Saint Wannabes: Catholic Higher Education and the Pursuit of Holiness

Saints don’t have to found activist movements, start religious orders, or run colleges. They can also become saints by getting the kids to soccer practice, making dinner and reading bedtime stories.

L to R: Sister Madeleva Wolff, Dorothy Day and Rose Hawthorne
L to R: Sister Madeleva Wolff, Dorothy Day and Rose Hawthorne (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The following is adapted from a talk delivered on April 4 at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana.

This is the Octave of Easter — alleluia! Liturgically, every day this week is Easter, so every day we commemorate the crux (literally) of the Christian message: That we all deserve to go to hell, but … Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection makes it possible for us to go to heaven. God loves us enough to invite us to share in his divine life for all eternity, which is what it means to be a saint. It’s what we’re all called to — what Vatican Council II highlighted as the Universal Call to Holiness (Lumen Gentium 39).

Today, I want to focus on three saint wannabes — three prominent American Catholic women from the 20th century who sought sanctity. They had much in common — all born in the 1800s; two converts, two moms, two religious; and two, in keeping with my theme, on the road to formal recognition as saints, although the third is also a viable candidate. All three, in any case, sought sanctity, sought God — with tremendous intensity and fervor, which translated into all three making their marks on the Church, the world, as well as my own personal story.

For me, these women stand as guides and landmarks associated with three significant stages in my life. The intersection between their histories and my story will help me frame how I see the intersection between what I think Saint Mary’s College is about and what I aspire to as a faculty member here. Each guide is linked to a specific part of my professional identity: Catholic and Nurse and Educator.

So, the first, my Catholic link and life landmark, is Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement almost 100 years ago. Dorothy was a rabble-rouser and an agitator, a bohemian socialist who wanted to make the world a better place. The birth of her daughter, Tamar, led to some soul-searching, and she converted to Catholicism in 1927. This struck some as an abandonment of her radicalism, and it is true that she struggled to align her faith with her social convictions. So it was that she was driven to her knees. “I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish,” she wrote, “that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”

God did just that. With Peter Maurin, Dorothy started the Catholic Worker in New York as a dynamic epicenter for living a radical Gospel vision of lay charitable enterprise and activism — and affiliated Catholic Worker communities have been popping up ever since (including one here in South Bend). Pope Francis singled out Dorothy’s influence on the Church when he spoke to Congress in 2015. “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed,” said the Holy Father, “were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”

Yes, saints. And Dorothy wanted to be a saint, but not one only relegated to holy cards and plaster statues. To be an actual saint, as Dorothy knew, is to be a citizen of heaven, and we get there by doing what saints have always done: the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Now, I’d been raised a Christian — of the Presbyterian variety — but my faith started to wane in college, and I was anxious in my 20s to settle the question once and for all: Either it was real and I’d embrace it, or it was bunk and I could move on. I talked to all kinds of Christians, went to all kinds of churches, and read all kinds of books — which is how I stumbled across Dorothy Day.

When I read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, my life changed. In her plain prose, it was evident she genuinely knew this Jesus, and the Jesus she knew was real and three-dimensional — an authentic point of contact between things temporal and eternal. If there was such a Jesus, I wanted to know him, too. Was it possible? 

I moved to Chicago and into a Catholic Worker house to find out.

And I did find out! Yes, he was and is real, and he makes himself known to us all the time — particularly in the guise of the poor and suffering, those who are marginalized and vulnerable, the inconvenient and easily dismissed. My days at the Catholic Worker were truly formative, and everything I’ve done or tried to do since has been shaped by them.

That includes my reception into the Church, for I recognized early on that the demands of living out the Gospel the way Dorothy and her friends did required supernatural sustenance — a sustenance I became convinced was available in the sacraments and the Church.

But my life trajectory was to veer off from the Catholic Worker shortly after my conversion, and in time I met and married Nancy, a redhead colleen, and God blessed us with a large, lively brood. By then, I had a master’s in theology, and I thought I could support my family through church work, but I longed to directly serve others as I had in Chicago.

