Most people who accept religious vocations pursue them in deliberate obscurity, quietly teaching, praying, nursing, or whatever the charism of their order might be, humbly avoiding the quest for personal or corporate renown. Only rarely does one become a prominent public figure like a Thomas Merton or a Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Utah Catholicism can claim one such person of renown in sister Mary Madeleva, C.S.C., a medieval scholar, teacher, school administrator, and widely published poet who taught for several years at Ogden's Sacred Heart Academy and became the first president of St. Mary of the Wasatch.
In her popular autobiography, My First Seventy Years, she describes her 1887 birth and Wisconsin girlhood as Mary Evaline Wolff, the middle of three children and the only daughter of a Lutheran saddle and harness maker and his Catholic wife (the children, in obedience to canon law, were raised Catholics). She "just missed great beauty," her biographer says, and her photographs during her college years do indicate a very attractive young woman. Although she displayed extraordinary academic aptitude from the beginning, she also reports a love of fine clothes, such high society as rural Wisconsin could provide, and a rebellious tendency that lasted through her first year of college at the University of Wisconsin and well after she had transferred to the Holy Cross Sisters' St. Mary's College in Indiana. At that point, to the utter astonishment of her family and friends, she announced that she was accepting a vocation to the Holy Cross order.
Her years at St. Mary's were busy ones, as she accustomed herself to a rigorous life of study, prayer, community life, and teaching. Beginning in 1908 she passed through her postulancy and novitiate and made her final solemn vows in 1914. In addition to teaching English, scripture, and literature at St. Mary's, she completed a master's degree at the University of Notre Dame in 1918. Then, in 1919, she was given a new assignment: to Sacred Heart Academy, a girls' school run by the Holy Cross sisters in Ogden, Utah. Many, no doubt, would have regarded that as banishment to the other side of the world, but Sr. Madeleva was ecstatic: "Mountains at last! Deserts, sagebrush, the West! Oh, pioneers!"
Sacred Heart could not have been anything like what she would have expected, but it turned out to be something even more wonderful. Of the 120 boarding students, fewer than one-fourth were Catholics; the rest were Mormons sent there by parents who recognized that the Utah public schools were not as academically challenging as the Catholic ones. The Mormon students brought their culture's commitment to the arts, and the academy featured strong programs in music, drama, and dance: Sr. Madeleva recalled seeing no fewer than seven harps on stage at one of their concerts at the Salt Lake Theater. "I found more than mountains and sagebrush in Ogden," she recalled.
She found the community of Ogden culturally compatible as well. She began a lifelong friendship with the budding historian and columnist Bernard DeVoto, who was working in a bookstore during a summer break from Harvard, and together they discussed details of some of his later books. And she made friends with poet Phyllis McGinley who, though a student at the University of Utah, spent vacations at Sacred Heart where Sr. Madeleva worked with her on her poems. She would later win the Pulitzer prize.
After three years in Ogden, Sr. Madeleva was sent to the University of California, Berkeley to work on a Ph.D. There, the little sister in the strange habit established an academic record that was the envy of the university. Enrolling by mistake in a seminar in a field in which she had no background, she wrote a paper that the professor told her was better than anything he could have produced. When she got around to her oral examinations for the doctorate, her reputation was such that the examination room was standing room only and spectators spilled out into the hall as she put her immense learning on display. (My own doctoral exams at the University of Utah drew only myself and several reluctant examiners!) Her dissertation on the medieval poem, "The Pearl" was published and remains in print to this day.
In September, 1926, with her fresh doctoral diploma in hand, the new Ph.D. found herself back in Utah, riding atop a truckload of furniture uphill to the east bench of Salt Lake Valley where she was to be the first president of a new women's college, the College of St. Mary of the Wasatch. The school had been created only the year before as one of the last acts of Bishop Joseph S. Glass, second bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake, a man of great culture and vision whose vision, in fact, often ran ahead of his financial resources. The college was to replace and augment St. Mary's Academy, a girls' school founded by the Holy Cross sisters in downtown Salt Lake City in 1875, the original facilities for which were no longer large enough or safe.
With an excellent faculty, a superb library, and highly intelligent and motivated students led by an ambitious president, St. Mary of the Wasatch was probably the best institution of higher education in the state during the seven years Sr. Madeleva presided over it, for the University of Utah did not begin its slow climb to academic excellence until after World War II. She was able to boast that five of her English majors read Beowulf with her in its entirely in Old English, and that in a national science competition, St. Mary's three contestants won, out of eighteen awards, a first place, a second place, and an honorable mention.
Indications are that she enjoyed her Utah years greatly. In addition to the cultural life at Sacred Heart and the opportunity to create a first-rate college from scratch at St. Mary of the Wasatch, her tomboyish love of Nature found ample outlet in the Utah wilds. It evokes an almost comical mental image to contemplate her and her sisters in their complicated Holy Cross habits-not the most effective mountaineering attire-clambering up the steep trails in the foothills and canyons of the Wasatch and cooking Denver sandwiches for lunch over an open fire.
And what of her poetry? Much of it is mediocre--conventional Victorian piety larded with "these" and "thous" in a diction that modern readers would regard as old-fashioned. But other poems are reminiscent of Emily Dickinson in their brevity and their heartfelt celebration of birds, flowers, and starlit nights:
If all the sky should quiver into pinions,
And all the air should tinkle into silver singing,
The earth would still have need, I think, for bluebirds.
Do you suppose
The cherry tree's white furbelows,
The pretty frills the jonquil shows,
The maple's curious, knotted bows,
The first, pale ruffles of the rose
Are baby things that April sews
For the sweet world to wear?
Still others contain echoes of another great Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in their great concentration of language, dense alliteration, internal rhymes, and striking metaphors:
A Pied Piper
Brave Piper October, what tune do you blow
That the leaves are bewitched and wherever you go
They flutter and follow, agleam and aglow?
From oak tree and bramble, from high tree and low,
They flock to the sound of the piping they know,
And down from the tall trees of heaven, O ho!
Come dancing and glancing the white leaves of snow.
In 1933 Sr. Madeleva left Utah forever, first to spend a year studying at Oxford and touring Europe, then upon her return to take over as President of the Order's St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana. By then she had an international reputation, having studied with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, become fast friends with Edith Wharton, William Butler Yeats, and many others. If her autobiography sometimes reads like an exercise in name-dropping, she had the record to back it up.
Celebrity often breeds controversy, and Sr. Madeleva knew her share of it. Celebrities often find their lives scrutinized through a microscope and their faults through a magnifying glass. Sr. Madeleva often found herself at odds with members of her own community, who thought her, on the one hand, rebellious. It is true that her youthful independence often led her to write her own ticket which did not always reflect the rules of the Order: for example, she loved to take long, unaccompanied walks in the city or in the starlit countryside in direct violation of the rules. On the other hand, some members of her Order regarded her as a bit irrelevant: what good does a poem do, for instance, when one needs to teach a class or nurse a hospital patient?
When Sr. Madeleva died in 1964, she left behind a truly amazing record as a scholar, poet, teacher, and educational administrator. We can be proud that Utah played an important role in that career.