March 23, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Sr. Madeleva was called ‘the most renowned nun in the world’

John F. FinkSister Madeleva Wolff was president of Saint Mary’s College when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame. Since I frequently walked across the road to that all-women’s college in the days when Notre Dame was all-male, I learned quite a bit about this remarkable woman.

She was president of Saint Mary’s for 27 years, 1934-1961. One of her achievements was the establishment of the first and, for more than a decade, the only Catholic institution to offer graduate degrees in theology to women. In fact, back in the 1940s, Saint Mary’s College was the only place where any layperson, male or female, could earn such a degree.

By the time she stepped down as president of the college, she had quadrupled its enrollment and tripled its teaching staff.

Sister Madeleva, though, is probably better known as a poet. She once wrote, “I wrote at least one poem a month over a period of 15 or 20 years, every one of which I sent out at once to earn its living by publication in some magazine.” She earned the title “Lady Abbess of Nun Poets.” She was the only woman to lecture in a series on poetry at Boston College that included Robert Frost, Ogden Nash and T.S. Eliot.

She was also a medieval scholar, writing often in defense of the prioress in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. She authored more than 20 books.

She grew up as Mary Evaline Wolff in Cumberland, Wis. She received the name Madeleva (a combination of Magdalene and Eve) when she made her vows as a religious in the Congregation of Holy Cross. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Saint Mary’s, taught for a few years there, and then earned her master’s degree in literature from Notre Dame in 1918.

She was principal of Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden, Utah, followed by the same position at Holy Rosary Academy in Woodland, Calif., before going back to school at the University of California at Berkley to earn a degree in philosophy, the first religious sister and one of the first women to do so. She became president of the College of St. Mary-of-the-Wasatch in Salt Lake City.

In 1933-34, she did post-graduate work with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford University in England. She later continued a long correspondence with Lewis. It was while she was studying at Oxford that she was named president of Saint Mary’s.

Besides Lewis and Tolkien, Sister Madeleva was friends with numerous other authors. Thomas Merton sent his manuscripts to her for review before sending them to a publisher. Philosopher and theologian Jacque Maritain and his wife Raissa spoke at Saint Mary’s.

Sister Madeleva also maintained correspondence with President John F. Kennedy, actress Helen Hayes, Claire Booth Luce and her husband Henry, Conrad Hilton and historian Christopher Dawson. Henry Luce even asked for her critique of his new magazine Sports Illustrated.

After she died at age 77 in 1964, an obituary described her as “the most renowned nun in the world.” Other renowned nuns, such as St. Teresa of Calcutta, were to come later. †

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