Features

July/August 2011 The Trinity Sisters

Many of America’s most powerful women went to a college you’ve never heard of.

By Kevin Carey


Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Sister Ann Gormly is almost ninety, but she still skips the elevator and climbs the steep wooden staircase in the main hall of Trinity College, her alma mater and former employer of many years. I met her there one cold afternoon in early December, on the college’s small hillside campus in northeast Washington, D.C. She guided me up one flight of steps, down a long, quiet hallway, and into a spare white meeting room, where she and three of her fellow nuns told me about one of the more remarkable and unacknowledged institutions in twentieth-century American higher education.

Trinity was founded by Sister Gormly’s religious order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in 1897. But neither the college nor the order of nuns is what it used to be. Of the four sisters in the meeting room, none was younger than sixty, and two of them—Sister Gormly and Sister Margaret Claydon— were old enough to reminisce about the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, during their freshman year as Trinity students. Sister Claydon, who served as president of the college from 1959 to 1975, sat down next to me wearing a black jacket and a heavy gold cross on a chain around her neck, and she leaned a wooden cane against the table as she took her chair. She described Trinity’s years of decline, when nuns started leaving the order in droves and young women stopped coming to replace them. “It was painful,” she said. “It still is.”

But like any educator, Sister Claydon finds some joy in keeping track of her former students. Trinity, which nearly foundered in the 1980s, was always a small school, graduating 200 women in a good year. So Sister Claydon has been able to keep in touch with a good portion of alumnae. Just two weeks before our meeting, she had sent off a note of encouragement to one who was abandoning a lucrative perch in business for a job in public service. “I’m so thrilled you’re doing this,” Sister Claydon wrote.

The student was Cathie Black, who graduated from Trinity in 1966 and then went into the cutthroat, male-dominated publishing industry, becoming one of the nation’s most powerful media executives. After heading USA Today and then helping launch Oprah Winfrey’s hugely successful O magazine, Black rose to the chair of Hearst Magazines. Unexpectedly, she had chosen to step into the lion’s den of New York City politics by accepting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s appointment as the first female chancellor of the city schools. Black’s tenure was ultimately a short one, but at that moment Sister Claydon saw a former student applying her considerable talents to the public good.

Black wasn’t the only one on Sister Claydon’s radar. Other Trinity alumnae who have received notes in recent years include Kathleen Sebelius (Class of ’70), the two-term governor of Kansas and current secretary of health and human services, and Nancy Pelosi (Class of ’62), the first woman to serve as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the most powerful female politician in American history. In fact, when Forbes magazine recently published its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world, only Princeton undergraduate alumnae outnumbered those of tiny, little-known Trinity College.

The Washington, D.C., area is replete with landmarks— Ford’s Theater, the Watergate Hotel, the homes of Frederick Douglass and Red Cross founder Clara Barton—where, at a particular moment in time, history was made. There is no official placard marking Trinity College as such a site, but there probably should be. For roughly twenty years in the 1960s and ’70s, the small, austere, and relatively obscure women’s college graduated prominent female scientists, scholars, doctors, educators, judges, and public servants in numbers far out of proportion to its size. The true import of this achievement is only now being realized, as the school’s graduates hit the pinnacle of their careers. The historic advances of last year’s health care reform effort, for example, bear the fingerprints of an uncanny number of Trinity alumnae.

The tale of Trinity’s golden years is, in many ways, a “right college, right time” kind of story. In the days when most of American higher education was single sex and Catholics rarely mixed with mainstream institutions for reasons of mutual suspicion, Trinity—a Catholic women’s college distinct in its dedication to academic rigor—had the pick of the brightest graduates from girls’ parochial schools.

But it was more than an accident of demography that made Trinity the source of so many remarkable women. It was also the highly progressive culture of the place, imprinted on the institution by the nuns who started it and still very much evident on the campus today. In Catholicism, different religious orders describe themselves as each having a distinct “charism.” The term refers partly to the basic mission of an order, but also to a more intangible set of attitudes—a spiritual temperament that traces back to the group’s founding. The charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur involves running schools for women and girls. More than that, though, it entails a spirit of ambitious enterprise and fierce autonomy—a refusal to take no for an answer in the face of institutional authority. The origins of this religious order stretch back 200 years and 4,000 miles across the Atlantic. They help explain the accomplishments of an impressive number of women shaping America today.

The Sisters of Notre Dame came into existence at a time when France was emerging from a state of utter disarray. It was the winter of 1804. Napoleon had been in power for five years, and the nation was still reeling from the decade-long upheavals of the French Revolution, which had left over a hundred thousand dead. Infant mortality stood at 30 percent, and tens of thousands of children had been orphaned or abandoned. It was in this context that two women—a village shop owner’s daughter named Julie Billiart and a noblewoman, the Viscountess Francoise Blin de Bourdon—founded the new order and dedicated it to the education of poor young girls.

Billiart and Bourdon did not make life easy for themselves. Before founding the order, they were loyalists to the Catholic Church with ties to the aristocracy and, as such, had been persecuted during the revolution as agents of the ancien regime. Billiart, a small-town spiritual savant who spent most of her adult life paralyzed from the waist down, refused to denounce the church and was hunted by anticlerical forces. One night, friends smuggled her from a chateau to safety in the bottom of a hay cart as a drunken mob stood outside demanding that she be brought out and burned alive. She spent years in hiding and eventually took refuge with the noblewoman Bourdon, whose scheduled date with the guillotine had been luckily preempted by the fall of Robespierre.