Enter my second guide and life landmark: Rose Hawthorne, favored daughter of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and founder of the eponymous Hawthorne Dominicans — a religious community dedicated to the care of the dying poor.

Because of her famous dad’s connections, Rose had a comfortable, New England upbringing, but she was no hothouse flower. Instead, she was more of a wild rose, innately curious and industrious, and set on making her own way in the world. She married against the wishes of her family, and the couple together converted to Catholicism, but their marriage was a rocky one. After the loss of her only child to diphtheria and her husband to alcoholism, Rose turned to her faith for solace and meaning — and purpose! Her love of Christ compelled her to find a commensurate outlet for her spiritual energy — to do something “beautiful for God,” in the words of Mother Teresa.

Looking about at the conditions of her time, she made up her mind to offer care to those whom no one else cared for: the indigent who suffered from cancer. “A fire was then lighted in my heart, where it still burns,” she wrote. “I set my whole being to endeavor to bring consolation to the cancerous poor.”

She took a course in nursing and established herself on New York’s Lower East Side, reaching out to her neighbors and broadcasting her intentions. With permission from the Health Department, she began taking in those abandoned because of their cancer, caring for them, cleaning their wounds, and accompanying them in their last days with her presence and prayer — putting “put them in such a condition,” she wrote, “that if our Lord knocked at the door we would not be ashamed to show what we had done.”

Others came to join her in her efforts, and Rose’s endeavor grew into a religious order after the turn of the last century — and it’s still going strong. Just recently, Pope Francis declared her Venerable — one step closer to formal sainthood. Yet, again, like Dorothy, the title isn’t the point; the point is that Rose poured out her life in service and sacrifice because she wanted to be conformed to Christ and join him forever in beatitude.

I came across Rose’s story as I was wrestling with my career path as a diocesan bureaucrat — and I got a crazy idea: Maybe I could become a nurse, like Rose! I resonated with her raw impulse to serve the sick as a path to sanctity, and so I quit my church job and signed up for nursing school.

When I got my RN, I worked as an oncology staff nurse and did my best to employ the lessons I’d learned from Rose in my care. Later, I was able to work in hospice, and the echoes of Rose’s example were even more relevant. I leaned into my nursing career with a Catholic Worker mindset — that is, we encounter Christ in those we serve, but we ourselves become Christ to those we serve. I strived, often failing, but always aspiring, to do that consciously and intentionally for my patients. I prayed for them and with them, and I sought to be an ambassador of Christ’s healing touch in the midst of their always trying, sometimes terminal circumstances.

However, as with the Catholic Worker, this stage of my journey was not to go on long-term. I had in mind that I wanted to return to teaching and have the opportunity to pass along Rose Hawthorne’s rich spiritual vision of nursing care to others. I went back to school, and eventually accepted a faculty post at my alma mater.

Now we come to my third life guide and landmark — the one I associate with my role as educator. And, yes, as you might’ve guessed, it’s Holy Cross Sister Madeleva Wolff, scholar, poet and longtime president of Saint Mary’s. When I joined the faculty here two years ago, I was eager to align myself with the college’s ethos and legacy, and I knew Madeleva Wolff would be a primary source. So, I’ve been reading her writing as time permits, and, it turns out, it appears I’ve been her disciple without knowing it for many years.

And now that I’m here, I even go talk to her — yes, I go visit her grave in Our Lady of Peace cemetery on occasion, asking for her prayers, and hoping some of her majestic vision for Catholic women’s education — that is, for Saint Mary’s — will rub off on me.

In my time remaining, I’d like to enumerate what I think are some key elements of Madeleva’s vision and relate them to how I teach our future nurses.

To begin with, Sister Madeleva was a remarkable leader here who buttressed the educational excellence of the college as well as revitalizing the curriculum and campus life, but always with an eye toward holistic excellence in line with the Holy Cross charism. “The mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart,” Blessed Basil Moreau famously insisted. “While we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.”

