By Sister Jessine Reiss, OSF
Sister Jessine Reiss, OSF, wrote this account on Jan. 17, 2013, for submission to the congregational archives and was kind enough to share it in remembrance of Sister Lucille Walsh, who died in April.
Surrounded by members of her own congregation, the Sisters
of St. Francis of Assisi, members of her own family, and friends, Sister
Lucille Walsh, OSF, celebrated her 100th birthday, Jan. 14, 2013, at
Clare Hall, the Sisters’ retirement home in St. Francis, Wis. For Sister
Lucille, presently the oldest member of her congregation, the event celebrated
a lifetime devoted to the practice of dentistry, teaching, and interfaith activities.
Born in Warner, Alberta, Canada, Sister Lucille came to know
the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi when her family moved from Canada to
Parkston, S.D., just before her seventh birthday. There she attended Sacred
Heart Grade School where she met and was inspired by the Sisters who were her
teachers and whose order she joined in 1932 at 19 years of age. Today,
reflecting on her 81 years as a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi, she says she
has come to understand her life as having been a growing process within God’s
providence. She recalled that the Sisters who taught her “expressed their
Congregation’s worldview which was the inter-relatedness of all creation – a
world view based on the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi who could call
all creatures his brothers and sisters.”
Her 81 years were marked with several “firsts” and an
acceptance of challenges. She was the first nun to earn a doctor of dentistry
degree at Marquette University in 1944; the first among her class of nearly 100
male students (“the top member of her class scholastically,” according to a
Milwaukee Journal article); and the first nun to receive the Mary Neville
Bielefeld Award from Marquette’s Alumni Association in 1975. At the time of
earning her D.D.S. degree, she was known as Sister Mary de Lourdes. It was not
until the 1960s, when the Sisters were permitted to return to their baptismal
names, that she became known as Sister Lucille Walsh.
Since she had always had a penchant for philosophical and
theological studies, dentistry was the furthest from her mind when she entered
the convent, she said. Nevertheless, she remained the Congregation’s dentist
for 23 years before retiring and taking a detour on her life’s journey. With
her Congregation’s approval to change professions, she chose to prepare herself
for a teaching career. Though she opted to teach, she, nevertheless, admits
that dentistry provided her with a great deal of satisfaction and personal
fulfillment. She said, “It provided an opportunity for genuine personal concern
for others.” In the same interview written by Marilyn Walker for the North
Shore Herald, Sister Lucille admitted to being grateful for her scientific
background which was particularly helpful in “giving me a grass roots
understanding of the evolutionary character of natural history, and so
contributing to a dynamic theology of history.”
Leaving dentistry, Sister Lucille sought an advanced degree
in philosophy, theology and world religions. She earned a master’s degree in
theology at Marquette University and pursued additional courses at Hamline
University, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, San Francisco University, and
Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan.
Upon completing her academic work, she became a member of
the theology faculty at Cardinal Stritch College (now University) in 1967 and
was appointed head of the Department of Theology where she taught until 1988.
Again, as associate professor of religious studies, she was the “first” faculty
member at Stritch to introduce a course in world religions, covering such major
religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, in addition to Christianity. She
particularly enjoyed teaching this course she said, “since it dealt with a
basic universal human experience, expressed in a rich variety of religious
beliefs and practices.”
After her retirement from teaching in 1988, Sister Lucille
volunteered her services in the Stritch University library until her final
retirement in 1991.
In October 2012, she was recognized by Cardinal Stritch
University for her involvement in interfaith activities in the Milwaukee
Archdiocese and is credited with being one of the first to perceive a need for
dialogue with members of the Islamic faith. Being a member of the Milwaukee
Archdiocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission in 1980, she wondered what
opportunities, outside of classroom contact, were available for wider dialogue
between Christians and Muslims. After sharing her concerns with Dr. Abbas
Hamdani, a Muslim professor at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, she and
the professor set about co-founding the Islamic-Christian Dialogue. It
consisted of about 30 Christians of all denominations and Muslim members.
The group met monthly to discuss topics suggested by the
members. Following the Vatican guidelines, members avoided proselytizing.
According to Sister Lucille, the group’s purpose was the share beliefs and practices
common to each member and to help people understand and respect each other. “I
think we did a lot to educate people,’ she said, “while helping to dispel
ignorance and prejudice – factors that tend to disrupt peace.” For her efforts
with the dialogue, she and her co-chair Sister Jessine Reiss, OSF, received
Vatican II Awards in 1999 for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.
After a century of living God’s gift of life, Sister Lucille
is still being honored for achieving a “first.” This time, she has been
recognized as the first OSF Sister to reach the age of 100 among the 65 Sisters
with whom she lives at Clare Hall. Among nearly 100 on hand to celebrate this
latest milestone in her life were three members of her family – James Walsh, a
nephew and two nieces (Winifred Rotz and Patty Walsh) – all from Sacramento,
Calif. Another “first” occurred with a reading of the citation from CoryAnn St.
Marie-Carls, mayor of the City of St. Francis, proclaiming Jan. 14, 2013,
“Sister Lucille Walsh – 100th Birthday Celebration Day” and calling
on “all to follow in her footsteps of accomplishment, inspiration and
Jan. 14 was a big day for Sister Lucille Walsh, a “dentist,
scholar, Islam defender,” according to the headline of the Bay View Compass. It
was truly a first.
Photos courtesy of University Archives