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Smaller in number, stronger in spirit

Sisters of the Holy Names continue to have major impact at Marylhurst University
by: Cliff Newell, Sister Kathleen Kircher, left, and Sister Jane Hibbard still make themselves remarkably useful at Mary’s Woods assisted living center, right next to Marylhurst University.

Few institutions of higher learning in the Northwest have undergone the changes seen by Marylhurst University of Lake Oswego.

A Catholic women's school for decades, the school accomplished a giant U-turn beginning in the 1970s to become the co-educational university for adult learning of today.

Yet something crucial remains the same: Marylhurst University is still very much the school of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

It's true the Sisters no longer dominate the instructional scene as they did from the 1930s to the 1970s. But they still play vital roles today, not only as teachers but also as workers and volunteers at Mary's Woods, right next door.

Even the Sisters who are retired do their part. They may no longer be able to hold jobs, but they can still pray.

To find out just how important the Sisters of the Holy Names still are for the mission of Marylhurst, you need only go to the very top.

'They are trustees, they are mentors, they pray for us, they teach for us,' President Nancy Wilgenbusch said. 'They serve as special advisers to us in many different roles.

'Their numbers have diminished. Their involvement in our spirit has not.'

'Obviously, we're not getting the numbers we used to,' said Sister Jane Hibbard, campus coordinator for Mary's Woods. 'The numbers have changed dramatically.

'But I don't see it as a negative thing to not have lots of Sisters. It's a different time.'

Of course, some Sisters have been around a long time and are still actively teaching today.

A legacy of music

Sister Jeanette Wood has heard a lot of squeaks, squawks and screeches from beginning violin students coming to her at St. Catherine's Hall for the past 43 years.

She has achieved such longevity because she can look past the students' musical mistakes, guide them to the right techniques and praise them for what they do well.

'I like what I'm doing. I enjoy the people I work with. I like to play,' Wood said. 'And I love teaching. When you love it, it helps you overcome a lot of things.'

Besides her faith, music has been Sister Jeanette's life since she was 5 years old. Her grandfather was a violinist with silent movie orchestras and dance bands, and her mother had a lovely singing voice.

'When my sister and I came along, we took up the violin,' Wood said.

She soon discovered that teaching attracted her as much as playing.

'Teaching always drew me,' Wood said. 'Even if I hadn't entered the order I would have taught. The Sisters drew me because they were very much into music.

'Our music program is of very high quality. People see that when students leave here.'

Sister Jeanette doesn't mind admitting to a bit of nostalgia when recalling her early years at Marylhurst.

'When I first came here it was all Sisters,' Wood said. 'We lived and worked together. I now live at O'Hara Hall. There are seven of us, and only three have anything to do with the college. I'm the only one who works here.

'There's no comparison to the beginning from the end. But change happens. The 20th Century didn't wait for anybody.'

But the Marylhurst music department has one constant: Sister Jeanette Wood. She still plays in the university orchestra. She still teaches students ranging from ages 3 to 18. You realize how much impact Wood has had when a mother like Jessica Scott shows up for her two children's lesson. Scott was a past pupil.

'She was a really good student,' noted Wood.

Even though she is still going strong, Sister Jeanette must answer the inevitable question: Does she plan to retire?

Wood shook her head 'No' and smiled.

'I can still play and keep up with things,' she said. 'I like people, I do a lot of things and I volunteer.'

Instilling a love for words

There is a good reason that Sister Joan Maiers has been teaching creative writing at Marylhurst University for more than 30 years.

'The feedback I get is that I am effective and students are enthusiastic about working with me,' Maiers said.

She is especially effective because she works so well with the kind of students now attracted to Marylhurst; students well past the normal college age but eager to improve themselves and achieve higher degrees.

'These students have a wealth of knowledge and a dearth of confidence,' Maiers said. 'One gentleman admitted that he goofed off when he was in school, but now he wants a degree and needs to learn the nuts and bolts of writing. That is the kind of person who keeps me at Marylhurst.

'I tell them, 'I want you to put me out of business. I want you to be your own editor.' If I sense there's a willingness, I can really guide them. I'm like a catalytic converter.'

It was a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names who started Maiers' love affair with the written word back in her school days in Seattle.

'Sister Helena Brand was a ferocious instructor,' Maiers said. 'She was very demanding. But she instilled a love for the subject.'

Sister Joan's later source of inspiration was the late great American poet William Stafford, a resident of Lake Oswego.

'I interacted with him for the three years prior to his death,' Sister Joan said. 'Not a day goes by that I don't think of him. He was that kind of impact person.'

To Maiers' surprise and delight, Stafford readily accepted her invitations to writing programs she had at Marylhurst and Lake Oswego, such as for the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts, just before his death in 1993.

'He would never refuse,' Maiers said. 'I realized what a treasure he was.'

Maiers has done a lot of inspiring on her own, and not just of students who need to write a paper in order to get a degree.

'One student has published three novels,' she said. 'That is typical of the people I keep in touch with.'

Maiers is a published poet herself, with more than 50 poems in various publications. She is also an editor and gives workshops, as well as teaching the Writing for Life class at Mary's Woods. She still has plenty of words and lots of energy.

'As long as I'm good at what I'm doing and my health doesn't cave in, I'm going to continue,' Maiers said. 'I don't have to keep working until my 90s, but I might.'

Maiers is eagerly looking forward to the 150th anniversary of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in the Northwest in 2009, and she anticipates her own golden anniversary.

'I've been with the Sisters of the Holy Names for 50 years,' Sister Joan said. 'How did it go by so quickly?'

A new lease on life

Perhaps the best place to see the continuing influence on the Marylhurst campus is Mary's Woods, a senior living center just a short street away from the university. Of the approximately 400 residents, 45 of them are retired sisters; 25 function independently, 20 are in various stages of health care. Sister Jane Hibbard serves as campus coordinator. Sister Kathleen Kircher has declined an official title, but she does assume a lot of responsibility.

'I do a little bit of everything,' Kircher said. 'I call myself a go-for.'

A senior living center with so many Sisters is truly a unique place.

'Each Sister has an interesting story,' Hibbard said. 'They're also good listeners. They are a very good source of support and care to the residents here and vice versa. They've given us a new lease on life.'

Technically retired, Hibbard and Kircher perform all kinds of tasks, sit on all kinds of boards, serving as 'the point people' for the university and looking after the retired Sisters.

'Sisters tend to live a long time,' noted Hibbard. 'Sister Joseph Mary is 99 years old. She was postmaster at Marylhurst for years.'

In some cases, though, retiring doesn't take.

Kircher said, 'Sister Cecelia Ranger has retired three times from Marylhurst University. Now she's starting a new program there.'

Blessed assurance

With their 150th anniversary just around the corner, one must ask, 'What is the future of the Sisters of the Holy Names at Marylhurst University?' Other orders of Catholic nuns and sisters must answer that question as their number of members steadily decline in the 21st century.

'Not all of them will continue,' Hibbard said. 'Some will combine. Some will certainly get smaller. That's God's call. This vocation is a real call from God.'

But there are plenty of 'unofficial' members of the Sisters, starting with the Sisters of the Holy Names Associates, an organization of 50 men and women committed to their mission and ministries.

And it does not stop there. Usually, membership just requires walking on the campus.

'Their spirituality and commitment to the underserved is a passion that holds the lay people of this university,' Wilgenbusch said. 'It's a very palpable feeling.

'Students - or whoever they are - they totally love the Sisters.'