Despite their fidelity to the church, the two nuns ran afoul of its authorities too when they tried to put their ideas about girls’ education into action. Billiart had novel, egalitarian ideas about the sisterhood, and refused to adopt the standard two-tier system of mothers ruling over a lesser class of sisters. She was also an ardent expansionist, founding fifteen convents and scores of schools for young girls whose access to education had been wiped out in the tumult following the revolution. This raised the ire of the local bishop, who wanted to maintain control of the order. In 1809, Julie was exiled from her home city of Amiens, in northern France. So she and her fellow sisters went to Namur, Belgium, which remains the motherhouse of the order today.

By mid-century, the fast-growing order had already crossed the Atlantic, with its network of schools expanding first in Ohio, then Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and nationwide. But a bigger leap was still to come. On March 7, 1897, while visiting Washington for the inauguration of President William McKinley, Sister Susan McGroarty, the leader of the order’s educational work in America, climbed into a carriage with Sister Mary Euphrasia, head of the order’s convent at North Capitol and K Streets, and drove north to the suburban towns of Brookland and Eckington. This was the site of the recently founded Catholic University of America. The nuns were ostensibly scouting locations for a new girls’ school. But Sister McGroarty had also become convinced that there should be an institution where the brightest graduates of her high schools could further their studies. While many Americans still held that college would have a “hardening and deforming” effect on young women, the weight of public opinion was shifting toward opening the doors of higher education to both genders.

At Catholic University, as fate would have it, the two nuns met James Garrigan, the school’s vice rector and a like-minded soul. He, too, was grappling with the admission of women into higher education. Twenty young Catholic women had recently applied for admission to Catholic, which had opened its doors ten years earlier. They were denied—it was an all-male institution. All twenty had then proceeded to enroll in “Protestant or infidel” colleges, putting their faith and souls at risk. And so the two nuns and the vice rector banded together to form a Catholic college for women: Trinity College.

Within months, they were engulfed in protest and controversy. Men in the local church hierarchy were aghast at the prospect of a women’s college being erected within walking distance of the male students at Catholic. Like Billiart and Bourdon a century before, Sisters McGroarty and Euphrasia’s modern ideas about educating women pushed the bounds of what was acceptable within the church. Soon the fledgling project was surrounded by rumor and innuendo. Joseph Schroeder, a professor of dogmatic theology at Catholic, relayed his objections to allies in the Vatican and began publishing broadsides in conservative newspapers. “We cannot discern any advantage gained by this newfangled rise of the New Woman,” he wrote. Fending off the anti-Trinity campaign fell to Euphrasia, a tireless networker, promoter, and fund-raiser who might have been a star in the university development world had she lived in a different time.

The face-off was dubbed by some the “War of 1897.” Catholic newspapers up and down the East Coast ran stories about the controversy. “The project of a University for the weaker sex,” said one pointed inquiry from Rome, “has made a disagreeable impression here.” Finally Sister Euphrasia determined to speak with the archbishop himself, who had fled the stifling summer heat for Atlantic City. On August 26, she and a colleague donned their heavy hooded traveling cloaks despite the soaring temperatures and set out by train for New Jersey. The archbishop was impressed by their case and their determination, and his support helped tip the battle in Trinity’s favor. (It didn’t hurt that the college’s supporters began pointing to their opponent Shroeder’s weakness for all-night sojourns in disreputable saloons.) By December the war had subsided. Trinity College enrolled its first students on November 3, 1900.

If anything, the pitched controversy over simply opening
Catholic higher education to the “weaker sex” obscured the grander ambitions behind the school’s founding. Garrigan described Trinity as a place “to take our young Catholic women to a higher plane than has been so far reached by our Catholic schools; in a word do for them what Vassar and Wellesley and Bryn Mawr are doing for American women.” The Trinity faculty—mainly Sisters of Notre Dame—studied the course catalogs of the Seven Sisters with care. Admission was contingent on examinations that were administered in major cities nationwide. Incoming students were expected to demonstrate proficiency in Latin, English, either French or German, history, and mathematics. The daily schedule for the first class of Trinity women began with Mathematics at eight thirty a.m. and proceeded through History and four different languages to lights out at nine thirty p.m.—with a half hour for “free time” at five thirty, just before Social Ethics.

In those first decades, many Trinity graduates entered the sisterhood or became teachers, following one of the few career paths available at the time for educated women. Others pioneered the entrance of women into medicine, business, and law. By 1965, fifty-seven Trinity alumnae had earned MDs from universities ranging from Harvard and the University of Southern California to the University of Rome. Many others entered social work, none more famously than Jane Hoey, Class of ’14, who became director of the Welfare Council of New York City. When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, Franklin Roosevelt appointed her as the first director of the Bureau of Public Assistance. For the next two decades she was one of the few powerful women in the federal government, until she was ousted by President Eisenhower in 1953 in favor of a political appointee. In a letter to then Undersecretary for Health Education and Welfare Nelson Rockefeller, Hoey refused his request to resign. “There is nothing political about poverty,” she declared.

By the late 1950s, Trinity was thriving as the Baby Boom swelled college ranks nationwide. In 1959, the college appointed Sister Margaret Claydon, Class of ’45, as president. At thirty-six, she was one of the nation’s youngest higher education leaders. She promptly called a press conference to explain her goals. A reporter for Time magazine was on hand. “The modern world needs more people—including girls—who think for themselves,” Claydon said. “We’re not in the business of training committee women or bridge players.”

Fifty-three years later, Sister Claydon has lost none of her conviction. When I asked what, exactly, she did to train her students to think for themselves, she turned and looked me square in the eye. “We treated them like women,” she said. “Not like little girls.” It was a distinction she returned to numerous times as she explained how the charism of Saint Julie Billiart became the educational philosophy of Trinity College. If students were going to heed Saint Julie’s call to go out into the world, they needed self-reliance. Trinity had instituted student government in 1914. Exams were unproctored, and integrity was upheld by an honor system. The college didn’t perform bed checks and didn’t take attendance at Mass, but seniors took the GRE as a matter of course. Students were constantly reminded—“until they got sick of me,” Sister Claydon said—of women like Jane Hoey and the legions of teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, and PhDs who had come before them.

