• Florence Steichen SP'50, CSJ
  • The late Vera Chester SP'52, CSJ
  • Mary Hasbrouk SP'60, CSJ
  • Mary Martin Nelson SP'54, CSJ

All photos by Hilary Stein SP'14.

Founding Mothers

After more than a century, the legacy of the CSJs still guides St. Catherine University.

By Christina Capecchi

As Professor of Biology Martha Phillips sees it, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet are a "keystone species" at St. Catherine University: small in number but widely influential.

The ecology expert makes a point of telling her students about the Sisters' vital role in their University — whether she is teaching "Race, Class, Gender and the Environment" or the capstone course "The Global Search for Justice."

Times have changed since the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet founded the College of St. Catherine 108 years ago and, in the early decades, taught most of the classes and lived on campus in the residence halls.

It's been nearly 25 years since a CSJ held a senior leadership position at St. Kate's, and the average age of a local CSJ is 80.

Yet there is something persistent — stubborn, even — about the spirit of the CSJs that asserts itself abundantly on campus. It's the will and determination that drew one member to enter the community "because I didn't want to live a piddly life."

The work of St. Kate's founders and their intrepid successors is not relegated to history or sealed off in archival chambers. The deliberate incorporation of CSJ values at St. Kate's informs student organizations, curricular decisions and governance, making it a central, animating force behind the nation's largest, most innovative college for women.

"As St. Catherine's leader, I tap into the Sisters' vision and legacy, particularly during times of challenge or when the way forward is not clear," says President Andrea Lee, IHM. "The CSJ values give me a touchstone and really do inform and guide my decisions."

The CSJs' diminishing numbers, she adds, lends urgency to the "sacred responsibility" to preserve their legacy, a responsibility eagerly undertaken by the president, senior leadership, and many faculty and staff across the University.

"Understanding the Sisters' values," says Sister Andrea, is "not a 'once and for all time' effort, but rather an ongoing and ever-deepening work." The Sisters themselves continue to plumb their founding documents in order to better understand what they can offer in meeting today's challenges and opportunities, she explains.

Shared values

Incorporating CSJ values more explicitly into the University's governance structure has been a high priority of the president and Board in recent years. Most notable is the articulation of a seven-page covenant, approved in 2009, that describes the desired relationship between the Sisters and the University — the "shared commitment to fulfill the mission and vision" of the University, "in the name of the Church."

The results have been viewed as a national model, eliciting calls from nearly a dozen Catholic universities seeking consultation with Sister Andrea as they strive to safeguard the spirit of their founding orders and apply it to contemporary challenges and realities.

At St. Kate's, the education about the covenant relationship begins with new arrivals. New faculty members are introduced to the CSJ mission and legacy in their orientation, and University trustees participate in a formation program called "Together in Mission," which was designed by a joint Education Committee of faculty members, CSJs and University trustees.

The program includes informational and discussion sessions at every board meeting plus a thick black binder packed with reading material that includes:

  • Accounts of CSJ history and leaders,
  • What it means to be a Catholic university in the spirit of the Sisters of St. Joseph,
  • How St. Catherine fits into the larger universe of Catholic higher education, and
  • The emerging ways in which lay ministry is carried out in Catholic institutions — "and how St. Kate's will carry on when the Sisters no longer are here," says Professor of Economics Amata Miller, IHM, director of the Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity and a member of the joint Education Committee.

It's the most extensive and enlightening board training that Mark Chronister — former chairman and current secretary of the St. Kate's Board of Trustees — says he has ever undergone.

Such exercises are important because understanding and appreciating the legacy of the CSJs is central to understanding St. Catherine University, explains Sister Amata: "The Sisters of St. Joseph have a particular heritage, a particular charism, and that is how we live out the Catholic tradition here."

