Sometimes a person comes into our lives who is so full of faith, joy, grace and goodness that even though we may only know them for a brief period of time, their impact lasts well beyond the brief encounter. Sr. Mary Ellen Dow, SND, was such a gifted person. She was Trinity’s Campus Minister from 2011 through 2014. Sr. Mary Ellen died last evening after a long illness; she received excellent care at the SND Health Center at Mount Notre Dame in Cincinnati. Those of us who knew her have missed her very much since we last saw her in mid-2014 before she retired, and the programs she left in place at Trinity continue to enlarge our lives.
I first met Mary Ellen at a Bertucci’s somewhere on Route 128 outside of Boston. At that time she was about to transition out of her position as Campus Minister at Merrimac College in North Andover where she had served for more than a decade. She was contemplating another ministry. Another SND suggested I meet Mary Ellen as a possible candidate to join our Board of Trustees. But by the end of lunch, I knew we had a new Campus Minister for Trinity!
Sr. Mary Ellen arrived in Fall 2011 and immediately set about revitalizing what had become a somewhat low energy program in Campus Ministry here at Trinity. She had high energy, but not the kind that can be irritating, but rather, infectious. She had a big heart and patient manner, and set about learning and listening in all the right places within the Trinity community. Students quickly found a path to her office, and the door was always open. Faculty and staff, too, soon found her to be an indispensable colleague, sounding board, spiritual leader and wise advisor.
Mary Ellen’s commitment to social justice as a deep matter of faith animated her work every day. Among her many accomplishments that have endured, Sr. Mary Ellen started the Alternative Spring Break program in Selma, Alabama. While that great program may now seem like a “given” each year, believe me, it wasn’t easy to start! Sr. Mary Ellen had to convince me that the student group could fly to Birmingham — we had never flown students in groups before — and that the accommodations would be safe for everyone. She won the day, set about organizing the parallel seminar, coordinating with the support team in Selma, and the first year was a huge success. The program has continued ever since, thanks to the leadership of Dean Bowie who took over organizing the program after Sr. Mary Ellen retired. All participants have agreed on the value and life-changing experience of the week in Selma.
Sr. Mary Ellen also started the food pantry, another brilliant idea that took a good deal of effort to launch, but that provides important support for our students every day. Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Karen Gerlach remembers Mary Ellen’s great contribution:
“I am so grateful for having known Sr. Mary Ellen! I was reflecting this morning about the work that Sr. Mary Ellen put into creating our Food Pantry in Student Affairs. When I came to Trinity in 2013, one of the first initiatives that I worked on with Sr. Mary Ellen was to address student food insecurity and to formalize the food pantry and supports to students in need. We developed guidelines for donations, distribution, marketing, etc, and launched the Food Pantry in August 2013. We started slow, and relied on donations from faculty and staff, and word of mouth to get items to students. This resource has grown in scope and is really making such a positive impact on the lives of our students now! I know she would be very proud of how it has developed. What an important contribution she made towards our outreach to students.”
Sr. Mary Ellen also created the Muslim Prayer Room, revitalized the Gospel Choir with the engagement of Mr. Samuel Cromwell of St. Augustine’s, and strengthened all of Trinity’s service programs. With Sr. Camilla Burns and Sr. Mary Johnson, she collaborated in the creation of the Billiart Center for Social Justice. She also fostered an improved program for spiritual development, prayer and worship for community members of many different faiths.
One of the more moving moments of Sr. Mary Ellen’s tenure occurred when she organized a prayer service after the killing of Trayvon Martin. Students were very upset and concerned, and she turned that anger and outrage into a constructive moment for prayer, reflection and dialogue.
Sr. Mary Ellen gave numerous beautiful invocations at our various convocations and commencements, and was a wonderful presence at more events than we can count. We were all so saddened when we learned of her illness and need to retire, and she did her best to keep in touch and always delighted to hear news from Trinity.
We were privileged to have Sr. Mary Ellen Dow in our lives at Trinity, and we pray that her sisters in the SND community, family and friends find some peace and comfort in knowing that her spirit lives on at Trinity. May she now know completely the power, wisdom and love of the Trinity!
Student Anita Rivas-Gregory offers this reflection: “Thank you for your love and support of Trinity staff and students. We were truly blessed to have you as part of our family.”
Do you have a memory of Sr. Mary Ellen? Please add your thoughts in the comment box below.