Sr. Regina Finnegan, SND de N
Chair, Trinity College Board of Trustees, 1987-1993
Over the course of 116 years of Trinity’s life, many great Sisters of Notre Dame devoted significant time and energy, intellectual talent, and passionate advocacy to the great cause of ensuring Trinity’s vibrant future. We think often of the women who founded Trinity — Sister Julia McGroarty, Sister Mary Euphrasia Taylor, and the other sisters who worked with them over the years. We also think of the great presidents of Trinity, like Sister Raphael of the Sacred Heart in the growth years of the 1920’s; Sister Catherine Dorothea in the war years of the 1940’s; and the remarkable tenure of Sister Margaret Claydon who was president of Trinity during the great countercultural changes in the Church and society of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
In this pantheon of great women who guided Trinity through often difficult and tumultuous eras, we must also remember a woman who never had an official office on campus but whose steady and fearless leadership in a time of change and crisis made all the difference for Trinity’s future. Sister Regina Finnegan, SND, who died on August 29 at age 91, was a member of Trinity’s Board of Trustees from 1980 to 1993, and most important, she was the chair of the Board through some of Trinity’s most difficult days. Thanks to her leadership and courage in confronting numerous challenging decisions, Trinity thrives today.
The 1980’s were a very difficult time for Trinity. Enrollment dropped rapidly as the newly coeducational men’s colleges dominated the market. Trinity’s finances, always slender, fell into some disarray. The Sisters of Notre Dame whose “contributed services” (meaning they took no salaries) were a large part of Trinity’s financial foundation were dwindling in number on the faculty and staff. From 1980 to 1989, presidents and administrators came and went, and Trinity’s ability to see the future became obscured.
I first met Sister Regina Finnegan when I joined Trinity’s Board of Trustees in 1986. I was still working at Georgetown Law Center in those days, but I also had the privilege of serving as president of Trinity’s Alumnae Association. I had known Sr. Regina’s beloved sister — the late Sister Margaret Finnegan, SND, who had been a professor of Psychology and academic dean during my student days.
Sr. Regina was the head of the Academy of Notre Dame in Villanova, Pennsylvania, a school I greatly admired. She was principal at Villanova for more than three decades, from 1970 to 2004. On Trinity’s Board, I found Sr. Regina to be eminently wise, insightful and a charismatic leader.
When Trinity’s Board found itself confronting a serious need to restructure much of what Trinity was doing in those days, Sr. Regina readily joined the small team of trustees who gathered for what seemed like endless meetings to discern Trinity’s strategic options. I was on that small team, and I found her absolutely engaging as she spoke of the future of women’s education, higher education and directions we might consider.
The Board elected her as chair in 1987, in a time when a need for yet another new president arose, and Sr. Regina showed her wisdom and leadership in guiding the board through the all-important discussion of whether a lay person could be Trinity’s president. This must have been difficult for her, as a Sister of Notre Dame, to lead the way to open the presidency to lay leadership, but she did it with deftness, determination and wit. The Board eventually voted to open the search to lay leaders.
In 1989, another presidential search became necessary, and in that year Sr. Regina moved quickly to guide Trinity through the leadership change. When the somewhat shocking choice of the new president became known — I was appointed president at that time — Sr. Regina did not abandon me, although I recall her parting words that day, when she handed me the keys to the office, were, “Good luck!”
For the next five years, I spoke to Sr. Regina by phone almost every day, and was a regular visitor at her table in the great castle in Villanova that housed the Academy. She did not hesitate to come to Trinity on a moment’s notice — a well-worn path on I-95 must still carry some of her tire traces. She was a steady advisor and experienced teacher of a young woman who knew nothing about being a college president at that time — she never once told me exactly what to do, but when I left those long mornings fortified with many cups of hazlenut coffee and always a little gift, I also left knowing exactly what I had to do. She had that gift, to direct without ever giving a specific direction.
With the softest of voices, she could be exceedingly firm and steely when faced with irrational opposition to necessary change. For her, the mission was everything, and we had to do whatever was necessary to ensure the future of Trinity’s mission. She ran meetings brilliantly, hearing all points of view but making it clear when the time had come to make decisions. She was never indecisive, but she was always fair and deliberative in reaching a firm decision.
Even after she stepped down as board chair, she was a regular advisor and great friend for me, and I continued to see her regularly on my trips to the Villanova area where my mom also lived. After she retired from the Academy, she spent a brief time living here at Trinity, and it was always a joy for me to see her out on the soccer field or in the gym cheering for our teams and extending the same care and concern to our Trinity students as she had extended her love to the students of Notre Dame.
What made Sr. Regina so deeply devoted to Trinity’s mission was not only her commitment as a Sister of Notre Dame, nor only her own Trinity degree (1953, Chemistry and Mathematics; later she earned her M.A. in Biology at the University of Notre Dame; and Trinity recognized her many gifts with an honorary doctorate in 1992). In the end, what made Regina so devoted to Trinity was the same passionate commitment to women’s education and advancement that fired her marvelous leadership for decades at the Academy of Notre Dame and in her lifelong vocation as a teacher. She truly believed in the SND mission to educate girls and women as a powerful force to change the world. She was a true heir of the legacy of St. Julie Billiart in Notre Dame’s mission to the world. She believed deeply that women educated in the Catholic tradition with clear Gospel values to uphold human dignity in service to the world would be our hope for the future.
A comment on the Facebook page of the Academy of Notre Dame sums up well what Sr. Regina did not only for the graduates of the Academy, but also for the generations of women who have reaped so much from Trinity thanks to her persistence, courage and determination in those challenging years when she served as our board chair: “Thousands of women around the world are better people – kinder, smarter, stronger, more faithful – because of her.”
Even if you did not know her, take a minute to remember Sr. Regina Finnegan today with thanks and admiration. She is now with the Trinity!