Student bonds

Two staff members who work hard to keep the Sisters connected with current students say it is important to celebrate what the CSJs are doing today. "Too often we speak of the Sisters in the past tense," says Donna Hauer, director of the Office of Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS) and a CSJ consociate. "They're still here and vibrant, doing ministry in many ways."

Laurie Svatek, director of Campus Ministry, helps connect students with Sisters for classroom projects or as prayer partners or simply for informal visits. "We want people to have the CSJs on their radar," she says. "I take that responsibility upon myself."

New students meet the Sisters each September, when the CSJs host a welcome picnic and lead tours of their grounds, adjacent to the St. Paul campus. Clad in tank tops and flip flops, this fall's crop of first-years seemed charmed by the CSJs, who shared stories of their early days in the cloistered convent. Agatha Grossman, CSJ, 86, spoke of silent retreats as she walked through Our Lady of the Presentation Chapel on the Sisters' grounds.

"What was the purpose of the silence?" asked Kelsey Huber, 21, a transfer student majoring in psychology and communications. "Did you find it beneficial?"

"Oh, yes," Sister Agatha replied. "We don't have enough silence in our lives now. There's a lot to being quiet."

Natalie Robinson, a junior majoring in women's studies and critical studies of race and ethnicity, interned at Sarah's... An Oasis for Women, a transitional home founded by the St. Paul Province of the CSJs. She learned about the place during her "Reflective Woman" class, one of two core courses that explicitly addresses the CSJ heritage.

During her internship, Robinson worked closely with Susan Smith SP'61, an 80-year-old CSJ who lives next door to Sarah's and volunteers there weekly. Setting up for a community dinner on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, humming as she distributed salt-and-pepper shakers, Sister Susan recounted her life arc to Robinson. "If you really want to do something," she said, pausing and resting her chin in her hand, "do it."

"It's just incredible that Sister Susan gave her life to this work — she's never been married, never had kids," says Robinson, who was raised Jewish and currently has no religious affiliation. The Sisters have shown her by example that "one person can really make a difference. I probably won't ever make a ton of money, but I can't imagine doing anything else."

Access and excellence

Faculty and administrators say the CSJs spur them to pair excellence with access — and deliver a reasonably priced education at the highest standards. Joan Mitchell SP'62, CSJ, editor at Good Ground Press and leader of the joint Education Committee, takes pride in the ample amount of financial aid and grants offered to St. Kate's students.

"The businessperson might look at that and think, 'You're nuts! You've got to go after a richer clientele,'" Sister Joan says. "But if you're coming out of our tradition, where the whole idea was to help provide women a livelihood and to use all their gifts to be all they could be, then we're doing the right thing."

But don't expect financial breaks to translate to academic ones. In a class of 20, history professor Jane Carroll SP'80 says she's likely to give just two or three A's, sometimes none. Carroll believes that's in keeping with the CSJs who taught her.

The very fact that Carroll is one of many alumnae currently working at St. Kate's is testament to the Sisters' impact. And among professors, Carroll adds, there is a spirit of collaboration and connection with students, another CSJ hallmark.

For biology professor Martha Phillips, that means being attentive to all her pupils, even if it means emailing one on a Saturday night who's behind on work. "It's so easy to focus on the students who are doing really well or really poorly," Phillips says. "It's trying to look at all of them without distinction and make sure you're doing what you can for each one."

Svatek also stresses availability in her Campus Ministry work. She makes a point to close her laptop when someone steps into her office, even if it's just a quick visit. "I want that visible sign that says, 'I have time,'" she explains. "For some inexplicable reason, the hospitality of the Sisters of St. Joseph makes its way over to this campus and is lived in the daily operations and lives of faculty, staff and students. I call it a sacred osmosis."

Hauer's job at MIPS includes welcoming international students, immigrants and refugees while educating the St. Kate's community on being more inclusive. "We take hospitality very seriously," she says, "as the Sisters did and still do."

That hospitality has been put into practice as the University welcomes a growing number of immigrant students, including an influx of Hmong and Somali, many of whom do not share St. Kate's Catholic roots. They are guided by faculty who expect the best of the students and also push themselves, notes Senior Vice President Colleen Hegranes, who's been at St. Kate's for 35 years.

One of her dearest friends was Vera Chester SP'52, CSJ, who died last year. Hegranes smiles as she recalls Sister Vera's influence, "her constant calling me to my better self — and not gently. 'You can do better than this, Colleen. Try not to be too influenced by how people are going to think of you on this.' That was very much a Vera thing."

Prayerful governance

CSJ values — and alongside them, the mission of the University — inform administrative decisions in a host of ways. When administrators were considering renaming the college as a university, they laid out their thinking for a number of constituent groups and, of course, sought input from the CSJs. Always ahead of the curve, says Hegranes, the CSJs strongly supported the transition.

In 2008, the President, Board of Trustees and the leadership of the Sisters of St. Joseph collaborated on a governance task force that looked to the future and aimed to reshape the governance of the University. The idea was to tap the expertise of the lay leaders on the Board and to more fully engage the laity in leadership of the institution.

A key feature of the new governance structure was the establishment of the Sponsorship Council. Composed of four vowed Sisters of St. Joseph and three non-CSJ trustees (including Sister Andrea), the council holds the powers formerly reserved to the province council of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

These traditionally "reserved powers" — anything that materially affects the mission of the institution, including major financial commitments and the appointment of trustees and the president — are rarely invoked. "But when they are, they have the potential to greatly affect the University's future," says Sister Andrea.

With the creation of the Sponsorship Council came the multipurpose covenant, spelling out the commitments between the University and the Sisters and pledging to espouse their mutual values: transparency, accountability, diverse perspectives in policy and practice, and "a process of prayerful, respectful and thorough discernment in making serious decisions."

This "way of doing business" runs counter to the fast-paced corporate standard, says Board Secretary Chronister: "It's been interesting to watch how the Sponsorship Council takes a problem and deals with it in such a reflective manner," he says. "When I get on a board surrounded by men, there's a desire to make a decision, move on and then try to make it work."

Last year, for example, when the Institute of Medicine began clamoring for four-year degrees rather than associate degrees in nursing, St. Kate's was faced with a new challenge — how to meet the needs of the time and still maintain the integrity of the Women's College, which grants baccalaureate degrees. In some institutions, this would be strictly a financial decision. "But here," says Sister Andrea, "it raised questions of mission that fell within the purview of the Sponsorship Council."

According to Chronister, the council came up with a wise and thoughtful plan that met the needs of both mission and market. "I never worry about anything when I'm in the presence of the Sisters," he says. "There's this calmness and discussion and a rationale. You don't get the ego. That's what we don't want to lose going forward."

Christina Capecchi is a frequent contributor to SCAN.

Hilary Stein SP '14 sees the CSJs as a source of inspiration and art.

During her first year at St. Catherine, the studio art major became fascinated by the rich history of the Sisters; she was inspired to launch an ambitious photography project documenting the women who founded the University.

She spent a semester planning, interviewing and photographing CSJs in Minnesota, including Sister Jill Underahl and Sister Mary Martin. This winter, Stein traveled to France to learn more about the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph and to photograph CSJs still living there.

"The work the Sisters have done and the lives that they have lived are beyond inspirational," Stein says. "Their stories need to be told, respected and cherished, and that is what I aim to encourage through this project."

Education the CSJ Way

A study by the Sisters of St. Joseph College Consortium, which includes St. Catherine University, identifies these five distinctive characteristics of their member schools:

1. Hospitality and caring community

2. Concern for all without distinction

3. Addressing the needs of the time

4. Striving for excellence in all endeavors

5. Making a difference in local and world community

Source: "All Women Can Be: The Spirit of the Sisters of St. Joseph," by Joan Mitchell SP'62, CSJ