Nancy Pelosi still remembers the thrill of being accepted to the most rigorous Catholic women’s college in America. Raised in a strict religious household, her college options were limited: it had to be Catholic, all female, and within forty-five minutes of Baltimore, where her father was the mayor. Luckily, Trinity fit the bill. The nuns were “severe,” Pelosi told me in a recent interview between votes on the House floor, and the academic standards tough, but the atmosphere was empowering. “When you look around the room, everybody you see is a woman in a leadership role,” she said. “It gave you a sense of confidence that, yes, women do these things. You’re not just the secretary of the student class—you’re the president.” Speaking in her office overlooking the National Mall a few weeks earlier, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius made the same point. “Girls did everything,” she said. “There was no thought that you could be the treasurer but not the president.”

Trinity was also, in its way, a long-standing oasis of progressive politics. In the 1920s and ’30s, Monsignor John Ryan— the famous “Right Reverend New Dealer”—had taught his influential theories on social justice and the living wage as an adjunct professor. Students were encouraged to pursue internships on Capitol Hill. When the civil rights and antiwar movements surged in the 1960s, student involvement was so commonplace that the dean of students kept a cash reserve on hand to bail protesters out of jail. Many of the nuns marched too.

The college’s activist streak was undergirded by a socially conscientious reading of the Bible. During our conversation, Pelosi quoted from memory a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that, she said, still “overpowers” her. “ ‘When, Lord, did I not give you food or drink or housing or clothing. When did I not visit you when you were in prison?’ And Christ responds, ‘When you did not do this to the least of my brethren,’ ” the congresswoman recited. “That gospel of responsibility from one to the next is something that was ingrained in us,” she said.

The order’s charism, Sister Claydon explained to me, called for the college not just to educate, but to “educate for peace and justice.” Patricia McGuire, Class of ’74, puts it more bluntly: “Most people think of nuns as little shy retiring people. They’re not. They were revolutionaries.” The Trinity sisters, McGuire said, harbored the same “latently subversive” attitude toward authority that had led Julie Billiart to decamp for Namur. “We weren’t meant to be held under one jurisdiction,” says Sister Claydon. “We were meant to go to the whole world.”

What’s remarkable is just how many graduates took their Trinity education—and some version of the sisters’ charism—to heart. True to Sister Claydon’s statements in Time, the class of Trinity women who enrolled under her watch did not content themselves with committees or bridge. Instead, they formed one of the most distinguished cohorts of women ever to graduate from an American college or university.

Jurate Kazickas, Class of ’64, was told by her editor at Look magazine that she was too inexperienced and female to cover Vietnam. So she went on a game show, won $500, and used the money to buy a one-way ticket to Saigon. A rocket explosion at Khe Sanh left scars that remain today. Caryle Murphy, Class of ’68, hid from Iraqi authorities while filing anonymous dispatches from Kuwait during the occupation. She won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize.

Others aimed for government. Barbara Kennelly, Class of ’58, was elected to Congress from Connecticut in 1982 and served eight terms. Maggie Williams, Class of ’77, became Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff. After three decades working to limit the spread of lethal weapons, Susan Burk, Class of ’76, was appointed ambassador for nuclear nonproliferation by President Obama. Claire Eagan, Class of ’72, is the chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, academia welcomed dozens of Trinity graduates into doctoral programs—women like Jane McAuliffe, Class of ’68, today the president of Bryn Mawr—and scores of alumnae followed their predecessors into education, medicine, science, and law. Among the roughly 3,400 women who graduated from Trinity between 1955 and 1975, more than half went on to earn advanced degrees. By the late 1960s, Trinity was producing twice as many Woodrow Wilson fellows as any other women’s college, and bested even Georgetown and Catholic on that count.

But at the same time, larger forces began eroding Trinity’s foundations. Vatican II concluded in 1965, encouraging a less insular Catholicism in the modern world. Meanwhile, the women’s movement was breaking down gender barriers in higher education and the professions. Georgetown went coed in 1968, along with other elite universities, Catholic and otherwise. Trinity was simply not positioned to compete. For years, it had enjoyed a kind of sole-supplier status for smart Catholic women looking for a rigorous education. It had never grown large, averaging fewer than a thousand students. It never built a big endowment— the sisters had taken vows of poverty and didn’t care much about money. By the middle of the century, the vision of building a Catholic women’s college to rival the best secular institutions seemed to have been fulfilled. Then it seemed to unravel overnight.

The steady pipeline of women from the best Catholic high schools began to slow, and the need for Trinity faculty dwindled along with it. For years, Sister Claydon had sat in chapel, looking out at the students in the pews and updating a mental roster of those who were most likely to enter PhD programs and eventually return to Trinity to teach. Suddenly she had no place for them. As enrollment dropped she was forced to fire twenty-five young faculty members. Others left the order to join various social justice causes, convinced they could do more good outside the college walls.

By the 1980s the institution had fallen into precipitous decline. The college’s always-tenuous financial situation turned dire. A series of presidents came and left in quick succession. Facilities built at the beginning of the century were crumbling, and no new ones rose around them. Scores of other Catholic women’s colleges went coed or shut their doors.

At the same time, as the spectrum of professional options open to women broadened, fewer and fewer became nuns. Like other American religious orders, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur no longer enjoyed a steady influx of girls from Catholic families. Near the end of our conversation, I asked the four nuns how many members of their order were left in America. A couple started to guess before Sister Mary Hayes jumped in. “There are 929,” she said, in a way that made clear she keeps track of the decline.

