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Theology center for women vows survival after losing its home

NCR Staff
Mount Washington, Md.

Conviction meets eviction where a PhD in an apron -- fresh from peeling the spuds in the kitchen -- answers a door on which a weathered casting of Mary, the Mother of God, is anchored just above the knocker. Picture an 1885 country house, a stone-and-timber inn where theology is served with breakfast.

This is the Mount St. Agnes Theological Center for Women, where some 80 percent of scholars and students are women with families.

The fare between lunch and dinner -- taken at an elegant old dining table with china plates on a plum-colored damask cloth, silverware gleaming -- could be conversation based on the previous night’s “Mary, Women and the Church” or “To Hell and Back with Dante.”

The courses -- nonresidential -- may be all-day, one-shot programs or one-day-a-week for five weeks. About 250 people take courses at the center in a given year. The center reaches another 1,000 people through lectures at other locations.

In the evening, among the 2,500 books scattered around the 18-room stone and clapboard residence, there might be some impromptu brainstorming on how to establish a master’s program in Catholic feminism or quiet talk taking place in the hallway around the grand piano.

Or, after the Tuesday prayer service in the old chapel, as everyone pitches in to tidy up the kitchen, one scholar, as happened recently, might be counseling and consoling another whose daughter that day has run away from home.

However, this idyllic setting for far-reaching ideas and studies was dramatically interrupted by an eviction notice. The notice -- Nov. 30 is the eviction date -- was served on this former Sisters of Mercy of Baltimore provincial motherhouse by its owner, the giant insurance company, USF&G, higher up the hill.

As boxes are packed, miracles prayed for and negotiations with USF&G attempted, Mount St. Agnes has permanently moved into cyberspace (www.msawomen.org) while it seeks another residence.

Not just any place will do. Mercy Sr. Mary Aquin O’Neill -- she in the apron -- believes that women do theology best when they do it in a homelike setting. That’s why she scouted around the local secondhand shops for bargain-priced china and silverware.

“We figured if two PhDs started out doing the cooking then no one could say it was beneath anyone’s dignity,” O’Neill said. “It’s a conscious decision to honor the work women do.”

Cofounder Diane M. Caplin was hostile to the china-and- linen napkins bit at first -- until she accepted how ecologically sound it all was. No plastic here.

House rules contribute to the user friendly atmosphere. No telephones are answered in the morning. It’s a time and place of blessed silence.

The women of the Mercy Sisters of Baltimore have been on this site for 130 years. The former Provincial House, as it’s known locally, was dedicated as such in 1944 to serve a province (with 370 sisters) that stretches from Baltimore to Florida. The well-known Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray celebrated the dedicatory Mass.

The house later became a residence for older sisters and, since 1992, has housed the theology center. O’Neill and Caplin live there now.

Change came when the land -- the Baltimore city line runs through it -- was sold in 1982 to USF&G for $3.2 million to assist the order’s retirement needs. Once the site of the Mercy’s Mount St. Agnes College (merged in 1972 with Loyola College, Baltimore), the insurance company developed the acreage to suit its purposes. As part of the sale, the sisters were able to use the residence rent-free until 1992. That’s when O’Neill, who holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Vanderbilt, and Caplin, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Marquette, arrived to establish the center as “a place where women safely and freely study, interpret, formulate and teach Christian theology” -- and operate on a month-to-month lease.

A USF&G spokesperson told NCR that the company’s headquarters were “fully occupied,” that the company needs additional space and that she was “not aware” there would be any last minute negotiations.

The theological center, cosponsored by the Baltimore and St. Louis, Mo., Sisters of Mercy, is active on home ground and has far-reaching plans.

Its teaching materials are already used in New Orleans, where a former student has rehabbed a room in her home as a women’s study center, and in Birmingham, Ala., where classes are offered by a nun in the cathedral basement. What O’Neill and Caplin are doing now in Baltimore, they hope to replicate first in St. Louis.

O’Neill said she was inspired to start the center by two factors: the 1991 organizational restructuring that produced the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas -- committing them to be in solidarity with women seeking full equality in the church and society, and a lecture given in the early 1990s by Dolores Leckey, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ committee on family, laity, women and youth.

“Dolores said that women had been on a pilgrimage since Vatican II (1962-65),” recalled O’Neill, “and it was time now to establish a home -- a home that draws on the best that women religious know, and that other women know. That’s really what we try to do here.”

That, and reducing “the intimidation many intelligent women feel about the experience in the classroom -- especially the higher education classroom,” O’Neill said.

Caplin added, “What we have here is not something scholars around the country have in their daily interactions.” In addition, she said, the linking up that occurs through networking and connecting on the Web is phenomenal.

The center has gone from grappling with the prospect that the Roman Catholic church was in danger “of losing at least two generations of Catholic intelligent women,” to the creation of a center that has just emerged from a three-year nationwide consultation on its future, “Faith, Feminism and the Future of Theology.”

Recommendations include conducting an annual summer session on feminist theology for Catholic women pursuing doctorates at Catholic and other institutions, a mentoring home page for young scholars, and fundraising to assist Catholic women seeking careers in theology.

In 1992 the center’s first program, “The Passion of Mary,” was filled. O’Neill presumed everyone in chapel was Catholic. It wasn’t so. Protestant women, too, hunger for feminine images of God, she said.

Another facet of the center’s work came about because of a young Mercy Corps volunteer. She came to the center to reflect on social justice. She was so bright that O’Neill and Caplin found funds to enable her to pursue theology at Marquette University.

And then the center’s development director, Mary Pat Clarke, a former president of Baltimore City Council and an unsuccessful candidate in the last race for mayor, did some grant writing.

The idea is to first produce a directory of all the Catholic religious justice activities in the archdiocese, and then provide an education program that links direct service/advocacy to theology and vice versa.

This, she said, is an example of Mount St. Agnes offering what it does best -- putting academic heritage at the service of people in the trenches. In fact, said Clarke, “if we ever get the course going, I want to take it.”

Catholic women “may not have the altar but we have the table,” O’Neill said, “and it’s holy -- so let’s use it for holy purposes, for communion, for companionship, for counseling, for all the things that the house church did in the beginning.”

The center does have the table. What it needs in its immediate future, however, is a place to put it.

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 1997