What would Julia think?
I found myself contemplating that question on the eve of Trinity’s Founders Day as I sat in the Washington studios of Al Jazeera, the Arabic world television network, offering commentary on the Pope’s visit to the United States. Al Jazeera Washington Bureau Chief Abderrahim Foukara smiled at me while speaking rapidly in Arabic. I smiled back, hoping that my eyes were not betraying my anxious effort to understand the English of the translator chattering through a wire in my right ear. “Why did the Pope come to the United States during the presidential election?” “What did George Bush hope to get out of his appearance with the Pope?” “Will this visit help or hurt Vatican-Muslim relations?”
What would Julia think?
“Julia” is Sister Julia McGroarty, Trinity’s Founder. What would she think about Trinity’s president in 2008 trying to interpret the Pope’s visit to the Arab world?
Julia would approve, I think, and probably would have added some choice words herself.
After all, Julia McGroarty and her co-conspirator in the founding of Trinity, Sister Mary Euphrasia Taylor, blazed an early trail for Trinity’s witness to the world, and they encountered their own tale of Vatican drama along the way. In the summer of 1897, when word leaked out that the SNDs were planning to establish a college for women not far from the then-young Catholic University, some conservative monsignors took umbrage and tried to block Trinity’s founding on the grounds that educating women could be a heresy. Undeterred by bad press, Julia and Mary Euphrasia pled their case directly to the Papal Nuncio (the Vatican’s ambassador to America; he was summering in Atlantic City so Euphrasia, in full habit on a hot August day, hopped a train from Union Station and made a round-trip in one day to make the case for Trinity). They had to give answers to the superior of the order in Belgium, who had heard that trouble was brewing and wasn’t too happy about that. They won the support of the powerful American Cardinal James Gibbons, as well as other influential prelates, and soon the Pope himself had heard about the drive to establish Trinity. Pope Leo diplomatically decided not to object, allowing Trinity’s founding to proceed in the fall of 1897. The rest, as we know, is a great slice of women’s history.
I’ve often said that the most revolutionary, most feminist, most difficult thing that ever happened at Trinity was our founding. Julia and Euphrasia and the sisters who worked with them were very clear about their belief that women had a right to the highest possible levels of education; gender should not limit women’s horizons, they argued. They found common cause in the progressive views of priests at Catholic University and some bishops, notably, Cardinal Gibbons who is largely credited with helping to shape the framework for Catholic social justice teachings.
While working tirelessly to promote the intellectual and spiritual framework for Trinity, the SNDs also had to deal with more familiar mundane challenges: finding the money to make it happen, buying land, building Main Hall. They had little to work with, and yet, they were successful beyond what anyone could have imagined in 1897.
We who enjoy the tremendous benefits of Trinity in 2008 must honor the Founders not only on Founders Day, but every day in all that we do. We are able to teach, to learn, to expand our horizons, to bear witness to the world because those women worked so hard, because they were unafraid of opposition, challenge, poverty, hard work. They laughed in the face of doubt, they persisted with fervor in spite of serious efforts to stop them. If they were so successful in spite of all of that, can we, with all of the resources we have today, do any less?
Why did I think of Julia McGroarty, of all people, as I listened to my translator at Al Jazeera? Naturally, since Founders Day is on Tuesday, April 22, I was thinking about my message for this day, particularly in light of the Pope’s recent visit. It occurred to me that Julia, too, was a translater of a remarkable sort, a woman who founded several great schools including Trinity in order to give women the knowledge and skills necessary to be effective in the world. At the end of the 19th Century, the idea of women’s education was still new, somewhat foreign, a concept needing translation particularly to male clerics who feared the consequences of educated women in the Church. With good reason! Julia and her sisters translated the concepts in compelling ways, convincing Church leader and benefactors and public officials in Washington that this new college deserved their support and affirmation.
Julia’s work continues to this day. As the translater rendered my comments in Arabic to the Al Jazeera audience, it occurred to me that Trinity’s educational reach grows wider and more inclusive each day, welcoming students and teachers from all corners of the global community who share our quest for advanced learning so that we can work even more effectively for justice and peace in this world.
On this Founders Day, the best tribute we can pay to Sister Julia McGroarty, Sister Mary Euphrasia Taylor, and the other SND’s down through the years who built and sustained Trinity is to redouble our efforts to sustain and enlarge the vitality of this mission every day.
And, how did I answer those questions at Al Jazeera? As soon as I get the clip we’ll post it on the website so you can watch for yourself! For now, on this Founders Day, let’s give thanks to Julia, Euphrasia and the Sisters of Notre Dame for the remarkable community we enjoy in Trinity!