Leaving a Legacy

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:30:00 AM

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2008 issue of Stritch Magazine

By Sara Woelfel

The tangible evidence of her presence is undeniable – new campus buildings; additional degrees including doctoral and distance-learning programs, a more diverse student body that has doubled in size, a rooted presence in the central city, twice as many athletic teams, and an “upgraded” name.

Stritch president Sister Mary Lea Schneider, OSF, Ph.D., who will retire in June after one of the longest running tenures of any head of a private institution of higher education in Wisconsin, has guided Stritch through many exhilarating, exhausting and sometimes emotional moments, decisions and milestones during the past 17 years.

Yet for her, it’s the intangible contributions she has made that she finds most compelling and worthy of note.

“Recently, in going through my files for the archives, I reread my installation talk and it actually focused on mission and identity,” Sister Mary Lea said. “I’m not sure where that came from but that objective emerged very early, so I think perhaps that was the foundation of all the accomplishments of the past 17 years. Getting our Franciscan identity further in place and further articulated was really the foundation for building the kind of culture that enabled us to envision and adopt so much complexity to meet the evolving needs of our students.”

Sister Mary Lea – or just “Sister,” as she has come to be known – shepherded many efforts to ensure the Franciscan charism remains a vibrant and ingrained part of the Stritch culture. In 2001, she helped secure a three-year Teagle Grant to fund programs, resources and faculty research that would further infuse the Franciscan values (creating a caring community, peacemaking, compassion and reverence for all creation) into the curriculum and character of the University.

In addition, she instituted a pilgrimage program to Assisi, Italy, for faculty, staff and students; supported the creation of the Franciscan Center on campus to foster the study of the Franciscan intellectual tradition; and, most recently, opened doors to enable the creation of the Saint Clare Center for Ministry Formation.

“Her most important contribution to Stritch was bringing us to an understanding of who we are as Franciscans,” said Dr. Marna Boyle, vice president for academic affairs.

And that has never been more important than now, at a time when Stritch is preparing to welcome its first layperson as president.

“Both Sister Mary Lea and the order (of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi) have worked very hard for the day when Stritch will not be led by a religious,” said John Bremer, former chair of the board of trustees. “I can guarantee the values will live on.”

Sister Mary Lea said the changeover to the new president should be seamless, thanks to a recently completed strategic plan and a master space plan that is in the works. In her mind, the greatest challenges the next president will face are building greater community awareness, keeping up with technology needs, increasing the traditional-age student population, resolving parking issues and addressing fundraising needs.

Looking back at her time at Stritch, Sister Mary Lea repeatedly uses the word “wonderful” as she describes the students, faculty, staff, trustees, donors and Sisters with whom she has worked.

“I’ll miss the people,” Sister said. “I’ll miss the wonderful people I’ve been privileged to work with, either directly or indirectly.”

And those people feel the same fondness for Sister Mary Lea, whose robust sense of humor, compassionate heart, understated intelligence, informal dress, accessible leadership style, distinctive personality, and sincere interest in helping others have endeared the Stritch community to her.

"She's a genuine person; she shows care and respect and talks in the same way to everyone, whether it's a trustee, or a server or a janitor,” Bremer said. “With her, what you see is what you get, and she encourages that in others."

Alumna Catherine Bordeau, ’04, is one of many former students whose lives were touched by their interactions with Sister Mary Lea, who made herself available to students as often as possible. Bordeau shared a semester-long, one-on-one independent study with the president, focusing on women in religion. Their time together “reawakened my spiritual quest” at a time when she hungered for answers to personal questions of faith, religion and identity, Bordeau said.

“I read texts as fast as she could give them to me,” Bordeau wrote in an essay she recently submitted as part of an application to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York, in a masters of divinity program. “Here were the answers to the questions I had been asking … mainly written by women. It is the class I learned the most in, the books I have reread repeatedly and which I continue to study. I am ever grateful to Sister Mary Lea …. She took a chance on a student who relished in the sort of open classroom only a president could provide.”

And these kinds of tributes are not lost on Sister Mary Lea, who on more than one occasion has been moved to tears by stories of the students whose lives she has touched.

“I think the wonderful thing about being in education is that, while most often you really have no sense of the impact you have, every once in a while you catch glimpses of it from people who keep in touch and let you know how you made a difference,” she  said.

Now, as she heads toward retirement, Sister Mary Lea is open to whatever the future holds.

“I’m not sure where I’ll go. But I’d like to do some traveling. And I’d like to read all the books – whether they are trashy novels or books in my own field – that I haven’t had an opportunity to read,” she said. “So I really don’t have a plan, except to just move away from higher education for a year. Some time during that year, the future will crystallize.”

Chances are, Sister Mary Lea will return to Stritch to teach or serve in some other capacity. Or life may take her in an entirely different direction.

"They say ministers never retire, they rewire,” said The Rev. Dr. Trinette McCray, director of Stritch’s Office of Vocation Development. “I hope in her retirement years, Sister will take time to rewire; she'll always be a minister and there's much more service in her, and we're waiting for that next phase."

Sister Mary Lea’s Stritch timeline:

  • 1991: Begins term as Cardinal Stritch University president
  • 1991-92: Lilly Foundation grant to promote diversity
  • 1993-94: Beginning of Franciscan Heritage Society
  • 1996: First Web site, visit from presidential candidate Bob Dole
  • 1997: First Assisi pilgrimage; Move to University status; Opening of new Center for Communication Studies/Fine Arts; Start of first doctoral program; Creation of Franciscan Center
  • 1998: First student service trip to Tanzania
  • 1999: Start of Lifetime Learners program for central city adults; Broadway star Elaine Stritch visits, gets honorary degree; First distance-learning course
  • 2000: Receipt of Title III grant of $1.75 million to promote science education
  • 2001: Receipt of Teagle Foundation grant for mission effectiveness endeavors
  • 2002: Creation of Leadership Center, Office of Vocation Development
  • 2004: Beginning of incorporation of Franciscan ideals into the core curriculum of the College of Arts and Sciences
  • 2005: Opening of Bonaventure Hall expansion
  • 2007: Largest single donation, $2.5 million; Creation of Saint Clare Center for Ministry Formation


Comparing 1991 to 2008 statistics, showcasing the progress made during Sister Mary Lea’s 17-year tenure:


  1991 2008
Enrollment 3,812 7,000
Endowment $4.8 million $24.8 million
Number of programs 44 70
Full-time faculty 55 99
International students 12 77
No. of athletic teams 5 10