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Saint Mary’s to host first annual National Literary Festival honoring Sister Madeleva Wolff

| Monday, November 4, 2019

Sister Madeleva Wolff, the third president of Saint Mary’s, was known as the “lady abbess of nun poets,” and often invited artists and authors to campus. Saint Mary’s will continue this tradition with the first annual National Literary Festival, hosted by bestselling author and Saint Mary’s alumna Adriana Trigiani (‘81), beginning Friday.

“This event honors former Saint Mary’s College president Sister M. Madeleva Wolff, and her bestselling memoir, ‘My First Seventy Years,’” Trigiani said in a press release. “She was a visionary who brought the great artists of her time to our campus. Luminaries including Helen Hayes, Clare Boothe Luce, Irene Dunne, Jean Charlot, Norman LaLiberte, Walter Kerr and Maria Augusta Trapp came to campus, created art, performed and inspired the students.”

Continuing the celebration of the College’s 175th anniversary, in addition to Trigiani, the festival will host ten bestselling authors, poets and artists, according to the release. Interim Saint Mary’s President Nancy Nekvasil said the goal of the literary festival is not only to bring the arts to Saint Mary’s students, but to engage with the local community in general.

“We have a very, very strong humanities program here, with the different areas in the arts, you know, from the art Fine Arts all the way through our English and humanistic studies,” Nekvasil said. “And so I think it’s really important for us to honor Sister Madeleva in a way of maintaining that as a outward facing activity that we do with the community.”

Nekvasil said she sees the festival as an opportunity for Saint Mary’s to interact with the tri-campus community and beyond, and invite others to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the College’s founding in 1844.

“I think sometimes we stay a little bit more isolated than we should as a community,” Nekvasil said. “You know, everybody’s busy and has a lot to do, and the students are busy and faculty are busy, staff, administrators, everybody is busy. But we have a lot to offer this community. And so not only our beautiful facilities … but also just what we have here from an intellectual standpoint, and again, as part of the 175th bringing other people into that celebration, I think is really important.”

As a former biology professor, Nekvasil said she has always encouraged more women to enter the STEM fields. Saint Mary’s as an institution, however, challenges its students to educate the “whole person,” she said, through its multi-disciplinary Sophia Program.

“I come out of the sciences — I come out of biology, and there is a huge push across the nation for women in STEM,” she said. “And I don’t disagree with that. I think it’s absolutely essential. I think that’s a world where men have pretty much dominated and so it’s really important for women to move into there. But what we offer at Saint Mary’s is broader than that. And so even our STEM women are taking courses in English and having to learn to write and to communicate. And so part of it is that for me, that is the whole of the person, if we continue to engage in the liberal arts and, and celebrating that on campus, and not to become siloed in particular disciplines.”

Students from all academic concentrations can benefit from studying and celebrating the arts, Nekvasil said.

“To me, the arts really cover everything,” she said. “You would be a very poor physician if your mindset or intellect was only in the sciences. You are a much better physician if you can relate to all of your patients and part of that means, you know, understanding the arts, being able to read, being able to appreciate, you know, literature and all of that.”

Sister Madeleva, whose broad worldview inspired the community-oriented spirit embodied by the festival, Nekvasil said, was a big proponent of the arts.

“Sister Madeleva, interestingly, knew lots and lots of people,” Nekvasil said. “She was a friend of presidents and all these people. And so she was really this … kind of this outward facing representative of Saint Mary’s to the world, and in her love of and her own authorship of poetry and writing, and things like that, I think really reached out to say to people that that is an important aspect of your own personal development. In just thinking about creativity and appreciation of what God has put in front of us to appreciate in that you develop as a whole person when you can stretch that part of you no matter what your personal preferences is in terms of what you want to learn.”

Author Adriana Trigiani, who will host the festival, was the first to suggest that Saint Mary’s revitalize Sister Madeleva’s tradition of inviting artists and authors to campus, Nekvasil said.

“This really started when Shari Rodriguez, our vice president of college relations, and I visited Adri in her home in New York,” she said. “We were sitting around the living room and just talking about authorship and [Trigiani] having students come and do internships for her and the benefit of that and that’s then where this idea was born.”

Trigiani selected and invited the writers to attend the festival, Nekvasil said, and planned to host the event around their individual book releases.

“We wanted to do it before Christmas as a way to also encourage people maybe to think about getting books for friends and relatives for Christmas,” Nekvasil said.

Nekvasil said Trigiani’s experience in the literary world made her the perfect person to host the College’s inaugural festival. As a co-founder of The Origin Project, Trigiani mentors middle school students living in the Appalachian region of the U.S. According to her website, the program began in 2014 with 40 students, and now serves more than 1,600 students from 17 schools.

Through The Origin Project, the students write journal entries throughout the school year, and later publish their work in an anthology, Nekvasil said.

“So she’s really the ideal person to do this because she not only writes and, of course, has made her living as an author, but she deeply believes in helping others to learn to write,” Nekvasil said. “Not everybody’s going to be a polished writer, a published writer, but everybody can write their own story. Everybody can learn how to express the things that they’re feeling or thinking on paper in their own way. And so I just think she’s the ideal one, really, to help us get [the festival] off the ground because of her love of encouraging and helping, in this case, kids that have very, very little exposure to books or even being told that they can write.”

Two of the festival’s artists are alumnae of the College, including Trigiani (’81) and author and professor Anna Monardo (’77). Nekvasil said it’s important that current students meet alumnae who have found success after graduating from Saint Mary’s, who can serve as a source of encouragement and inspiration.

“We have alumnae who are Congresswomen, we have alumnae who are authors, we have alumnae who rescue people off Mount Everest when there’s an avalanche,” she said. “It’s possible. And so I think it helps them just to see possibility in their own lives for what, what they can achieve, and that nothing should hold them back.”

Located in such close proximity to Notre Dame, a much larger research institution, Saint Mary’s can sometimes be overshadowed, Nekvasil said.

“I think it’s really important for us to have something that is our very own that we do,” Nekvasil said. “You know, we have our own published authors, from the faculty, from the staff. We have alums that have published a variety of different kinds of books and I think it’s just so important for us to say that, first of all, we value it. We value the heritage that we have through Sister Madeleva and others who have been prolific writers and lovers of the arts. It’s taken a lot of people many, many hours to put this together. And it’s just a testament to the love that we have for our alumnae, for what Sister Madeleva started long ago, to honor her, and I just think it’s really important that we do this.”

A Monday report stated that nine bestselling authors will be attending the Saint Mary’s College National Literary Festival. In addition to Trigiani, there will be ten authors present. The Observer regrets this error.

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About Maeve Filbin

Maeve is a senior studying political science and economics at Saint Mary's, as well as Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame. She serves as an Assistant Managing Editor of The Observer, and thinks everyone should support student journalism.

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