A Room with a View

Author: Jean Lenz, OSF, '67 M.Th., '98 Ph.D.

(Ed note: What follows is an excerpt from Loyal Sons and Daughters: A Notre Dame Memoir, published in 2002 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.)

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re happy to have women on campus and living in Farley Hall,” Father Jerry Wilson, CSC, vice president for business affairs, assured me, “but of course everyone has their fingers crossed as to how it will all turn out.” I had no comeback. I was too new to know when to cross my fingers about anything. I had all I could do to listen carefully as he took me on my first official tour of Farley Hall.

Father Jerry came across as a very competent and delightful man, but I could tell he was a bit unnerved with the thought of parents arriving on the scene within hours. He had concerns they might be upset with the rather meager furnishings added to this former male residence hall, including large, awkward, plywood wardrobes designed and constructed in the Notre Dame carpentry shop; white cottage curtains for the bottom half of windows; and new plumbing fixtures to replace the urinals. Hallways were not repainted, nor was new carpeting laid for this historic occasion. University finances would not allow it. “Best you stay close to the parents and let them know you’re here for their daughters,” he strongly hinted at every turn in the hallways, as though I could make all the difference for whatever else was missing or proved to be an obstacle. I felt the weight of his expectations down to my toes.

Once women arrived on campus, Father Jim Shilts, CSC, the previous Farley rector, came by the hall almost every evening that first week of classes, “just to see how things were progressing.” He taught me the layout of the hall: the basement space, tunnel area, closets, route to the roof, fire alarm, chapel area, sacristy and all I needed to know about supplies. There was no end. There were hiding places everywhere, which to his surprise were still filled with traces of a man’s world, including oversized winter auto tires, a few big bikes, heavy grills and a collection of electrical tools, enough to build a home.

One evening, as Father Jim entered by the south entrance, he noticed what looked like a long “rip” in the carpeting. I immediately assured him that the carpet was not torn but just “pressed down.” I explained that the trail led to room 133, where I discovered two residents who had become the proud owners of a very large upright piano purchased that day from “Piano Pete.” It took eight of their male friends to accomplish the move-in. After a nervous pause, I inquired of Father Jim if students were permitted to have pianos in their rooms. He patted my arm and said, “Just be glad it was a piano; I came home one evening to find Farley men trying to get a horse in the elevator. You can handle a piano, Jean.”

From my earliest days at Notre Dame, I began to court a deep hunch in my heart that someone had laid a great inheritance of ministry at my feet. It seemed to get handed on in great part by much storytelling from one generation of graduates to the next: from fathers to sons and grandsons and great grandsons. Now daughters would begin to add their heritage.

During a Morris Inn reception for new women faculty and staff, Provost James T. Burtchaell, CSC, took me aside for special instruction. He told me he was sure that I would make it at Notre Dame if I did two things. He asked if I knew how to change fuses. I didn’t. He proceeded to distinguish between circuit breakers and screw-type fuses and then commissioned me to track down all the fuse boxes in the basement, on all the floors, and in all wings of Farley, immediately. His second directive was short and to the point. “Never miss a meal; you will need all the energy you can muster.” I was a bit puzzled and probably frowned, but as time went on, his wisdom won out as I learned to translate his directives into their deeper meanings:Stay practical and use your common sense. I passed his words on to every staff I trained.

Through my first weeks of rectoring, Farley turned into “home” in spite of me and my newness as I slowly grew more realistically aware that hall ministry was definitely going to be a 24-hour way of life — with all the trimmings.

Farley Hall was never in want of drama. From the moment students settled in each fall with their “stuff,” including all their gifts and talents, stories unfolded. Before homesickness became a memory, something remarkable happened to the freshmen. In high school most had been known for their brains, but here everyone was smart. And all of a sudden they encountered new acquaintances wanting to know them for who they were, with no grades showing. New worlds appeared on their horizons, and the freshmen started discovering brand new pieces of themselves — and recognizing the wonders in others. As one coed put it, “I felt as though I was being turned inside out.”

Without a doubt, it is in the area of relationships that Notre Dame students grow up and deep at dizzying rates. Eighty-five percent of my rectoring time was spent talking to students about roommate problems, romances and friendship. I also gave great doses of conversational energy to stressful relationships involving parents, professors, and on occasion, an administrator or two. While there were times when I felt “pickled” in such late adolescent struggles, most of the time I viewed it as having a front-row seat at an award-winning Broadway drama.

I certainly refereed my share of shouting matches between roommates who, having left their private rooms behind at home, had to learn to talk over such things as whose turn it was to clean up the daily mess in the room. Everyday life had a way of getting terribly tangled — with, of all people, their peers. After hours or even days of not speaking to each other, they would finally take time to reflect on some basic approaches to successful roommate relations. Best of all, these struggles were often the beginning of lasting friendships. I’ve watched a parade of Farley women walk into each other’s lives for a lifetime.


From the moment I opened my rector’s door, the topic of man-woman relationships became a front-burner topic. I listened to students declare what Notre Dame “absolutely had to do” to make this a place where male-female relationships could flourish. Though some of the suggestions had merit, many were a cover-up for fear of taking the risk of talking to the fellow or girl sitting beside them in class or at the dining hall.

On serious reflection, students agreed it takes a healthy dose of courage to step out of yourself and let another person come to know you — to accept or reject you. I remember lots of delightful evening talks and walks around the lake with someone discovering that age-old truth and beginning to understand that it’s those who accept you who change you the most.

