Deaths in the family

Author: Jason Kelly '95 and John Nagy '00M.A.

Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford became a woman of a certain age many years ago. “English ladies do not disclose,” she once wrote on a form asking for her date of birth.

In the 1970s, suffering complications from tuberculosis and connective-tissue disease, she was told by doctors to prepare for death, a tedious chore, as she told this magazine in a 1991 profile: “I was never afraid. I was bored.”

Her life, which lasted long beyond that prognosis, was anything but boring. Born near Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, England, she joined a religious order devoted to nursing.

When TB prevented her from continuing that career, Ford became a New Testament and Rabbinic scholar, earning a master’s degree at the University of London and a doctorate from the University of Nottingham.

After two years teaching in Uganda, Ford began a 33-year career in the theology department at Notre Dame in 1965. One of only two women on the faculty at the time, she became the first to receive tenure three years later. Ford often held classes in her South Bend apartment, serving dinners and teas for students.

Frustrated at what she saw as lesser-qualified men being promoted, she filed a sex discrimination suit against the University in 1978. The case became part of a class-action suit, settled in 1981. Ford, who reached a separate settlement, was awarded compensation, promoted to full professor, and promptly put the matter behind her. “I don’t think it helps to bring up something negative that has been corrected,” she said.

Continuing her teaching and writing — Ford’s books included A Trilogy on Wisdom and Celibacy, Wellsprings of Scripture: A Thematic and Rabbinic Introduction and The Spirit and the Human Person — she also consulted on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees on the permanent diaconate, and the care and ministry to the sick.

Ford owned two horses, trained one in dressage, and baked all her own bread in a South Bend home with no central heating. Her frail bearing belied a determination not to be what she appeared. “I want people to think of me as strong,” she said.

Ford, who died May 16 at age 86, proved her strength in overcoming illness and institutional perceptions of a proper English lady’s rightful place.


“Pay attention to the point of view!” Lewis E. Nicholson, a legendary scholar and professor of medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature, prodded generations of Notre Dame English students with that refrain. Only by a close reading of the storyteller’s perspective, Nicholson instructed them, could they tease out the true meaning of a text.

Nicholson, who died April 28 at age 93, was among the last of Notre Dame’s “bachelor dons.” He joined the faculty in 1958 and often trekked around campus in an English flat cap, brandishing an 18th-century walking stick.

A prolific writer, Nicholson published on Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry, and edited anthologies of literary criticism. For the last 18 years of his life, he worked, often late into the night, as director of the Medieval Library Initiative.

Nicholson’s efforts tripled the Hesburgh Library’s medieval literature volumes, vastly expanding access to the Irish language, Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Old Norse points of view.


Rev. James T. Burtchaell III, CSC, ’56, Notre Dame’s first provost, died April 10. The theologian and author, once a popular preacher and spiritual director on campus, was 81.

Ordained a priest in 1960, Burtchaell studied scripture and theology in Rome and earned a doctorate in divinity at Cambridge before returning to Notre Dame in 1966. He served two years as chair of the theology department before his appointment at age 36 as the University’s chief academic officer.

He returned to full-time teaching and writing after stepping down as provost in 1977. Often sought by students for his counsel, Burtchaell resigned from the faculty and was relieved of his pastoral and sacramental responsibilities after a 1991 investigation into allegations of misconduct.

He moved to Arizona and continued to write, remaining a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Afflicted with dementia, he returned to Notre Dame in 2009 to live out his days at Holy Cross House.


Catherine F. Pieronek ’84, ’95J.D. dreamed of working for the space program, and she engineered her academic career to make it so. With aerospace engineering degrees from Notre Dame and UCLA, Pieronek helped develop the Data Relay System on NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which was launched in 1991.

A year later, she returned to Notre Dame as a law student — graduating magna cum laude in 1995 — and remained on campus until her death April 9 at age 52.

When Pieronek became the College of Engineering’s associate dean for academic affairs in 2002, more than half of its female students were leaving for other majors before their sophomore year. Establishing a women’s engineering program, she set out to stem that tide.

The results were impressive: Within two years, only 28 percent of female students left engineering before their sophomore year. By 2014 that number was down to 15 percent. Notre Dame’s proportion of female engineering graduates rose to 26 percent in 2013, well above the national average of 19 percent.

Engineering dean Peter Kilpatrick remembers Pieronek, who is survived by her husband, Charles Shedlak, as “committed, personable, loyal, dedicated, and always thinking carefully and deeply about the good of the other,” traits those engineering statistics illustrate.


It could be said that Robert Sedlack ’89 — celebrated professor of visual communication and design, winner of numerous awards for his inspired art, teaching and collaborative, community-based research — embodied Notre Dame’s mission of learning in service to justice.

For 17 years through the end of this past spring semester, his courageous hope, infectious energy and effusive belief in his students’ capacity to make the world from South Bend to South Africa a far better place, especially for the poor and marginalized, shaped powerful courses such as Design for Social Good.

The Indiana native, 47, died in his sleep at his South Bend home on May 30, a week before the magazine went to press. We are preparing a longer appreciation of him for a future issue.

Jason Kelly and John Nagy are associate editors of this magazine.