Back in the late 1960s, when Sister Josepha Cullen, CSC, stepped to the doorway of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, she didn’t know what kind of reception she would get. Since it had opened in 1872, the Bohemian Club had observed one steadfast rule: no women allowed.
Sister Josepha, wearing the veil of a woman religious, was seeking entrance because the Notre Dame alumni clubs of San Francisco and San Jose were co-hosting their annual Universal Notre Dame Night there, and she had earned master’s degrees from the University in 1966 and 1968. Most men seeking membership to the Bohemian Club will sit on the waiting list for a decade before joining, but Sister Josepha planned to march right in. And she did — graciously ushered by the unsuspecting doorman and warmly received by the Notre Dame crowd.
Now 88, Sister Josepha was the first female member of the Notre Dame Club of San Jose. She would serve as club secretary, second vice president, first vice president and “almost president,” getting transferred to another convent before completing her ascension. Dismayed that San Jose would not be the first club to have a sister as president, the men gave her a gold plaque typically given to outgoing presidents — to go along with her “Notre Dame Club Man of the Year” award.
Sister Josepha, who now lives at Saint Mary’s Convent after a long career in education, had grown accustomed to opening doors for women as an educator and college counselor long before the University admitted female undergraduates in 1972. “Notre Dame gave me some kind of courage in my life that I didn’t have, that I didn’t know I had,” she says. “I was born in an era when women just didn’t push themselves forward.”
The admission of female undergraduates in 1972 may have radically transformed the stubbornly male institution, but its longstanding relationship with women religious helped shape the Catholic church in America. Thousands of the nuns who taught the nation’s Catholic schoolchildren and staffed the nation’s Catholic hospitals studied at Notre Dame.
The University first conferred degrees to women on June 11, 1917. Sister Mary Frances Jerome, CSC, earned a master’s of art with her thesis, “The Position of Women in Greek Literature,” and Sister Mary Lucretia, CSC, earned a master’s of science with her “Domestic Chemistry” thesis. From then through 1971 (the last year Notre Dame would have an all-male undergraduate population), some 4,600 women religious would get a Notre Dame degree — 8 percent of all Notre Dame graduates during that period.
The vast majority of these alumnae — and countless other women religious — pursued their degrees during the summer when campus was populated by hundreds of nuns wearing all manner of sisterly habit. In fact, the summer session, instituted in 1918, was “founded primarily for the Sisters,” according to an early brochure. “It was a great break for them, but it was also a break for us,” says Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987. What was first a sound business decision became a grand opportunity for women religious and a boon for the nation’s Catholic educational system.
About 150 invitations went out to religious orders throughout the United States to develop a summertime student body that would otherwise have remained tiny during two World Wars and the Great Depression. Summer tuition gave the University’s budget a much-needed boost, and the educational effort improved the quality of parochial schools when little was being done to provide women religious with proper education.
As late as the 1960s, teaching nuns were often assigned classrooms without completing their own education. A 1952 study by Franciscan Sister M. Brideen Long found that nearly 50 percent of a sample of 1,286 teaching nuns had less than two years of post-high-school education. Only 18 percent had finished three or more years of college. Before education requirements were tightened, most sisters completed just two years of college at a motherhouse, receiving a “normal” certificate that enabled them to teach full time while completing their work toward a degree over several summers.
By 1940, records show, 750 women were Notre Dame graduates. Then Sister Madeleva, CSC, the president of Saint Mary’s College, established a graduate school of theology there and pioneered the Sister Formation Movement to fully educate and certify sisters before they were assigned their vocations. About 150 religious institutions established degree programs for sisters, and religious orders sent more sisters to pursue degrees in the summer at such Catholic universities as Notre Dame, Marquette, Fordham and Loyola in Chicago. The Sputnik era sparked a national focus on science and math, and the National Science Foundation began offering many teaching nuns full scholarships to pursue advanced degrees in those subjects.
From there, the number of sisters earning degrees from Notre Dame steadily climbed upward. During the 1960s, when Vatican II initiatives allowed sisters to enjoy greater personal freedoms, including the right to choose their own college and course of study, 2,394 women earned ND degrees.
The Notre Dame summer session also granted sisters a kind of sabbatical from demanding and somewhat cloistered lives. They enjoyed having private rooms and leisure activities such as softball, croquet and picnics on the pastoral campus. The sisters were welcomed at campus events, lectures, plays and movies in Washington Hall. Many also bought season football tickets and many, according to folklore, had thousands of parochial school youngsters praying for an Irish victory on Saturdays. Their affection for the place was also instrumental in recruiting students.
On campus, summertime was known as “Penguin Days,” so named because of all the black-and-white habits skirting around campus. But that gave way to the liberated styles of the ‘60s, with the period’s high-energy, post-Vatican II excitement. “Everybody was on that campus,” Sister Josepha recalls. “There were priests, there were seminarians — different orders. There were brothers, there were sisters, there were lay women and lay men. It was wonderful.”
“I remember being so impressed with the vitality and the spiritual discussions I had at Notre Dame,” says Anita Pampusch ‘70M.A., ’72Ph.D., a former nun who became president of the College of Saint Catherine in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and is now a Notre Dame trustee. Although her order planned to send her to Harvard for her doctorate after she earned her master’s degree at Notre Dame, Pampusch had other ideas. “I said, if you care about what happens to me, I’d like to go back to Notre Dame. It was a good education and a good environment for my values.”
“It was a glorious affair,” says Ralph McInerny, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955 and is now the Michael P. Grace Professor of Philosophy. “Men and women who came to summer school often put in five summers, so there were many familiar faces each summer.”
By the 1970s, however, a gathering of forces — Notre Dame’s academic evolution and its decision to go coed at the undergraduate level, the expanded opportunities for women in society, the fallout from Vatican II and the significant decline in vocations — brought irrevocable change to those summers of study and spiritual renewal. Fewer nuns come to campus these days, and the ones who do blend in with a habit-less population.