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Community reflects on life of Mary Ellen Konieczny

| Monday, March 26, 2018

As someone who researched cultural divisions for many years, Mary Ellen Konieczny had a way of bringing together those of differing opinions.

“She was really interested in cultural conflict and, in particular, cultural conflict in religion and polarization in the U.S. Catholic church,” Linda Kawentel, a former Notre Dame doctoral student, said. “And so, one of her interests was actually getting people to talk to each other — not only about theology, but even just to get people to know each other.”

Professor Konieczny, the Henkels Family Associate Professor of Sociology, died Feb. 24 at the age of 58 due to complications from cancer.

She was known as a prominent sociologist and researcher in her field, Fr. Paul Kollman, an associate professor of theology and her former classmate and colleague, said.

“I just appreciated having a friend on the faculty like her who knew enough about my field to be conversant and also was a good sociologist,” he said. “[She] helped me understand her field and study of religion from the perspective of her discipline. She was a very generous, acute, thoughtful person.”

Professor Konieczny, who also went by “MEK,” was in the process of studying the role of religion at the U.S. Air Force Academy. She was also researching Our Lady of Kibeho — a Marian apparition in Rwanda — and its role in healing divisions in the country after genocide.

“Everything she worked to study was somehow focusing on this question of polarization and connection, and I think that recurs again and again in her life, in how she lives as a person, how she wanted to always connect people and also what she wanted to study,” Ann Mische, associate professor of sociology and peace studies, said.

Professor Konieczny and Mische formed a book-writing group with sociology professor Erin McDonnell to hold each other accountable during the writing process. Mische said these meetings formed some of her favorite memories with Professor Konieczny.

“I really loved meeting with her every week, talking through our projects, seeing her figure something out,” Mische said. “She was struggling and struggling with something about her book, and as we would talk, seeing her excitement as she figured out the way that she was going to solve this problem in the writing of her book, that was really fun.”

McDonnell said she came to know Professor Konieczny as someone who always pushed others to achieve their highest potential through this process.

“I came to realize that Mary Ellen was someone who had very high standards and aspirations, but had that rare ability to be honest and vulnerable about her own uncertainties,” McDonnell said in an email. “At the same time, she was a stalwart cheerleader for her students and colleagues, always willing to be the mirror that reflected back our best selves when we were uncertain.”

Professor Konieczny was a particularly objective instructor, junior Jeffrey Murphy said.

“One of the four founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber, used to say that it is a great attribute of professors to be politically impartial,” Murphy said. “He basically said that students should walk away from your class and have no idea where you stand on the political spectrum. That’s how good you should be at not letting your political beliefs influence the way in which you present information, and to this day, I have no clue where she fell on the political spectrum.”

Kawentel, who earned her Ph.D. under Professor Konieczny’s guidance, recalled their long discussions and ability to connect over a number of subjects.

“We could easily jump from topic to topic and it would be an engaging conversation,” Kawentel said. “Anything from teaching to personal life to sociology and research to faith and feminism. She was just fun to talk to and whether that was like our meetings in her office or over a glass of wine at her house, she was a very lively conversationalist.”

Through these conversations, Professor Konieczny also created a space for marginalized students to discuss their experiences, senior Salonee Seecharan said.

“I’m a brown, first-generation immigrant woman, and that can be difficult at Notre Dame sometimes,” Seecharan said. “And I’m Hindu, I’m brown, I’m a woman — she understands some of those things, and some of those things she doesn’t. She’s Catholic, so there’s a big difference, but there was something very safe about walking into her office.”

Seecharan said Professor Konieczny was also known for her sense of fashion.

“She just wore things that were really flattering and very, very stylish. … [she wore] lots of bright colors,” Seecharan said. “It really reflected her person: very welcoming and very bright — very sunshiney, even in the winter.”

Professor Konieczny went out of her way to help others, Seecharan said, even writing recommendations while she was ill.

“She was one of my application [recommenders], and that was when she was sick,” Seecharan said. “I didn’t know at the time, because she didn’t tell us — it was kind of a surprise for the students, we knew she wasn’t doing well — but I was applying in November, December and she wasn’t feeling well at the time, and she still did it. She could have told me she just couldn’t, but she did it.”

Abigail Jorgensen, a doctoral student, also noted Professor Konieczny’s influence on her life. She first met Professor Konieczny as an undergraduate student and when she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, Professor Konieczny became her advisor.

“She just really took what I wanted to do and made it into something that I could see as a reality which was really cool, especially for a job like being a professor where less than 1 percent of the population has a Ph.D. so it doesn’t seem all that attainable especially if you’re from somewhere in Minnesota that has one stoplight,” Jorgensen said. “But it was really cool for her to take that and make it into a visual reality that I could see and work toward.”

Taking a holistic approach to education, Professor Konieczny was interested in all aspects of her students’ lives, Jorgensen said.

“Just as an advisor she really cared not just about what I wrote that day or what I had written the week before [or] what conferences I had applied to,” Jorgensen said. “ … She really cared about the whole person, not just the work you produced.”

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About Natalie Weber

Natalie Weber graduated in 2020 from the University of Notre Dame, with a Bachelor of Arts in English and minors in journalism and computing. A native of Grand Junction, Colorado she most recently served as Managing Editor at The Observer. // Email: [email protected] // Twitter: @wordsbyweber

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