The Sisters of Notre Dame continued their work in the
following decades, and when they occasionally rose to prominence it was for familiar reasons. During the 1984 presidential election, two sisters who worked in a West Virginia homeless shelter joined twenty-three other nuns, priests, and brothers to sign a pro-choice statement that was published in the New York Times. The Vatican reacted angrily and forced all the other signers to make “public declarations of adherence to Catholic doctrine on abortion.” Only the two sisters refused. The Vatican demanded that they be dismissed from the order. The order refused that, too. After four years of stalemate, the sisters resigned to continue their work as lay members.

In 2005, the assassination of seventy-three-year-old Ohio-born Sister Dorothy “Dot” Stang provoked outrage worldwide. When she refused to abandon her lifelong work advocating for rainforest preservation and the rights of peasants in Brazil, local ranchers had her gunned down in the street. While their American numbers continue to dwindle, the order is expanding in South America and Africa, with concentrations in the Congo, Kenya, and Nigeria.

Trinity, meanwhile, has made a remarkable comeback. In 1989, with dissolution fast approaching, the college turned to another young alumna, Patricia McGuire. Raised in a middle class Philadelphia household and the sister of a nun, McGuire had gone from Trinity to law school, been bored by firm work, and ended up the assistant dean of Georgetown Law.

During her interviews for the presidency, McGuire asked how she would navigate relations with the local Catholic hierarchy. The nun across the table gave her the hard look McGuire remembered from her student days. “Don’t worry about the bishop,” the sister instructed. “Just fix the college.”

There was no money. “Poverty,” McGuire likes to say, “is one of our grand traditions. Something we took from the nuns.” A previous president had started a teacher education program for older students to attend on nights and weekends. McGuire expanded it, bringing in much-needed cash. Then she turned to the historic women’s college itself.

The traditional Catholic student population was not going to return. But Washington, D.C., was filled with young women who needed a good college education. Many came from impoverished homes and suffered under a local government that couldn’t manage to provide a functional system of public education. They were much like the poor, school-deprived girls that Saint Julie Billiart had founded her order to serve. Trinity welcomed them in.

Over time, word spread and enrollment steadily grew. Today the college has topped 2,000 students, as big as it has ever been. The endowment is a little less tiny, and new buildings are rising again. Chapel services have filled back up, although now the Catholic students are joined by Baptists, evangelicals, and Muslims. The large majority of Trinity students are black or Hispanic, and Howard University has replaced Georgetown as the place to find a date. There’s a banner hanging front and center from the high ceiling of Trinity’s main hall as you walk in the front door. It says “Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House.” On one occasion when she was visiting the campus, Pelosi told me, a young student came up to her and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Madame Speaker. But I’m going to be president of the United States someday.”

Sister Claydon still lives at Trinity, on the top floor of the
north wing, with a small group of fellow nuns. After stepping down from the presidency, she taught at Yale for several years on a fellowship before returning to Trinity to teach English until retiring at the age of eighty, in 2003. She attends Mass every day and delivers the occasional speech at alumni events. And, of course, she keeps up with her correspondence, sending handwritten notes (and, increasingly, e-mail) to women who were, and still are, her students.

To mark the day she took the speaker’s gavel, Pelosi attended a special morning Mass in Trinity’s small stone chapel, sitting in the front pew surrounded by her many grandchildren. Sister Claydon was in the audience. Anti-abortion protesters picketed outside. A few weeks earlier, President McGuire had preemptively called the archbishop of Washington to inform him that she had no intention of canceling the Mass.

In her first months on the job, pundits openly questioned Pelosi’s smarts and fortitude. They talked about her as if she was little more than a glorified hostess—good for a cocktail party or a fund-raiser but out of her depth in the rough-and-tumble man’s world of power politics. Republicans painted her as a grotesque caricature of ultra-liberal excess.

But when the Affordable Care Act teetered on the brink of collapse in early January 2010, with wise men and White House politicos calling for compromise and retreat, it was Pelosi who stood firm. Behind closed doors, she dismissed the bowdlerized version of health care reform being pushed by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel as “Kiddie Care.” In late January, she held a press conference and declared, “If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will polevault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed.”

Barbara Kennelly, Class of ’58, now president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, helped press for comprehensive reform. Kathleen Sebelius watched over the debate as the official who would be in charge of implementing whatever reforms took shape. At a pivotal public event at Blair House late that February, the president and vice president were flanked by Pelosi and Sebelius. As the meeting began, Pelosi glanced at her fellow alumna and thought, “If Pat McGuire could see us now.”

Weeks later, when Pelosi succeeded in corralling a reluctant caucus to pass the historic reform, Sister Claydon immediately emailed a note of affirmation. “Thanks for sticking in there,” she wrote, “and holding on to the real version of the law.”

On March 23, 2010, in the East Room of the White House, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. The mood in the room was festive as Obama surrounded himself with friends and allies. Pelosi stood behind him, hands on the back of his chair, as he signed half a century of progressive aspirations into law.

Afterward, the attendees stood around the signing desk on the crowded platform, smiling for pictures and congratulating one another. Pelosi walked over to Sebelius. She touched her fellow alumna on the arm, and said, “We need to have the president take a picture! With the Trinity sisters!”

The two went together to Obama and Sebelius said, “Mr. President, would you take a picture with the Trinity sisters?” The president said, “Sure—where are they?” and began looking around the room, perhaps for a small group of nuns applauding in the crowd. Sebelius corrected him. “We’re the Trinity sisters. Nancy and me.” Obama laughed and signaled to a White House photographer, putting his right hand around Sebelius’s shoulder and his left around Pelosi’s, smiling. At the moment the shutter closed, Sebelius looked at Pelosi and gestured between them, as if to affirm, We’re the ones, you and me.

