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James T. KeaneMay 21, 2024
M. Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C. (Photo courtesy of the Sister Madeleva Collection, Saint Mary's College Archive, Notre Dame, Ind.)

Last week, America announced the winner of the 2024 Foley Poetry Prize, James Davis May’s “The Patron Saint of Sliding Glass Doors.” It offered a reminder that America is now in its 115th year of publishing poetry. There are some impressive names in that litany of authors, including Julia Alvarez, Thomas Merton, Christian Wiman, Mary Oliver (he said through gritted teeth), Dana Gioia, Elizabeth Acevedo, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Jessica Powers, Paul Mariani and many others. But a poet whose work often appeared in America is known for much more than her verse: M. Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., was also a pioneer in Catholic education in the United States.

Named Mary Evaline Wolff at her birth in 1887, she grew up in Cumberland, Wis. After a year at the University of Wisconsin, she transferred to Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., from which she would graduate in 1909. She entered the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1908 and received the religious name Mary Madeleva. After graduation, she earned a master’s degree in literature at the University of Notre Dame while teaching at Saint Mary’s. During a stint as the principal of a high school in California, she began taking graduate classes at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned her doctorate in English in 1925 (an extreme rarity for a woman religious at the time). She followed it up with post-graduate work at Oxford.

In 1926, Sister Madeleva became the dean and chief administrator of a small Catholic college for women outside Salt Lake City, Utah, Saint Mary-of-the-Wasatch. (How many Catholics were in Utah in 1926?! Bold move.) She was given a sabbatical in 1933-34, and traveled throughout Europe and Palestine. (“[M]ore like Utah than any place I have ever been,” she wrote.) While she seems to have gotten around just fine—meeting a number of prominent writers and poets, including W. B. Yeats, and attending lectures by Martin D’Arcy, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis—she noted that nuns did not have as much freedom as Jesuits when they traveled, the latter of whom were “loose all over Europe and for unlimited periods of time.”

While at Oxford, she learned that she had been appointed president of Saint Mary’s College. While at the time she called the decision “a disaster” she would stay in the position for 27 years, during which time the school quadrupled in size.

“Her ideal was the well-rounded woman. She wanted women to be intellectually agile,” Gail Porter Mandell wrote in her 1997 biography, Madeleva. Sister Madeleva also had goals that might be of interest today to Kansas City Chiefs placekicker Harrison Butker. “She wanted to help prepare them to think beyond being housewives,” Porter Mandell wrote. “She wanted women to be able to define themselves—and she knew education was the key.”

In 1943, frustrated at the lack of opportunities for women to study graduate-level theology, she founded the School of Sacred Theology at Saint Mary’s. “For more than a decade Saint Mary’s College School of Sacred Theology was the only place in the world where a layperson, male or female, religious or lay, could earn an advanced degree in Catholic theology,” Thomas C. Fox wrote in a 2016 essay on Sister Madeleva for Global Sisters Report. The school proved so popular that eventually other programs around the country—many of which had initially rebuffed Sister Madeleva—opened their doors to women.

Sister Madeleva’s social circle was wide and unconventional. Friends and correspondents throughout her life included the educator Mortimer Adler, the hotelier Conrad Hilton, Thomas Merton (who sent her his manuscripts before the publisher saw them), Edith Wharton, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Joyce Kilmer, Frank and Maisie Sheed, John F. Kennedy, Claire Boothe Luce and the aforementioned C. S. Lewis. She also knew her way around the power brokers of the American Catholic Church, including bishops, university presidents and other prominent figures.

All the while, she continued to write poetry. Her first poem for America appeared in 1929. In a 1932 essay for the magazine, E. Francis McDevitt noted that her religious vocation was not an obstacle to her writing but a goad: “Sister Madeleva, enfolded in what is regarded as the ‘imprisoning’ habit of the Religious, confined by her vocation to the limits of her convent, the classroom and the school, displays a zestful, full-blooded interest in humanity, in its sins and its virtues, a curiosity for seeking out humanity’s fundamentals and folding back its hidden mysteries.” A 1938 America review of her “Gates and Other Poems” called her “America’s most authentic lyric poet.”

As Nick Ripatrazone related in a 2023 essay for America on “nun poets,” Sister Madeleva made a promise to herself early in her life as a writer:

I would publish under my religious name. I would submit my work first to secular rather than to Catholic magazines. I had heard so much about Catholics being unable to receive recognition because they were Catholics. I resolved not to permit mediocrity in my writing to be attributed to my religion. As a Catholic and a sister I would write well enough for acceptance by the secular press, or I would not write at all.

In 1959, she published her autobiography, My First 70 Years, one of more than 50 books she authored during her life, including numerous volumes of poetry. That same year, she was honored by America with its Campion Award. Named after St. Edmund Campion, an English Jesuit martyr and the patron saint of America, the award was given regularly from 1955 to 2001 (and less regularly since) to a scholar or public figure for “eminent and long-standing service in the cause of letters.”

Retiring in 1961 due to poor health, Sister Madeleva died three years later from complications after gall bladder surgery. The New York Times obituary noted that she had “achieved distinction and fame as president of St. Mary’s College at South Bend, Ind., but her reputation as an educator was frequently overshadowed by her great outpouring of verse and essays.” Another obituary called her “the most renowned nun in the world.”

In her honor, in 1985 Saint Mary’s College established the Madeleva Lecture Series, which brings a prominent woman theologian to campus to speak every year. The list of honorees is a who’s who of famous Catholic thinkers, including Monika K. Hellwig, Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Dolores Leckey, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., Diana Hayes and Margaret Farley, R.S.M., among many others.

In 2000, the first 16 women honored in the Madeleva Lecture Series authored the “Madeleva Manifesto,” offering “a message of hope and courage to women in the church.” The manifesto also challenged the broader church and society:

We deplore, and hold ourselves morally bound, to protest and resist, in church and society, all actions, customs, laws, and structures that treat women or men as less than fully human. We pledge ourselves to carry forth the heritage of biblical justice which mandates that all persons share in right relationship with each other, with the cosmos, and with the Creator.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is the winner of our 2024 Foley Poetry Prize: “The Patron Saint of Sliding Glass Doors,” by James Davis May. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We have a new selection! We are reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology. Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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