There’s that sainthood theme again, and Sister Madeleva was even more direct in how she expressed it. “Why do we educate our daughters?” she asked. “Briefly we educate them for exactly the reason for which God made them: to know, to love, to serve, to glorify Him now and forever.” Straight out of the Baltimore Catechism!

Madeleva goes on to emphasize that the primary axis of education is the mind, and then envisages her students learning and getting excited about everything in Creation — “the cumulative and unfolding patterns of existence through the cultures, the sciences, the histories, the arts of peoples,” she writes. “We want them to continue to love, to think, to wonder, to explore their own inheritances as children of God.”

That one word, “continue,” is the second element I keep encountering in Madeleva’s thought — that is, she intended that students at Saint Mary’s would treat their time here as the beginning of something, not an end in itself.

It’s a beginning in two ways: First, that graduates will have acquired a habit of inquiry and learning that will become lifelong. This is certainly something that we have to emphasize in the nursing department because healthcare and medicine are constantly changing in line with the fruits of research, evidence-based practice, and experience.

But, more than that, Sister Madeleva makes it clear that a Saint Mary’s education ought to be oriented to doing good for others. “Our daughters, through their Christian education, know that the perfection of love is service.” This is a concept at the heart of nursing in general, but the Catholic milieu at Saint Mary’s allows us to especially highlight the idea of selfless, even sacrificial, work — an idea that applies to all our majors, really, because Saint Mary’s is where, as our Mission Statement declares, “students discover and develop their talents as they prepare to make a difference in the world.”

Last point: Sister Madeleva repeatedly refers to students as “our daughters,” and that points to the reality that, regardless of major or career trajectory, many of our students will elect to marry and raise a family — but that doesn’t let them off the hook with Madeleva! She envisions that the orientation to service they adopt here can be expressed in ways beyond professional success: “as a wife, a mother,” she suggests, or “in the state of greater perfection as a religious; but always,” she goes on, “always as a teacher, a compassionate, merciful, normal woman finding the fulfillment of life and education in selfless understanding and love and care of others.”

Does that sound old-fashioned? Regressive even? Not so, as our Statement of Philosophy and Purpose affirms: “In preparing women for roles of leadership and action,” it reads, “Saint Mary’s pays particular attention to the rights and responsibilities of women in the worlds of work, church, community and family.” 

In other words, our graduates can and will be changemakers in the world, even if — perhaps especially if — they find themselves at home someday with a houseful of kids. Saints don’t have to found activist movements, start religious orders, or run colleges. They can also become saints by getting the kids to soccer practice, making dinner and reading bedtime stories.

So, whether it’s changing diapers at home, changing a patient’s dressing at the hospital, or changing corporate strategy in the boardroom, we hope all our graduates will be other-oriented, that they’ll be disposed toward aligning their sphere of influence, wherever and whatever it is, with truth, beauty and goodness. 

Of course, that means an a priori aligning of themselves accordingly — an ongoing project that should launch here on campus and unfold throughout a lifetime. Their years here aren’t just about passing exams and bonding with buddies, but also about practicing a particular mode of being — indeed, a saintly one. Which is why so many of our graduates refer to Saint Mary’s as their new home: The place to which they will return from time to time to recall what they learned here, take stock of what they’ve done since, and recharge for whatever comes next.

And maybe someday they’ll come back to drop off their own daughters. God willing, we’ll be ready for them.

Dorothy Day is pictured in 1916.

Dorothy Day, Mongolia, Synod on Synodality, and Politicized School Curricula (Sept. 2)

Students are back in school or soon will be. And parents of public school students are, in some places, on high alert to safeguard their children from politicized agendas — especially in regards to gender identity in their school curriculum. Senior editor Joan Desmond has been following the latest developments in parental rights in California and across the country and she joins today. But first, we turn to news from the Vatican. Roman holiday — the traditional August escape from hot and humid Rome — is over and Pope Francis has picked up a busy schedule with a four-day trip to Mongolia, continued preparations for the synod, the signaling of support for the cause of Dorothy Day and confirmation that a sequel to Laudato Si is in the works.