Kevin Carey is the director of the Education Policy program at the New America Foundation.

Comments

  • AVAmom on June 29, 2011 7:48 AM:

    Thank you for a wonderful article.

  • Nancy Schott on June 29, 2011 9:25 AM:

    Thanks for the extensive article on Trinity College/University.
    Change was inevitable for Trinity but they have kept the core values.
    As a past human resources executive I really appreciate what Trinity is doing for working women returning to college.
    Nancy Schott, Trinity class of 1976, SPHR, CFP, MA Purdue

  • Lauren Bivona O'Neil on June 29, 2011 11:36 AM:

    As a '91 Trinity graduate who just attended her 20th college reunion w/her fellow Trinitrons, I salute you for the great article. I learned a lot of history about my own alma mater! The women I have met @ Trinity are life-long friends.

  • Kara on June 29, 2011 9:10 PM:

    Thank you so much for this great article. I'm a Trinity alumna Class of 2000 and I'm always happy to read how successful fellow alumnae have been. Great detail on the history and ethos of the school as well!

  • Ted Fontenot on June 29, 2011 10:22 PM:

    Yes, that's what's needed--a pseudo-elite university giving degrees in group hug.

  • Jeff on June 29, 2011 11:54 PM:

    So they basically replaced Christianity with socialism and patted themselves on the back. How peachy.

  • Joan Warthling Roberts on June 30, 2011 12:05 AM:

    What a Terrific article! I am not a Trinity alumna but as a college professor (in a state university) I am so happy to read about this kind of unswerving devotion to the truest ideals of Christianity and to the broad humanist education of women in the face of religious authoritarians, wannabe-elitists, social climbers, pseudo-intellectuals--need I go on??

  • Nathan on June 30, 2011 12:10 AM:

    Many thanks for this informative piece. It's wonderful that Trinity survived. The stories of Catholic orders and the service they have given has not been well told. I am not a Roman Catholic, but I am grateful for their contributions. Many of their institutions--colleges, hospitals--have had to make a transition into corporate models. Some now get their "morals" from consultants who explain why the core values just won't work anymore. It's difficult to give enough praise to what Trinity and its leaders have managed to accomplish.

  • Vince on June 30, 2011 12:46 AM:

    Great article. Learned a lot about Trinity College having driven by it many times. Change is alway a struggle. From some of the male comments above, some still can't deal with bright, sucessful women. I forwarded the article to the son of a Trinity graduate in California, hopefully he will give it to his mother.

  • Chrysostom on June 30, 2011 5:25 AM:

    Yes, this article explains why the order went into steep decline. If you preach the teaching of the Catholic Church, you will attract people as centuries of experience prove. If you preach politics and socialism, girls will not join the order: why should they? They can see what happened under socialism in China and Europe; they are not dummies. Here in England, this same order used to run dozens of schools for girls. There are now no young nuns and the schools have become co-educational, in the main. Progress.

    Mary Help of Christians - pray for us.
    St Julie - pray for us.

  • Virginia on June 30, 2011 8:21 AM:

    Trinity was, is and will continue to be a source of inspiration for so many women whose success is put in doubt by the existing social-economic climate. In the past it was gender, in the present may be poor economic resources, in the future may be fear...or perhaps it's all three all along. No matter, Trinity empowers women to think for themselves, to work hard to achieve higher goals, to be the sources of peace and social justice that this world's so sorely needs and deserves...and above all, to know that this can be achieved not only by reaching high political offices, but by encouraging others to believe and by teaching our children that self-confidence and empathetic action go hand in hand.

  • Rich on June 30, 2011 9:35 AM:

    The usual spamming, of course, misses the point. Notre Dame nuns are notoriously uncompromising and terrorized many of many cousins and friends growing-up. The Church's tit ever rightward has done nothing to attract newcomers to any of its orders.

    My own background is Protestant on one side and Catholic on the other. I've rarely admired Protestant clergy who seem to either believe nothing much or engage in ludicrous claims of fundamentalist knowledge. The clergy I've known and admired have all been largely Catholic or Jewish. Even with the scandals around pedophile priests (including a distant relative), I find much to admire about the vocation of people like the Notre Dame nuns.

  • Texas Aggie on June 30, 2011 11:00 AM:

    The inspiration of these nuns' steadfastness in the face of an authoritarian patriarchy is empowering. If there were more people like these in the Catholic Church, then the Church would be a strong force for good in the world. As it is, there are too many Donohue's and similar types. You can see them reflected in their comments - Chrysostom, Jeff, Ted Fontenot - and they are the anchor on the tail of human decency.

    The attitude that critical thinking and decent human behavior is key to human existence is antithetical to the established church, but these women have stepped outside the paradigm and have established the roots of something that may be the salvation of our planet. Good for them. It gives you hope for both the Catholic Church and the world.

  • Mary Ann Kreitzer on June 30, 2011 11:04 AM:

    As a Trinity alumna (class of '68), I can testify personally to its loss of Catholic identity. Trinity was liberal in the 60s teaching situation ethics and moral relativism and bringing in dissenters like Fr. James Kavanaugh (author of A Modern Priest Looks at his Outdated Church) to give "retreats." Its Catholic identity was less important than its worldly one and the situation has deteriorated since then. That the school eulogizes alums like Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius who champion the murder of babies in the womb while talking about their responsibility for the weak is patent hypocrisy, but typical liberalism.

    Trinity needs to remember the Bible's admonition, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul in the process." Frankly, as a Catholic woman,I'm ashamed of my diploma.

