Notre Dame community reflects on life of Sister Mary McNamara
Courtney Becker | Friday, February 16, 2018
As a Sister of the Incarnate Word, Sister Mary McNamara proclaimed the Gospel of love by bonding in community.
And at Notre Dame, she found that community in the form of her dream job: being the rector of Breen-Phillips (BP) Hall.
Serving as the Breen-Phillips community’s rector was the most fulfilling ministry of her life, Dillon Hall rector Fr. Paul Doyle said.
“She expected to be in the ministry a lot longer, but never to take on another one: This was going to be it for her,” Doyle said. “She called it her dream job.”
Sister McNamara died Feb. 7 due to complications from a stroke, according to an email sent to students by vice president of student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding. She was 67.
Senior Nhi Vu, a resident assistant (RA) in Breen-Phillips Hall who attended Sister McNamara’s funeral in her hometown of Cleveland on Tuesday, was touched to learn that although Sister McNamara only spent six years at Notre Dame, she considered them to be some of the best years of her life.
“When we went to Cleveland, everybody was just saying that being a rector was her dream job, it was her favorite job, she loved Notre Dame so much, she loved this, this was her favorite ministry,” Vu said. “And [they said] just how big of a role we actually were and how seriously she took her job and how much she loved us and just all the life and sass and soul she brought to BP.”
Attending the funeral, Vu said, enlightened her and the rest of the BP community to the many other ministries Sister McNamara undertook throughout her life, including mentoring people from at-risk communities, such as the mentally disabled and those reintegrating into society after spending time in prison.
“She was very interesting. The more we keep learning about her and hearing the other stories, the more we keep learning about who she is,” Vu said. “We know her mostly just from being our rector and that’s just like, the very top of the hierarchy. We always respected her a lot and saw her in that authority role, and I think working with her, as closely as we did as seniors and now hall staff, we slowly learned so much more about it.”
Sister McNamara, who celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Sister of the Incarnate Word in 2017, was a loyal Cleveland native and sports fan, a teacher in the Moreau First Year Experience course and an avid Notre Dame women’s basketball fan — a fact the team recognized by honoring her on the video board in Purcell Pavilion during its Feb. 11 game.
Senior and Breen-Phillips RA Kaitlyn Keffler said the outpouring of love for Sister McNamara from the Notre Dame community in the wake of her death, as well as at her funeral, demonstrated how many lives Sister McNamara touched.
“It’s made me at least realize just how lucky we were and lucky we are to have known her,” Keffler said. “Like I said, she has our BP community and then the greater Notre Dame community — so that’s one family — and then I’ve met her two families: Her biological family and then her Sisters of the Incarnate Word are both amazing. So that’s at least three, I’m sure there are more people out there.”
One member of Sister McNamara’s extended family the BP community has rallied around is Sister Mary Jane Hahner, the rector of Pasquerilla West Hall (PDub) and Sister McNamara’s best friend.
“We had the initial stage of grief and then the ‘How’s Sister MJ?’” Breen-Phillips Hall Assistant Rector (AR) Erin Daugherty said. “Because they were inseparable. Absolutely inseparable. And Sister Mary Mac would always just refer to her as her buddy. ‘I’ll see you guys later, I’m going to catch up with my buddy.’”
Doyle said he admired the close bond between Sister McNamara and Hahner.
“Fr. Bob Loughery of Sorin Hall was over at Cleveland for the [funeral] events over there, and at the wake service he observed to everybody … that he wanted to thank MJ for showing the rest of us what a true friendship was alongside of Mary,” Doyle said. “The two of them saw each other as best friends, but there was an openness in their friendship for including the rest of us.”
Along with Flaherty Hall rector Sister Mary Donnelly, Sister McNamara and Hahner called themselves “the Golden Girls.” This friendship started with a shared sense of humor and love for basketball, Hahner explained, but developed into a relationship in which both women could be completely vulnerable.
“I always felt at home because I was free to be myself — the good parts and the bad parts — and hopefully I allowed her to have that freedom, too,” she said. “We told each other that we loved one another every day, just about. … And we weren’t ashamed of saying that to one another. And that’s a tremendous gift, to be able to find that and have a relationship that develops that wide.”
BP senior Courtney Koch said Sister McNamara’s competitive side emerged in her friendship with Hahner.
“I was a captain of the Fisher Regatta and Sister Mary would always come watch us,” she said. “She would always just cheer for BP to beat PDub because she couldn’t let her buddy win, so we had to beat her buddy.”
This competitive streak, Hahner said, extended to many aspects of Sister McNamara’s life.
“I needed this spice and she said, ‘I’ll bring it over,’ and I said, ‘No, you don’t have to bring it over, I’ll come over and get it,’” she said. “She said, ‘No, I’ll bring it over. I’m gonna beat you,’ and she hung up. And with that … I raced out of here and we met in Siegfried in the circle. Both of us were gasping for air because we tried to run, and we were laughing so hard.”
Laughter followed Sister McNamara, Doyle said.
“I don’t know that I have words to describe it, but she made funny things happen and laughed at appropriate times — she was just alive,” he said.
Daugherty said one of Sister McNamara’s signature habits was telling a joke to start her welcome speech before each hall Mass in BP.
“She had an absolutely wonderful sense of humor, whether it was in staff meetings or she always opened Mass with a joke that had something to do with the readings,” Daugherty said. “And I don’t know where she’d get these things from but they were absolutely hilarious and you’re just like ‘I can’t believe she just said that at Mass but it’s pretty awesome.’”
Senior Anne Vieser, a BP RA, said the opening joke at Mass was Sister McNamara’s favorite part of her job.
“I do remember always appreciating those tidbits because it just boils everything down,” she said. “And then Fr. Pete [McCormick, director of Campus Ministry], I think it was, was saying that more than half the times that he came to say Mass, Sister would steal whatever message he was going to give in his homily at the beginning. So then he’d have to come up with something else to focus on.”
Sister McNamara’s ability to tie a joke into a teaching about the Gospel, Hahner said, was indicative of her natural propensity for teaching.
“She was a born teacher, and she did that in everything. If she was supposed to say the prayer for, like, rector training, she went online and she would get something that was comical and then would tie it in,” Hahner said. “ … So she would take that joke, and then she would interpret the Gospel as only a good teacher really could. And she loved teaching Moreau because it was about Notre Dame; it was about life; it was about relationships; it was about healthy living.”
Junior Ryan Green, a student in one of Sister McNamara’s first Moreau classes, said her enthusiasm for the course was contagious.
“She seemed to have such a good attitude that you couldn’t help but participate and want to be there,” Green said. “It wasn’t like she had these crazy activities, we didn’t go travel the universe in the Magic School Bus or anything like that, but she just — her attitude, I thought, was contagious. … She had such an easy way of making things enjoyable, making people happy.”
Her ability to have a positive impact on so many different aspects of Notre Dame in a relatively short time, Keffler said, speaks to Sister McNamara’s ability to lead.
“After these last couple weeks, I’ve seen just how many lives she’s touched through her Moreau class, and the other rectors and obviously Sister MJ and all the PDub girls have a special place,” she said. “I mean, everyone in the administration, even. She was a rector for six years, but she’s definitely made an impact and helped mentor a lot of those rectors as well.”
One of the biggest examples of Sister McNamara’s leadership was her role in BP’s adoption of an “honorary Babe” last year, Daugherty said.
“I think one of the biggest impacts [she had] was her intense desire for everyone in the community to band together, and to band together about things that were outside of themselves,” she said. “So last year, we had an honorary Babe who was a little girl who was really sick, and she actually ended up passing away over the summer. But [Sister McNamara] singlehandedly motivated the entire dorm to write letters to her, write a joke book, to visit her — things like that. … She really pushed people to try and look outside themselves and to see what not only they individually [could] do, but what a group of strong women could do for someone else.”
Hahner said Sister McNamara’s faith in the power of women was a core tenant of her beliefs.
“You know, she was always very strong for women, and she’s the one who taught me ‘A-men and A-women’ — that there should be an equality in our church, in our world for men and women; that as long as respect was there, life was worth living,” Hahner said.
Sister McNamara did not limit her quest for justice to only women. Vieser said everything Sister McNamara did was driven by a desire for justice.
“The thing that kept coming up was her favorite beatitude was, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this all makes sense,’ everything she did in her life was for that end. That wouldn’t be something she necessarily shared with us, that that was her favorite beatitude, but I think knowing that now, it all makes sense.”
This ultimate goal, Hahner said, spoke to her conviction as a member of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word.
“She was a Sister of the Incarnate Word, first and foremost, and that means that she was bringing the Jesus to people, and she would be like, ‘What would Jesus do? What would Mary Mac do?’ because it was usually right,” she said. “You know, God was really important in her life, and so are God’s people.”
Keffler said Sister McNamara’s care for others is something everyone in the BP community is trying to keep in mind despite her absence.
“She was always telling us to look out for each other and, you know, ‘Best People, Best Place,’ so we still have to live up to that,” Keffler said. “I think that’s something that she truly believed in, and that’s part of the reason why we’re doing OK right now at least.”
Sister McNamara would be proud to see the way BP has rallied around each other during their time of loss, Hahner said.
“They were her girls,” she said. “ … She was just really very, very proud to be their rector and to live among them, and she considered them a gift from God. And they are.”
Aside from the day-to-day tasks of a rector, Koch said, the hardest adjustment for the BP residents has been not being able to turn to Sister McNamara in times of need.
“I think the biggest thing is getting used to the fact that she’s not around anymore,” Koch said. “You’d always see her door open and you would pop in and say ‘hi’ or things like that.”
While the hall will not be the same, however, Vu said she knows Sister McNamara has not left it behind.
“Everyone can feel that BP just feels so empty and different without her, but we still know that she’s watching over us and is still with us,” she said.
Doyle said although he misses having Sister McNamara here with him, no one would “begrudge her a trip to where she’s gone.”
“[Tuesday] night when we drove back from Cleveland, I was with MJ and Pat Kincaid of Knott Hall, and I said ‘What I would like right now is for Mary to be in the fourth seat here in the car and just telling us about all that she has experienced in the last two weeks, including heaven, you know?’” Doyle said. “I don’t think we look for replacements, we look for successors. Mary was Mary and we were blessed.”
In the end, though, Hahner said, perhaps no one felt more blessed than Sister McNamara herself while she was at the University.
“We would look up at the Dome and she would say, ‘J, we’re at Notre Dame,’” Hahner said. “ … She didn’t ever cry, but — not never, but she cried at things that were important. And she would always fill up, and she said that — looking at Our Lady — and said that it was the best job she ever had and that she hoped that it would be her last job in ministry. And God took her up on it.”