Mother Mary Colman Coleman, MM

Born: November 1, 1901
Entered: October 29, 1926
Died: April 7, 1984

We gather this morning to celebrate a moment that is both personal and historical. For Sister Mary Coleman, April 7, 1984, was the moment of transition to the new life for which she had been preparing herself and us these last few years; for us as a Congregation, it is the passing of an era – our history is reaching out to our present with the deaths of Sister Mary Columba and Sister Mary Coleman. We are saddened by loss and yet enriched by their presence in a deeper way.

Sister Mary Coleman was born Mary Catherine Coleman on All Saints Day, 1901, in Friendsville, Pennsylvania, the daughter of James Walter and Elizabeth Fitzpatrick Coleman. She shared a rural childhood with her two brothers, John and Walter, her twin sister, Elizabeth, having died at birth. She attended public schools in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and graduated in 1921 from Westchester State Normal School. Mary Catherine taught in the local grade school until she entered Maryknoll in 1926 making her First Profession in 1929. Her Final Vows were pronounced in Baguio in the Philippines in 1932.

Sister Mary Coleman taught in Maryknoll’s first school in the Philippines, Malabon Normal School, and is well-remembered by her students for her skills as a teacher and as a drama coach. She is still called “Maryknoll’s answer to Helen Hayes” by some of her friends from those days. She continued this work through the very difficult early days of Maryknoll Normal School, later to become Maryknoll College in Quezon City. The War intervened in 1942 and the Sisters were interned for three years in Assumption Convent and Los Banos Camp. Sister Mary Coleman had been studying while she was teaching, and received her Master of Arts degree in English from Santo Tomas University in Manila in 1941. While completing the course work for her Ph.D., the war broke out. The Sisters were allowed to take two bags with them into the camp; Sister Coleman filled hers with books! Revealing the paradox of immense strength coupled with apparent fragility that had marked her whole life, Sister Coleman completed her dissertation in the camp and, upon release, although weak and ill, passed her oral examinations magna cum laude before returning to the United States with the others to recuperate from the experience of war.

It is important to note here Sister Coleman’s lifelong love of literature and teaching. Her doctoral dissertation “A Comparison of Classical and Romantic Tragedy,” reveals something of her love for the drama and everything of her love for the Greeks who were its originators. She saw in the Greek drama the unity of a single stately column and in Elizabethan drama the unity of a luxuriant, spreading oak tree. She preferred the former; her sympathy was with the Greeks. Within the limits of accepted forms, they presented, with grace, the exquisite pain found in the human struggle with self and with the ultimate meaning of life. “St. Aeschylus” was one of her pantheon of saints. The interaction of author and material is clear. Sister Coleman’s own grace and refinement, touched with resilience and inner strength, are evident in her life and work. When Sister Coleman returned to Maryknoll, her academic career came to fruition as Dean of Maryknoll Teachers College from 1946 to 1961.

In 1958, after 12 years on the General Council, Sister Mary Coleman was elected Mother General for a term of 6 years. This term began at a time in Maryknoll history when our structures, policies and purpose were clearly established. We were continuing to grow in numbers and to expand our institutions and works around the world. The future seemed one of growth and stability. During this time, Pope Pius XII died and John XXIII convened Vatican II. These were exciting years as the Church attempted to come to terms with a world now capable of undreamed good and evil. The Church was challenged to examine her role and mission in this world. The urgent call to peace and to social justice was proclaimed to all peoples. The whole Church was called to Renewal. Most of us here today remember those years vividly as change and renewal gathered momentum. At our Seventh General Chapter in 1964, Mother Mary Coleman was re-elected for a second 6 year term. The excitement of Renewal was turning to apprehension, anxiety and confusion as everything and everyone was called into question. What was certain was that the established ways were crumbling. The pain and suffering of misunderstanding, conflict and insecurity racked the Congregation. We had not yet developed new attitudes and understandings of authority and thus those who were in positions of authority frequently became the focal point of controversy. How much more so the Mother General. I have tried to imagine what it must have been like for Mother Mary Coleman during those years; how she survived attacks from all sides; how she endured what must have become the terribly lonely position of Mother General. When asked, she responded that the only ones who could comprehend were those who were in equal positions. As Mother General, she found most support and understanding from her peers in the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (now LCWR – Leadership Conference of Women Religious), of which she was an early and constant supporter.

In 1968 a Special Chapter was convened. Sister Barbara Hendricks wrote of this Chapter: “Tensions were high in most communities of religious and for us Maryknoll Sisters, the period peaked in the late sixties, perhaps more intensely and sooner than in localized congregations. The 1968 Chapter was divided on many issues and the delegates worked their way through four months of dialogue and struggle to reach an agreement on mission and religious life at Maryknoll. ‘Missions Challenge’ (the Chapter document) was not a consensus but an agreement to ride with disparity. For me, that was the genius of the 1968 Chapter. The delegates recognized the time as one of polarity and were willing to face the future with hope for a consenses later on.” (Opening Address, 11th General Assembly, ‘78.) Mother Mary Coleman was able to live with the polarity until the end of her second term in 1970. The wisdom of her patience and forbearance during this period in our history was faithful to the “Genius of the 1968 Chapter” and was foundational to our Renewal as a Congregation. She had faith enough to wait. The courage with which she faced this internal division challenges us to face with courage the inevitable conflicts in our struggle for justice and peace as we share in the coming of the Kingdom.

In 1970, Mother Mary Coleman finished her second 6 year term as Superior General. During the following years, Sister not only continued to search out the unfamiliar roads of Renewal with the Congregation, but recognized her own role in light of her personal history in Maryknoll. She was convinced of the importance of a sense of history to our Renewal and to our future. Since 1971, Sister Mary Coleman updated and organized the Congregational Archives. During this last year of her life, she wrote clearly of the continuity of our purpose: “Throughout this turmoil, our original vocation, women in service to the peoples of the world, has remained unaltered, even though the methods of service change as we read ‘the signs of the times’, and through these signs hear God’s voice. The way is filled with risks; it may lead to martyrdom, as indeed it has. Our foundress had prayed that God might grant this precious gift to some of our number.”

As we move into the Liturgy of Resurrection this morning, in unity with all  Maryknollers who have died and with a vital sense of our history, it is consoling that we have Sister Mary Coleman’s own words from her doctoral dissertation to provide the introduction. She says at the end of the paper: “We saw in our studies that at the end of the drama, when the storm of passion is spent, when the last cry of anguish dies away…a note of calm is felt, a feeling that all is not ended.” (p. 288). That is what we celebrate now in the Eucharist – the anguish of the passion and death of Jesus, the calm of Easter morning and the absolute surety that all is not ended.

Our celebrant is Father James P. Noonan, Superior General of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Father Robert E. Sheridan, M.M., co-missioner and friend, is our homilist.