  • Salene on June 30, 2011 11:23 AM:

    Judging from the public stances of Ms. Pelosi and Ms. Sebelius on abortion either Trinty is heterodox or these two women skipped a lot of classes.

  • LLegault on June 30, 2011 11:30 AM:

    "The Church's tilt ever rightward has done nothing to attract newcomers to any of its orders."

    This is nonsense. The decline in religious vocations dates back directly to the high point of Church liberalism (I use that word reluctantly in this context) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is showing tiny signs of recovery in the most conservative orders.

    p.s. I assume the commenter meant to write "tilt" rather than "t*t".

  • Kate on June 30, 2011 11:34 AM:

    Terrific article. I'm thrilled to see Trinity is getting the recognition it so deserves. I am a very proud class of 1999 graduate. My sister graduated in 1995 and my aunt is a graduate and former sister.

  • Andrea D. Merciless on June 30, 2011 1:39 PM:

    They may have gone to small colleges but their political careers have been funded by big boys, many of them Jewish, who went to Harvard or other elite schools. Also, they got favorable media coverage by people who own the media(90% owned by Jews), also the product of top schools.
    Clinton and Pelosi are really small potatoes: grocery baggers for the Wall Street gang, Hollywood gang, and Silicon Valley gang, Big Pharma gang; I assure you that the big players in those fields are not products of small catholic universities.
    Also, there is little that is catholic about those small women's colleges. They are catholic in name only. Their real creed is political correctness cooked up by Jewish elites in places like Harvard and Yale.
    Also, Hillary went to Yale law school after her stint at the small catholic university.

  • TC early 80's on June 30, 2011 3:07 PM:

    Nice article. Sr. Margaret and Sr. Mary Hayes are two of the greatest professors to teach in The Marble Corridor. SNDs like Sr. Martha Julie Keehan, an Economics professor, could have run the Fed. When I had cancer my mom prayed to Sr. Juie Billiart. She looks after her grads. As they say, "Drink 'em down, down, down."

  • Suzan on June 30, 2011 7:13 PM:

    I enjoyed M. Merciless' comment the most.

    People do tend to forget whom these "small-time" educated women ended up working for.

    And it ain't Liberals.

    Kudos!

  • Everette J. Freeman on June 30, 2011 10:25 PM:

    Trinity's story of developing the disenfranchised does not stop at helping young women only. During the summer of 1965, I was a young inner-city, African American male attending a summer enrichment program at Trinity College. Sure, I was Catholic, but that really didn't matter to the Trinity faculty or the excellent group of summer "staffers" hired to work with those of us participating in the enrichment program. The Trinity experience shaped my life in ways large and small. Then and now, I consider myself in some small way a Trinity guy!

    EJ Freeman, President, Albany State University, GA

  • Charles Frith on July 01, 2011 1:34 AM:

    Did anyone from Trinity fix the mess we're in? No. Let's not gush over frivolity here.

  • massappeal on July 01, 2011 7:15 AM:

    Terrific article, thank-you.

    If you're looking for other distinguished "niche" colleges to profile, let me suggest Xavier of New Orleans. It is the only Catholic university that is historically Black, and the only historically Black university that is Catholic.

    Among other accomplishments, in a recent five year period Xavier produced more African-American medical school students than any other college in America---more than Harvard, Yale or Princeton, more than Morehouse, Spellman or Howard. Xavier has also educated approximately 25% of the African-American pharmacists in the US.

    Among its distinguished alumni are:

    *Alexis Herman, former Secretary of Labor;
    *Dr. Regina Benjamin, current Surgeon General;
    *Bernard P. Randolph, ret. 4 star USAF general.

  • Libtracker on July 01, 2011 12:08 PM:

    The University of Notre Dame can take note of Trinity's decline over the years and the reasons for it. NDs very public stance on abortion and other liberal causes as promulgated by Fathers Jenkins and Hesburgh among others will decimate it over time just as these issues have decimated Trinity. Fortunately in its most recent flap, NDs graduates have woken up to this travesty and are vocally threatening to withold monetary support from the University if they don't cleave to the magisterium. Something these liberal Cinos understand.

  • Ellen Barrett on July 01, 2011 3:13 PM:

    I found this article yesterday, quite by accident. Just the other day I took a book down from my shelf to read: Three Against the Wind: The Founding of Trinity College Washington D.C., by Sister Angela Elizabeth Keenan (1973, Christian Classics). Sister Angela was a first cousin of my mother's, an early graduate of Smith College, and a dean at Trinity, back in the 1950s, I believe. For anyone who may want to read her well-researched, detailed account of Trinity's origins, the book should be available, though out of print.

  • Marie Wilson-Lindsay on July 01, 2011 5:39 PM:

    If Mary Ann Kreitzer is ashamed of her Trinity diploma she should surrender it and earn a Bachelor's Degree from else where.

    Marie Wilson-Lindsay
    Trinity College 1976
    Mercer Law 1979


  • Sarah on July 01, 2011 8:09 PM:

    I am a proud alum from the class of 2001 (Go Blue!). Trinity empowers young women and gives them the courage to follow their dreams and shoot for the stars. I would not be the woman I am today if I had not walked the halls of Trinity College.

