Madeleva, Sister Mary (1887–1964)

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Madeleva, Sister Mary (1887–1964)

American religious educator, poet, and college administrator who was president of St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, for 26 years . Name variations: Sister Madeleva; Mary Evaline Wolff; Sister Madeleva Wolff. Born Mary Evaline Wolff on May 24, 1887, in Cumberland, Wisconsin; died on July 25, 1964, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of August Wolff (a harness maker) and Lucy (Arntz) Wolff; St. Mary's College, B.A., 1909, M.A., 1918; University of California at Berkeley, Ph.D., 1925; post-graduate study at Oxford University, 1933–34.

Was first woman religious to receive a doctorate from Berkeley; served as first dean and president of College of St. Mary-of-the-Wasatch in Salt Lake City, Utah (1925–33); was president of St. Mary's College, Notre Dame (1934–1961).

Selected writings:

Knights Errant and Other Poems (1923); Chaucer's Nuns and Other Essays (1925); Penelope and Other Poems (1927); A Question of Lovers and Other Poems (1935); The Happy Christmas Wind (1936); Gates and Other Poems (1938); Four Girls (1941); Lost Language and Other Essays (1951); My First Seventy Years (1959); The Last Four Things (1959); Conversations with Cassandra (1961).

Born Mary Evaline Wolff in Cumberland, Wisconsin, in 1887, Sister Mary Madeleva had an early appreciation for education. Her mother had been a schoolteacher prior to her marriage and her father, a skilled harness maker, was also the mayor of Cumberland. Both parents encouraged her to continue her education through college. She enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Madison with plans to specialize in mathematics. The young woman's plans were diverted, however, when she transferred to St. Mary's College at Notre Dame in Indiana in 1906. While there, she developed a friendship with Sister Rita Heffernan who encouraged her to write poetry and was instrumental in steering her towards a religious vocation. In 1908, she entered the novitiate of the Holy Cross Sisters who governed St. Mary's. At this time, she took the name Sister Mary Madeleva.

In 1909, Sister Mary Madeleva received her B.A. from St. Mary's and embarked on a lifelong quest to educate women. She continued her own education, receiving an M.A. in 1918. She was the principal of Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden, Utah, from 1919 to 1922, and then the principal of Holy Rosary Academy in Woodland, California, from 1922 to 1924. While at Holy Rosary, she studied at the University of California at Berkeley and, in 1925, became the first woman religious to receive a doctorate from Berkeley.

Sister Mary Madeleva served as college president of the College of St. Mary's-of-the-Wasatch in Salt Lake City from 1925 to 1933 and at Notre Dame's St. Mary's College from 1934 until 1961. While president at St. Mary's College, she saw enrollment and faculty size triple. Her desire to improve the educational opportunities for religious women was fulfilled when the graduate school of sacred theology—the first of its kind for women—was established in 1944. At a time when Catholic universities accepted only men for graduate study in theology, the new program at St. Mary's prepared women to teach religion in colleges. By 1969, when St. Mary's closed its program because other Catholic universities, including Notre Dame, began allowing women to study theology at the graduate level, 76 doctorates and over 300 master's degrees had been awarded.

Another important improvement in the education of women instigated by Sister Mary Madeleva came as a result of a panel she led at the 1949 National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). Papers presented at the panel led directly to a reformation of novitiate training programs in the 1950s, ensuring that female novices (who were often barely out of their teens) were not immediately charged with apostolic work but first could, like their male counterparts in Catholic seminaries, achieve a higher education.

Sister Mary Madeleva's unrelenting drive to provide opportunities for higher education to women religious caused her to suffer from chronic insomnia and exhaustion, and she frequently found solace from her health problems by writing poetry. In 1923, she published her first book, Knights Errant and Other Poems. Her short poems often dealt with religious themes drawn from her own experiences, in addition to the more general themes of beauty, love, and serenity. Over almost four decades, she published over 200 poems, essays, and autobiographies, collected in such books as Chaucer's Nuns and Other Essays (1925), Penelope and Other Poems (1927), A Question of Lovers and Other Poems (1935), The Happy Christmas Wind (1936), Gates and Other Poems (1938), Selected Poems (1939), Four Girls (1941), Lost Language and Other Essays (1951), My First Seventy Years (1959), The Last Four Things (1959), and Conversations with Cassandra (1961).

Sister Mary Madeleva served as vice president of the Indiana Conference on Higher Education and Indiana director of the National Conference

of Christians and Jews, was a member of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, and was the president of the Catholic Poetry Society of America. Her awards included seven honorary degrees, the Siena Medal, the Cum Laude Poets' Corner Medal, and the Campion Award of the Catholic Book Club (1959).

Although she officially retired in 1961, Sister Mary Madeleva continued a rigorous schedule of speaking engagements, acted as a consultant to her successor at St. Mary's, and continued to write. Her bouts with insomnia and exhaustion did not lessen, and on July 25, 1964, she died of septicemia after undergoing surgery for a non-malignant condition. She was buried at St. Mary's at Notre Dame.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland