National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Catholic Colleges & Universities
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

Making history at St. Kate's

“Well-behaved women rarely make history” is a favorite bumper sticker among women at the College of St. Catherine, the largest Catholic women’s college in the nation. Not only does it describe the “can do” feminism of many of its 4,807 students, but it also fits the verve of its demonstrative president, Sr. Andrea Lee.

Lee, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister, is the first woman to head the school who is not a member of its founding congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. Her predecessor was a former St. Joseph’s sister and the school’s only lay president.

Now in her fifth year at the helm, Lee arrived with an impressive leadership record. She’d spent 19 years at her congregation’s Marygrove College in Detroit, where she served as dean, executive vice president and chief operating officer and interim president. Marygrove, which went coed in 1969, has one of the highest proportions of African-American students in the nation.

St. Catherine’s, known as St. Kate’s, has been a largely white school in its 99 years of operation. Most of its students are Minnesotans. But Lee is proud that this semester’s entering class is 26 percent students of color -- African-American, Native American, Hmong, Somali and Latino, reflecting changes in the state.

Lee tells incoming students that they need not be perfect, but they can be “pretty spectacular” if they engage fully in their liberal arts education, which she promises them will enlarge their imagination and understanding of what is important. When they leave, she hopes they will define success and happiness in a broader and deeper way than just having a career. Lee startles many freshmen when she tells them their St. Kate’s education will prepare them to be better mothers as well as better CEOs.

And Lee knows something about both. Eleven years ago she adopted a Haitian son, now age 19. She finds it easy talking to parents as a parent and assuring them that their daughter will get “a first rate liberal arts education and a deeply held set of values” at the college. Lee is convinced a St. Kate’s grad will see herself as a leader and a woman of influence at work, and in her civic and faith community.

When the nun arrived in 1998, the school had 3,900 students and had not seen a new building for 30 years. This autumn’s enrollment is second only to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., among U.S. women’s colleges. Members of the class of 2007 are learning their way around the new $18 million Coeur de Catherine Learning Commons, which includes an expanded library and a new student center. By design the commons and the college’s historic chapel have been connected, a sign in brick and mortar that intellectual, social and spiritual life on the campus are integrated.

But other signs indicate not everyone favors a marriage of the intellectual and spiritual. In April Dale McGowan, associate professor of music, invited two associates of the Madison, Wis., Freedom From Religion Foundation to speak on campus, as guests of the St. Catherine Secular Committee.

Lee heard about the event shortly before it was to begin and ordered the room that Gowan had booked to be locked. The president pressed her objections, noting that the beliefs of the speakers conflicted with the school’s mission and the teachings of the church. She pointed to the foundation’s Web site, which included an article on “Jesus as a horse thief,” as well as the full text of a book titled Abortion is a Blessing.

In a lengthy interview with NCR in July, the president said: “I have a bully pulpit and will use it” to see that St. Kate’s remains a Catholic college. There are forces in the church “who think we should be a passive conduit for the magisterium.” That has never been the job of the college, which has always operated within the church, kept its integrity and educated its 39,427 graduates to be critical thinkers, she said.

Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis sits on the board and “is very supportive of our work,” Lee added.

There are other voices whose devotion to religious neutrality is a religion itself and often not a very tolerant one, Lee said. She noted that some faculty members announce their political opinions in their first class. “That’s OK, but it’s not good pedagogy,” said Lee, who holds a master’s in education and a doctorate in educational administration from Pennsylvania State University and has degrees in music, elementary education and Italian. She previously held several posts in teacher education at Penn State.

Only 45 percent of St. Kate’s students are Catholic; Lee said religious diversity is welcome and celebrated. There are a number of Buddhists and Muslims students and hundreds of Lutherans; no one is admitted on the basis of their religion or lack of it.

Lee said she learned from a friend long ago that “if you back a bishop into a corner on an issue, you’ll lose.” Though she wears no miter, she said, “If you ask me to draw the line on who gets to speak on campus, the line I put down may look pretty rigid to you.”

The president did nothing to discourage students from attending a talk by the two visiting atheists in a nearby park April 9, nor did she prevent a protest by students and a few faculty two days later. The college held forums on academic freedom and Catholic values after the speakers had returned to Madison.

If anyone on campus was unsure of Lee’s conviction that St. Kate’s was a Catholic liberal arts women’s college and likely to remain so, they missed what she called her “Love It or Leave It” talk given at the start of the academic year in 2002. Unlike many academics, Lee is something of a performance artist, and she punctuated her presentation with poetry, music, drama and plenty of humor. Her address drew cheers from 700 listeners, the more so when she passed out college tattoos, saying it was good for “about three showers -- so give some thought to where you put it.”

While the fate of a college “may pivot to a degree on resources … all the resources in the world will not make up for a scrambled, anemic or cloudy mission. The real ‘make a difference factor’ here is not money -- it is mission. It is not privilege; it is passion.”

Faculty members know that a large part of the mission and passion of St. Kate’s is educating women to serve needs beyond their own. The president spoke of the millions of women who die each year in pregnancy or childbirth; lack adequate food, health care and education; undergo genital mutilation or are trafficked into prostitution.

If a small women’s college in the Midwest cannot affect changes for other women in the world, it does not have a compelling reason to exist in Lee’s view. “Competent, caring, committed women seek the same for people the world over,” she said.

As part of its commitment to women in Minnesota and the larger world, St. Kate’s hosted a conference on the sexual trafficking of women and girls Oct. 22. The Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington cosponsored the event, which looked at public policy changes that could protect women and girls and punish their traffickers.

Catherine Strande, a 2003 graduate, said that she got more than “a critique of political and economic systems” at St. Kate’s; she received “an invitation to transform society.” She intends to go to graduate school in a few years and hopes to work for a nonprofit organization in the field of social justice.

A theology and philosophy major, Strande, 22, called her introduction to liberation theology a formidable part of her education. Strande said her faith has grown on campus and “taken a different spin.”

“I’d never encountered the social justice aspects of theology before,” she said. “Here I was freed to analyze more as a feminist and became aware of my responsibility for justice in the world. I learned that we’re so connected to everything in the physical world.”

Strande shared part of her campus years with her mother, who returned to St. Kate’s to finish her nursing degree during her daughter’s second and third year. Many mothers, working women and those who have lacked the chance to go to college or complete their degree, attend St. Kate’s Weekend College. The 30-year-old program, geared specifically to women, was the first of its kind in the upper Midwest and is the only one offered in Minnesota.

About 1,000 students, including some 200 men, do graduate work at the school.

The college has a reputation for strong academics. It has produced Rhodes, Fulbright, Truman and Goldwater scholars and when, in 1937, it qualified for a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa honor society, it was the first Catholic school in the nation to do so. Because it is a women’s college, learning is relaxed, at times intimate, Strande said. Students have been spotted in class in their pajamas eating a pop tart, she said. “No one is showing off or getting dolled up for some guy.”

The school is linked via the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities to four other colleges and universities, including the University of St. Thomas. “We have a network of men to date if we choose,” Strande said. She noted college men recognize St. Kate’s women when they arrive at other campuses. “It’s the bumper sticker.”

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: