Sister Mary Henriette Hoene

Breaking the Stained-glass ceiling

“My provincial was a very forward-looking lady,” said Sister Mary Henriette Hoene. “She knew it was in my best interest – and in the best interest of the School of the Sisters of Notre Dame, really – for me to earn a degree in theology.”

One of the few colleges that offered a theology degree in the 1960s was Gonzaga, 1,500 miles from Sister Mary’s home base in St. Louis, Mo., and a place she had never visited before. But that didn’t deter this former high school chemistry teacher and then directoress of novices from boarding a plane for five summers to get that degree. “I lived in Madonna Hall and enjoyed Gonzaga’s friendly atmosphere,” she said. “I traveled with another sister the first summer, but after that it was just me going to Spokane. While I was there, I met other Sisters of Notre Dame from the Mankato Province who were part of a school in Spokane so we shared a common bond. Going to Gonzaga University was a great experience in my life.”

Born in 1917, Sister Mary Henriette Hoene was one of seven children raised mostly by their mother on a farm just outside of Green Creek, Illinois. “My dad died when I was five,” she said. “Mom took on the heavy farm work. We all pitched in, milking cows and plowing the fields that eventually sprouted wheat, corn and soybeans. Back then it was unusual for a farm girl to go to high school, but Mom used to tell everyone, ‘Mary wants to go, so I let her go.’ ” Today, Sister Mary Henriette is 93.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from St. Louis University. “One of my professors told us that he thought women shouldn’t take math. He would open his class by saying, ‘Well gents, what are we going to do today?’ After two classes, he asked if I planned on taking any additional courses. I said, ‘Oh yes.’ ”

Last year, Sister Mary Henriette celebrated her 70-year jubilee. Several nieces and nephews shared in the occasion, which she says she will always treasure. Since professing in 1940, she has traveled to nearly every country in
the world.

“Being a farm girl I never expected to travel,” she said. “If someone would have said that I’d live in Rome for nine years, I wouldn’t have believed them.” While the representative for her congregation in Rome, she and other sisters from across the globe discussed their prayer life, formation and new potential areas of ministry. “Our goal was to keep the spirit of the congregation alive and coordinate the future life of our community worldwide.”

Today, Sister Mary Henriette lives in St. Louis with other retired sisters, and has been a breast cancer survivor for more than 40 years.

“I praise God for the many opportunities I was given throughout my life – to experience such a diversity of people and ministries,” Sister Mary Henriette said. “It’s been a good life.”

Sisters are still on campus

Sister Laura Michels, S.J.N.M., coordinator of liturgy in University Ministry, moves through her days with a visible joyousness. That is based, she says, on happiness with her life choice, her vocation. “It takes growing into, just like a marriage. I love coming to Gonzaga every day. And my joy has to do with my relationship with God. I try to see other people as God sees them.” Sister Laura, like Sister Mary Henriette, is a cancer survivor. “Honestly, having gone through this brain tumor thing, has brought me into realizing what a gift life is, and how many people’s prayers lift me up.”

Sister Joy Milos, C.S.J., on sabbatical this year, and Sister Mary Garvin, S.N.J.M., continue to teach in the department of religious studies.

As well, nuns from China, Korea and Africa are studying at Gonzaga through the Ministry Institute. The institute currently has 15, most of them international students, some working on degrees and some on sabbatical. Also studying at Gonzaga are a small number of nuns from a new order, Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church.

While the institute seeks to provide a place of rest, current international issues are particularly worrisome to the Chinese and Korean sisters. Shonna Bartlett, director of The Ministry Institute, says “What they go through, worrying about their homeland and church communities is beyond our comprehension.”

The Maryknolls, a missionary order, also send priests and nuns from China to Gonzaga for English as a Second Language. “They believe Gonzaga has the best ESL program in the country,” Bartlett said.

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