student body president Susan McIlduff said the student government-sponsored week, which will take place again during the week of Jan. 22, 2007, has “contributed to students’ understanding of the Congregations’ History.” McIlduff said one of Heritage Week’s highlights was “the family style dinner … [where], the leadership of the Congregation as well as approximately 20 other sisters who have influenced the College were invited to come and share their stories” While plans are in the works to incorporate even more understanding about the Congregation’s influence on the College during this year’s Heritage Week, Mooney said the positive influence inquisitive students had on the Sisters was impressive.

“The Sisters were thrilled with the student interest in their heritage last year,” Mooney said.

“It truly is a remarkable story of strong, brave women. I am proud to work closely with them to enhance the future for both Saint Mary’s College and the Sisters of the Holy Cross.”

As for O’Grady, her hopes for the future mirror those of the majority of the College community.

“My hope is the College will continue to grow and thrive,” she said.

“We must continue the vibrancy and excellence and outreach beyond [Saint Mary’s]. It is this sense of service that will continue to allow us to grow.”