  • Tracy Dowling on July 02, 2011 12:41 PM:

    What this article doesn't say is that our Catholic women's colleges (and Trinity isn't the only one) were educating women leaders long before what that writer sees as a magical interim period of post-war America. The vast educational system and hospital systems of Catholic America were in large part initiated, peopled and led by Catholic women. Many of these women leaders educated in these institutions entered the convent, from which they managed to lead colleges, excellent preparatory schools, hospitals, and medical missions, publish magazines, in addition to writing books and poetry.
    And what was true in Catholic America has been generally true throughout the Church's history. Religious women have provided leadership as teachers, nurses, social workers for centuries -- such service is part of the Catholic heritage. It's too bad the viewpoint of those unacquainted with religious women is a stereotype of the sweet, slightly dumb women who just wanted to pray and/or couldn't get married for one reason or another.
    Believe it or not, for centuries the convent was the only outlet for women with intellectual and leadership abilities. What has made it seem like it only happened recently is that once women made it onto the political and corporate playing fields, they no longer needed to join religious life to utilize their leadership skills.

  • Lorette Lavine on July 03, 2011 8:31 AM:

    I am proud to be an alum of Trinity College Class of 1969. As a high school student I read an article in Glamour Magazine about Trinity College...it was not a flattering article it labeled Trinity as a college that graduated students from a "cookie cutter" image.
    I vowed never to go there...however when I was accepted by the number one Catholic women's college I could not deny myself the challenge of such a Trinity education.
    I have never regretted it.
    I am still a Catholic...Trinity was a wonderful beginning to my life as an adult!

  • anon on July 03, 2011 11:17 AM:

    Wow, an amazing story that confirms the wisdom of C.S. Lewis:

    "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

    Not to mention that it appears that many of the politicians mentioned (and many of the nuns) in the article are not Roman Catholics - they are Protestants.

    I was not aware that Jesus taught his followers to coerce others to pay for "social justice" programs using the power of the state to do so. Seems kind of un-Christian to me. Especially after all the hand-wringing in the media of the "extreme religious right".

    Catholic parents know that if they want to destroy a child's faith one of the best ways to do that is to send them to a "Catholic" college like Georgetown or Trinity.

  • Jim Cullen on July 03, 2011 12:17 PM:

    Thanks for the excellent feature on Trinity. It also is fascinating to see the response of the armchair theologians who revere everything about Christianity except for what Jesus Christ actually was quoted as saying in the Gospels, which is reflected in the work of the good Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

  • David Nolan on July 04, 2011 7:48 PM:

    My grandmother went to Trinity, graduating a century ago. This article gave me a whole new appreciation for the grit and determination she showed during her century on earth. Bravo!

  • Eileen Corey Sadasiv, TC'63 on July 05, 2011 1:30 PM:

    Trinity has long given its grads the knowledge, the confidence, the Washington political street-smarts to go in to the the wider world -- and work to make it a better place. With profound gratitude to those who brought Trinity into existence and kept showing us all the way, Eileen Corey Sadasiv, Ph.D. (retired, University of Rhode Island)

  • Maribeth Flynn on July 05, 2011 2:07 PM:

    I am a proud Trinity alumna, grateful every day for the rigorous education and sterling example of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and their charism. If we have succeeded, it is because of their endurance. Thank you.

  • Alex on July 07, 2011 9:37 AM:

    Sounds like they should have hired an economist or two to teach the students a bit of how the world works.

  • Charles F on July 09, 2011 3:38 PM:

    What's the difference between a Jesuit and a community activist? Jesuits pay better. The sisters of Notre Dame de Namur sound similar without the wealth. Both, and other orders that tempt and discreetly promote anti-catholic practices, are not being blessed with new vocations.

  • Kathleen Schaaf on July 11, 2011 10:56 AM:

    What a great article. Reminds me of what Trinity was in the late 1960's and how smart all our classmates were.

  • J. V. Smith on July 11, 2011 3:14 PM:

    I found Mr. Carey’s article very well written and quite informative. I can count two aunts, two sisters and my wife among Trinity graduates. And numerous other friends and acquaintances, many of whom fit the accomplished descriptions provided by Kevin Carey.

    I had a course in Social justice at Georgetown University in 1963-64 taught by a Jesuit, Fr Richard McSorley. He was a liberal, but he taught that it was better to teach a poor person to fish than to give him a fish. Human dignity required that a person needed to be responsible for himself. The state needed to step in only when the human could not care for himself. You cannot equate Social Justice with dependency on government.

    Unfortunately in my opinion the two Trinity Sisters promote governmental policies that have created governmental dependencies that ultimately diminish human freedoms by reducing human choice and, initiatives. These policies, because of their structures and huge economic costs, have undermined the bedrock of our great nation that is based on capitalism and freedom, and individual rights and initiatives. In many ways, their policies have and will continue to undermine the capabilities of our nation and states to provide the needed safety nets for the truly poor. Just look at what state governments are cutting today from their budgets to balance their budgets.

    This is what happens when governments become more socialistic. The very people they say they are there to help get served less and less. European history is repeating itself in front of our very eyes. As far as I am concerned, Ms Pelosi and Sibelius get A's in Big Government “Socialism no matter what the costs," and F's in social justice.

    I do not blame Trinity for these grades. Ms Pelosi probably learned her lessons at her father’s kitchen table. After all, as individuals we are responsible for our own actions aren’t we?

    J. V. Smith

  • Frank on July 13, 2011 9:27 PM:

    Are any of the women extolling the virtues of Trinity Mass-attending Catholics. Or, as in the case of many Catholic College grads, have they been driven away from the church of seven Sacraments to the church the What's Happenin' Now?

  • Jean Perry Connell,'54 on July 14, 2011 11:37 AM:

    I worked in Trinity's Alumnae Office under Ellen Ganey for 5 years in the late 50s and can attest to the financial support of Trinity women for their college. It was not
    economic incompetence but rather broader social issues which caused enrollment
    decline. Smart heads kept the college afloat until now it flourishes as a University which continues to empower its students.

  • JCF on July 14, 2011 5:13 PM:

    Wonderful article.

    Great to read about a school that teaches and preaches actual *Catholicism*, the Good News of Jesus (as opposed to what the Vatican dictates). What wonderful alumna it has produced.

    God bless Trinity College---keep the faith!

  • digdigby on July 15, 2011 12:26 PM:

    Nancy Pelosi? Its like priding themselves on being the source of a particularly virulent strain of E. coli.

  • MM on July 19, 2011 11:46 AM:

    While I am sure there are many fine Trinity alumna out in the world doing great things, the sad reality is that the "Trinity Sisters," mentioned here are responsible for policies which oppose the very reasons Trinity College came into existence--the authentic Catholic education of women for leadership and service for a better world.

    Recent statistics on the social landscape here in the US, shaped by policies these "powerful (Catholic) American women" of Trinity College support point to a dismal picture and surely put into question any lasting positive impact from their Catholic education at Trinity College.

    For example, when looking at combined social statistics in the US today, including abortion rates, out of wedlock rates, and divorce rates for a baby conceived in the US-- that baby today has only about a "28 % chance of being born; being born to a married woman; being born to a married woman who remains married to the same man for rest of her life. Every other baby conceived in the US will be aborted (1 out of 3, or 1 out of 4), born to an unmarried woman (34 % out of wedlock US births), or born into household divided by divorce ( 1 out of 2 marriages end in divorce)."


    These "Trinity Sisters" are, in fact, a sad testimony to the legacy of Trinity College. "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."

  • ET on July 19, 2011 2:50 PM:

    I won't speak to Trinity in particular but I went to a Catholic high school and graduated in 1987 and the decline of the Catholic church and it's ancillary institutions predates my Catholic school years.

    To yak about Socialism and blame the school and its positions that don't tow the party line, for Trinity's "decline" ignore the larger societal forces that were and are impacting Catholic identification. And honestly when people talk like that and throw out the word Socialism I tend to ignore them because it somehow seems too simplistic in its conclusions and screams jingoism.

    I would hazard a guess that any "decline" of Trinity speaks more to socio-economic conditions in Washington, D.C. and opportunities for women to attend other prestigious universities.

  • CK on July 19, 2011 10:15 PM:

    Andrea D. Merciless, you are a shameless religious bigot and I feel sorry for you.

  • Patricia Towne Papachristou on July 20, 2011 12:49 AM:

    As an alumna of the mighty red class of 1968, I benefited from the terrific role models of both professors and students. Although I was a political science major, I received an excellent liberal arts education that enabled me to become a graduate of Duke University with a keen interest in international economics. Sister Ann Gormley had a tremendous influence on me by enouraging my interest in working with Trinity students in the poor areas of San Pedro Sula, Honduras in the summer after my sophomore year. I have been teaching economics for over thirty years at Christian Brothers University in Memphis and was the first woman hired in the School of Business in 1980; I became a full professor in 1995. I love teaching about sustainable development and taking my students for study trips to countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. I know from reading the Trinity magazine that most of us were given a great opportunity to develop our potential. I am looking forward to our next reunion so I can see and talk with the women who made me who I am today.

  • PT on July 20, 2011 6:07 PM:

    Interesting article but should have included facts that some alumnae are dismayed at the direction of Trinity and at its constant, unrelenting and one-sided support of left wing politics.

  • Mary Ellen McMillen on July 22, 2011 1:44 PM:

    Thank you for a wonderful article, a welcome tribute to women's leadership. I am a TC graduate, 1955. My Trinity teachers have inspired me across many years. Nancy Pelosi is quoted as saying the sisters were "severe." I found them highly respectful of their students. "Knowledge and faith": Trinity lived both to the full.

  • Jacqueline V. Norris on July 27, 2011 5:48 PM:

    I love Trinity College. I am a Trinity Alum who just graduated in May 2011 with a vision in my heart and a divine destiny in my future as it relates to environmental social justice as it relates to the safety of public health scientific protocols/or clinical trials for the protection of all species on the earth.

  • lex schembri on July 29, 2011 3:09 PM:

    I don't think I would brag about the fact that both Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius are grads of Trinity. In their professional lives, both have done a great deal to protect just not abortion, but the use of partial birth abortion. I would say this most especially about the Secretary, as Governor. They may have lived up to the academic standards of the College but not the Catholic Spirit or her teachings.

  • semaj on August 02, 2011 12:56 PM:

    Very good article. Interesting to see the reactionary comments by those whose critical thinking and mindsets have been so thoroughly Limbaughed. . . . As though Limbaugh were the paragon of social justice and sexual purity.

  • BFM on September 01, 2011 1:23 PM:

    Great article - I just read it in my alumnae journal.
    I graduated in the '60s. Sister Margaret was right: we were not trained to be committee women or bridge players (well, maybe a few were...). We learned to think for ourselves and never be afraid to speak up on an important issue; our opinions counted. Pretty amazing that a small Catholic college could produce so many outstanding women.

  • sherry weaver on September 03, 2011 3:16 PM:

    There's no mention of Sr. Donna Jurick, who was president of Trinity in the late 90s. I worked for her as her assistant. Why is there no mention of this marvelous woman, who, in my opinion, brought some great changes to Trinty?

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  • Mary Gutman, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College 1982 on December 06, 2011 10:23 AM:

    I just found this article after reviewing yet another one of Ms. Pelosi's comments about the abortion and women's rights (November, 2011). I am totally sick of hearing about the great Catholic University- Trinity and seeing them tout Ms. Nancy and Ms.Kathleen. Do not say you are Catholic when you do not respect life. Saint Julie is not smiling. I am sure that Trinity was a wonderful woman's college but the farther away they drift from the teachings of the church just does nothing but dilute that greateness. The Board of Trustees needs the backbone to take a stance in the way in which they promote alum who speak against the teachings of thier faith.

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