Celebrating a contemporary 'mother of the church'

Sr. Mary Louise Trivison, left, and Sr. Christine Schenk in 2013 (Jim Metrisin Photography)
Sr. Mary Louise Trivison, left, and Sr. Christine Schenk in 2013 (Jim Metrisin Photography)

by Christine Schenk

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I am among those 60-something nuns blessed to accompany our 80-something sisters as they gently weave the final golden threads into the rich tapestries of their lives.

Today, I honor one of my personal "sheros," Notre Dame Sr. Mary Louise Trivison, whose wake service and funeral were celebrated in Chardon, Ohio, last week. I knew Mary Lou because she is the sister of late FutureChurch co-founder Fr. Louis J. Trivison (aka "Father Louie").

At age 8, young Louie erected an altar in his room, had his mother make vestments for him, and allowed his sisters to watch as he "said" Mass. Not long afterward, Louie found 5-year-old Mary Lou donning his homemade chasuble so she could say Mass, too.

"You can't be a priest," Louie scolded. "Only boys can be priests. Girls become nuns who wait on priests."

For years, family and friends mercilessly teased Father Louie with this story after he radically changed his views, due in no small part to his sister. Mary Lou went on to join the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon. As far as I know, she never waited on any priests. Her brother, however, frequently stuck his neck out supporting women's ordination and a married priesthood.

Mary Lou flourished in the Sisters of Notre Dame, where her intellectual gifts quickly became apparent. She mastered Latin, Spanish and Italian, earning a master's degree and doctorate from Case Western Reserve University. At Regina Mundi Institute in Rome, she earned a diploma in Sacred Science and wrote and defended her thesis in Italian.

In 1994, Mary Lou was certified as a teacher of Holocaust studies by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. She co-founded the Tolerance Resource Center (now the Abrahamic Center) at Notre Dame College and would later serve on the board of Cleveland's Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

For most of her life, Sister Mary Lou ministered as a gifted educator at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, where she taught Latin, Spanish, Holocaust studies and theology. She was department chair of theology and philosophy for two decades.

For nearly 50 years, she gently but powerfully influenced hundreds of students and faculty. Many commented on her unusual ability to help people believe they could achieve more than they ever imagined -- then she quietly set about helping them reach their goals.

"Her classes were so full of wisdom and she was so educated that we immediately had so much respect for her," said alumna and former employee Tina Jurcison at a college gathering honoring Sister Mary Lou. "She was always just a delight and a wonderful woman to have as a professor, friend and colleague. Every single day she would come to my office and give me the biggest hug, and to this day I still miss those hugs."

"I have been here for 28 years and I have never heard a student say one negative thing about a Trivison class," said associate professor of communication Tony Zupancic, who concluded, "I can vouch for you, Sister. When I grow up I want to be just like you!"

For the past 10 years, Sister Mary Lou suffered from poor health. At one point, she was hospitalized and in traction for months waiting for recalcitrant bones to mend. She had a fierce will to live and never complained, later telling a friend that the time had passed quickly.

Despite her physical frailty, Mary Lou's energy was amazing. For the past three years, she served as Scripture consultant for a new community prayer resource that incorporates the gender-balanced language she had longed to see.

She was the quiet conscience of her brother.

Louie and I were often attacked after Pope John Paul II tried to shut down the conversation about women's ministerial equality in the church. With the Catholic Theological Society of America and others, we said discussion on the issue should continue. Some progressive priests found themselves forced to self-silence over the issue, often a painful decision.

But not Louie. I think he knew that if he backed off, he would have Mary Lou to deal with. They were as close as any brother and sister could be.

Their great love for each other brings to mind another sister-brother duo, the fourth-century Macrina the Younger and Basil the Great. Macrina was a devout, well-educated woman who founded a monastic community in northern Asia Minor after her betrothed met an untimely end. The eldest of 10 children, Macrina eventually converted her younger brothers -- among whom were Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa -- to a deeper love for the spiritual life.

After she died, both brothers wrote eloquently about Macrina's holiness. Gregory tells us that Macrina "took Basil in hand" after he came home from school "excessively puffed up with the thought of his own eloquence" and led him to renounce all worldly desires. Eventually, Basil became known as the "father of monasticism" after founding a community that modeled its rule on one that Macrina had developed for her own sisters.

Macrina has never been acclaimed as the "mother of monasticism," but she should be.

In 1999, Louie and Mary Lou celebrated their 50th jubilees together. At his jubilee Mass, Father Louie insisted that Sister Mary Lou join him at the altar to raise the cup while he elevated the host.

At last, brother Lou succeeded in putting to rights a long-ago sister scolding.

Nuns do wait on priests, you see. We wait for priests to see the light, as Fr. Louis J. Trivison and Basil the Great eventually did.

In many ways, Sister Mary Louise was largely unsung for much of her life except by her students, Notre Dame colleagues, sisters, family and friends -- not a bad audience, that.

At the wake, Peg Trivison, the last of the siblings, concluded her eulogy: "I'm sure that Mary Lou is in heaven now, talking with the great fathers and mothers of the church."

People like Macrina the Younger, Basil the Great and, yes, I thought, Fr. Louis J. Trivison.

They are joined by Notre Dame Sr. Mary Louise Trivison -- a contemporary "mother of the church" if ever there was one.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

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