Of course there were romances and there were romances. A Farley freshman or sophomore would fall so much “in love” with a young man, and he with her, that she’d soon imagine herself walking down the aisle, “probably a year after graduation.” Then after a semester or so, a phone call or note brought devastating news: Suddenly this man of her fine-tuned fantasy needed “space in his life.” There were always precious pieces of life to pick up then. We would put our heads together and look closely at the fact that intense relationships do not stand still and wait for “a year after graduation” to come around; they go forward or backward at a pretty healthy pace, and a person has to be ready for all that gets involved. Though I often counseled students that “people get you ready for other people,” some found it hard to learn from the experience of limping relationships, and harder still to turn away from them, smarter and stronger.

Sometimes there was terribly hard news to hear that touched on divorce or illness or death. Always it was the real stuff of life that daily came from “home” somewhere across the world. One day a call from home brought news to a popular Farley student that her father, a man in his 40s, had died of a heart attack. The shocked young woman packed quickly and flew home to her family, leaving behind a stunned, numb and devastated residence hall community.

A second call came late in the evening. It was from the grieving resident to her roommates. That very morning, she told them, she had received two letters from her dad which he had written, as he always did, while he was on a business trip. She had read them, welcomed his words, then threw the letters away. She begged her friends to try to retrieve them.

Somehow they did, with some wearing boots, others carrying flashlights and digging their way through all the day’s trash in the giant garbage bin behind Farley Hall, not giving up until the letters were recovered. I distinctly remember the R.A. on duty that evening remarking, “I think everyone in this hall called their dads today.”

On any day I could find myself in the midst of a healthy family crisis. I recall a freshman who had struggled valiantly for six or eight weeks to stay on campus even though she claimed she didn’t want to be here. Whenever we met she reinforced her simple message: “I want to go home.” One night I knew she meant it; she was ready to tell her father she had most definitely decided to leave his alma mater.

Now, in a bit of hysteria, she phoned her folks and got her message across. Her dad told her he was proud that she had given it a good try, but he agreed it was time for her to come home. There was an affectionate exchange of words between them and a thank-you to me before we hung up our phones. Her heavy sobs tapered off into normal breathing as we began to make final plans for her to pack and move home.

Five days passed. I met her going to class “to see friends before I leave.” But she never did stop going to class. On that night of cathartic tears, it turned out, she had put aside her father’s decision that she be here and replaced it with her own.

Joy and pain

There were times when sorrow and joy collided in my soul head-on. On a summer Saturday I found myself walking back from Cedar Grove Cemetery following the burial of a lovely sophomore, Cynthia Cole, who suffered an aneurysm. My next stop was in Sacred Heart Church for the wedding of our most recent hall president, Donna Crowley ’76, who had just graduated and who lived across the hall from Cynthia. I never got used to such emotional collisions.

I’m convinced that one of the most profound things that happens to students here is that they watch people, including their peers, simply kneel down and pray. This occurs in the residence hall chapels, at the Grotto, on retreats. They grow startlingly still and reflective during a good homily that gets them in touch with the spiritual side of their daily dealings. Our students are not strangers to prayer. In addition, they are a real grace in one another’s lives, and I suspect many of them realize it — or will in time.

There was so much joy and pain and daily existence to share. Amazingly, the life of the hall produced its own “peer ministry” activity. Farley women found endless ways to care for each other in the face of minor illnesses, upsetting news, difficult relationships, academic stress, and decision-making of all sorts. Of course, there were some selfish moments, but in general I watched peer ministry thrive and prayed it would continue year after year. In fact, I came to believe it was the outcome of our prayer together around the Farley altar.

All in all, rectoring was a terribly purifying experience. Many residents knew all my idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and strengths. Amazingly, there were also some who sensed when I needed to be ministered to. One young woman hit the mark every time. Somewhere along the line she heard me say that “violins soothed my soul,” and she would remind me of it whenever she saw me standing knee-high in some stressful situation, “Maybe it’s a violin day?” Another resident often returned from the Huddle with an “extra” double-decker ice cream cone. A sophomore once told me I looked as though I could use a long walk around the lake, so she stayed and covered the office and phone. One of the most compassionate moments came when R.A. Sheila Murphy, a 1977 ND graduate who had lost her mom to cancer, met me returning from a weekend visit to my dad, who was dying of the same. I told her I thought I might not see him alive again. We wept together.

Like other human beings, I’ve been tired in my life but tried to carry on without giving others too much occasion to notice. That was hard in Farley where residents read me very well and knew when the need for sleep had penetrated my bones. I got used to their knowing.

Living in the rector’s quarters was like living in a fish bowl, but I gradually became adept at finding free times and secret places to serve my solitude and sanity. Often a long, quiet walk around the lake made all the difference in a day.

But my days in Farley brought me some of the deepest living experiences I have known in a lifetime. As a member of the generation ahead of Farley women, I simply moved into their midst and opened my door. They came in, questioned me incessantly on endless topics, picked my brain and searched my heart and asked me to share whatever wisdom I had gained. They let me confront them with strong words and congratulate them with deep joy.

We laughed and cried and discussed and argued and ate and cheered together. We prayed together and forgave one another. They let me worry about them. Best of all they let me believe in them.

This is an excerpt from Loyal Sons and Daughters, a book published in autumn 2002 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Sister Jean Lenz, who became rector of Farley Hall with the arrival of women undergraduates at Notre Dame in autumn 1972, is now an assistant vice president for student affairs.