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Speaker remembers College’s Graduate School of Theology

| Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Sandra Yocum, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton, spoke to the Saint Mary’s community about the origins of the Saint Mary’s Graduate School of Theology in a lecture Monday night in the Student Center.

The lecture, titled “A School of Their Own: Saint Mary’s Graduate School of Sacred Theology (1943 – 1969),” took place to commemorate the College’s 175th anniversary and to celebrate the legacy of poet and third College president Sister Madeleva Wolff.

Yocum began her lecture with a quote from “A Room of One’s Own” by author Virginia Woolf.

“Less than 100 years ago, Virginia Woolf wrote the famous phrase, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,’” Yocum said. “The kind of deep cultural changes that Woolf advocated for remain in too many places unrealized today, as they did back then.”

Yocum linked Virginia Woolf’s ideas about women needing their own space to Sister Madeleva, who in ’40s helped create the Graduate School of Theology at the College.

“Sister Madeleva created a space and provided the basics, not for women to compose fiction, but for them to study theology,” Yocum said.

Yocum said the program traces its roots back to 1943, when Sister Madeleva attended a Catholic Education Conference.

“There were no graduate schools for theology in the United States,” she said. “Sister Madeleva volunteered the Saint Mary’s campus as the first graduate school for women to study theology. It was strange because back then, only the ordained studied theology. Neither women, nor unordained men were permitted to study theology at a higher level.”

Madeleva used figures from Church tradition to defend women’s education, Yocum said.

“In order to justify teaching women advanced theology, Sister Madeleva used examples of Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Avila, along with other women,” she said. “She wanted to give valiant women a room to become great and to study theology on their own.”

Yocum said she believed the divine influenced Madeleva to offer Saint Mary’s as a place for women to study.

“She described it as an impulse outside of her will, like a Holy Spirit. It was a leap of faith, an act of hope, and Madeleva chose to take it,” she said.

In the beginning the program was small, Yocum said. When the school began in the summer of 1943, it lasted a modest six weeks with only 18 students enrolled and three teachers. In later years, the program grew as more sisters and laypeople arrived. As time went on, the program gained attention from prominent priests and other clergy members, Yocum said.

“Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara was a valuable ally in the school’s founding,” she said. “He used his national stature to support Sister Madeleva’s efforts. He secured other scholars and priests to teach and helped to guarantee jobs for women who graduated from the Saint Mary’s program.”

Madeleva also faced competition from other programs that claimed they had the first graduate school, like the Catholic University of America, Yocum said. St. Bonaventure also tried to make this claim, however, and neither program made doctoral degrees in theology available to women.

Even with the help Madeleva received, Yocum said she still faced major hurdles to get the new graduate school off the ground.

“The search for professors was especially hard,” Yocum said. “She was doubted and questioned, yet valiantly she persisted.”

Yocum interviewed several former students of the theology program and said to many of them, their strongest memories are of Madeleva’s strong personality and lasting impact on the graduate experience.

“She held poetry readings with her students and always invited them into her office,” Yocum said. “Graduates spoke about her willingness to eat with them and the way she would invite them into the garden behind her office.”

Yocum said the graduate school helped foster a community of sisters.

“Sisters from different religious orders would spend time with each other and the laypeople in the program, which was incredibly unique back then,” she said.  

The program ended shortly after Madeleva’s retirement in 1961, Yocum said, and it officially closed in 1966 with the last class graduating in 1969. However, graduates continued to make an impact in their communities.

“[Alumna] Mary Daly wrote The Church and the Second Sex, a feminist critique of the Church,” Yocum said. “Other sisters became a backbone of their communities. Sister Therese Rose Lang founded Bethany House in 1984. It provides long-term housing for victims of domestic abuse and helps care for the women.”

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