Document 1: Excerpt from Madeleva Wolff, CSC, "The Education of Our Young Religious Teachers," National Catholic Education Association Bulletin, 46 (August 1949): 254.

Document 1: Excerpt from Madeleva Wolff, CSC, "The Education of Our Young Religious Teachers," National Catholic Education Association Bulletin, 46 (August 1949): 254.


   Madeleva Wolff was president of St. Mary's College (1934-1961) where she instituted the School of Sacred Theology at St. Mary's, making it the only Catholic institution in the country to offer advanced theology degrees to women. In 1949, Wolff caused a firestorm with this article. In it, she painted an appealing portrait of "Sister Lucy," a young woman religious who received a full undergraduate education and was given adequate time and space to contemplate her vocation … only to state that Sister Lucy did not actually exist. Wolff wrote the article to demonstrate that women religious, particularly those in teaching professions, were inadequately trained for their work, and ill-prepared for their vocations as sisters. Wolff's efforts launched the Sister Formation Movement, a national movement to rethink how women religious were recruited and educated. The Sister Formation Movement encouraged higher education, networking across congregations, and self-determination for women religious. Although few of the women involved self-identified as feminists before the 1960s, the movement produced countless sisters who would later emerge as leaders in the Catholic feminist movement.

p. 254

   I need not tell you that Sister Lucy does not exist. But I know that we all should insist that she shall exist. We are here in part to bring her into existence. Sister Lucy is our 1949 model of the religious teacher of the future, her education and her training. She is the advanced payment of our debt to posterity.

   After being Utopian to this extreme of utter abandonment, let us pull ourselves back to the grim realities, things as they are. In the first place, Lucy's novitiate may not be at or near a college. [A] This condition does not exist in many places and will have to be met by provisions too special to be detailed here. However, I know that any community operating a college will welcome Lucy and her sisters for any part of their college education that their superiors may desire.

   Then there is the question of prudence. Should Lucy be educated before her community knows that she will persevere? Nothing can possibly do more to undermine her vocation than to send her out to try to teach without adequate, often without any preparation. Nothing can so disillusion her in her community as the dishonesty of assigning her to do in the name of holy obedience what professionally she is unqualified to do. Our secular accrediting agencies have been more than discreet and courteous in bearing with our practices in this matter. Our end does not justify our means.

   Knowing that God is essential wisdom and infinite knowledge, that Christ is wisdom and knowledge incarnate, that Mary is the seat of wisdom, it is strange that we confide Lucy so much more confidently to premature teaching or laundry or floor waxing than to the study and the quest of wisdom for the development of her vocation. No group can deteriorate more quickly or more terribly than young girls of the type that enter our novitiates today without proper and adequate intellectual, cultural, and spiritual challenges. Nothing is more truly heavenly in human existence than the wonder of growth and expansion of these same young people under the stimulus and inspiration of great teachers and great teachings. So let us educate Lucy in the name of the Holy Spirit. Her perseverance is in safer keeping than ours.

   But this education is expensive. Can we afford it and how can we afford it? If we cannot afford to prepare our young sisters for the work of our communities, we should not accept them at all. We should direct them to communities that will prepare them. When Lucy comes to us, she gives up her own capacity to educate herself. In accepting her we deprive her of this capacity and these opportunities. Tacitly, we assume the responsibility of providing both.

   We need but consider for a moment that the material in our habits is some of the most expensive cloth made. We argue that it wears a long time. So does education. If we can afford to clothe Lucy's body, we can also afford to clothe her mind.

   Community chapels are the object of our most generous contributions. Yet, nothing in the chapel, with the exception of the Blessed Sacrament, can so much honor God as the worship of our minds and wills. The unfolding beauty of Lucy's mind can mean much more to God than another statue or a new chapel carpet.

   All of these difficulties communities will and can overcome. The chief and last, the difficulty before which they will all be helpless is that of pressure for more schools, more teachers. This pressure can come from our hierarchy, our clergy, our own ambitious selves. Never before have parishes been in a position to build schools before they could staff them. Naturally, there is a clamor for sisters to teach in them. Present schools have been enlarged with the inevitable demand for enlarged faculties. Mission fields have opened up small schools where three or four sisters can do apostolic work. Junior and senior colleges are being opened and expanded to meet the increasing educational demand. The story is too familiar to all of you to require elaboration. The point is that the need is going to continue for a long time. If all our religious communities begin this year to complete the education of our young sisters before sending them out to teach, practically all of the immediate generation will have their degrees and licenses in two or three years. After that, our teaching communities will have established this pattern of time and study training. They will have the same number of sisters to send out each year, with this incalculable difference, that they will all be adequately prepared. Summer schools thereafter can be devoted to graduate work, particularly in theology, and Sister Lucy will still be "young Sister Lucy" when her teacher training has been completed. She will have the vitality, the enthusiasm, the quick mind and generosity of youth to give to her best years of teaching. How shortsighted, how stupidly extravagant we have been in squandering these!

   I ask every religious teacher present and over forty, what would you give to have had such a preparation? What will you give to procure it for our young religious? We can make them what we know they can and should be. We owe this to posterity.



A. A novitiate is the first stage in the process of becoming a woman religious.

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