Published in the National Catholic Reporter Online, Friday, August 25, 2006
Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, visionary leader, dies
Loretto sister helped shape today's Catholic church
By Patricia Lefevere
Loretto Sr. Mary Luke Tobin
Mary Luke Tobin loved the image of the door. In Jesus' declaration: "I am the door," Tobin found both mystery and invitation. After a lifetime of leadership in religious life and of activism on behalf of women, the poor and those afflicted by war and violence, the door of Tobin's own earthly life closed Aug. 24 in her room in the Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky.
One of only 15 women auditors invited to Vatican Council II, Tobin watched church fathers open the windows to vent fresh air through the ancient institution. Although cautioned to listen, but not speak while in Rome, she later became one of only three women - representing half the Catholic world's faithful - allowed on the planning commissions for documents on the church in the modern world and on the laity.
In 1959, the doors between the Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx and the Trappist Abbey in Gethsemani - 13 miles away - opened. Gethsemani's most famous monk, Thomas Merton, gave a few lectures to novices and visited the infirmary. The visits took place when Tobin, known then as Mother Mary Luke, led the Loretto community.
"Luke brought in wise, forward-thinking women and men who were luminaries in their own way," and who continued the renewal begun by Pope John XXIII, said former Loretto president Sr. Mary Ann Coyle, who knew Tobin since the 1960s. Besides Merton, Tobin asked Mercy Sr. Theresa Kane, Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, Redemptorist Fr. Bernard Häring and many others to lecture at Loretto. In 2004 she encouraged her community to invite Sacred Heart Fr. Diarmuid O'Murchu for dialogues on cosmology. It was all part of her lifelong habit of learning, Coyle said.
Tobin called her occasional meetings with Merton and their frequent correspondence "the door of prophetic friendship." Merton was eager to hear from her each time she returned from Rome. He also shared with her works he was not allowed to publish.
It was Merton's writings on racism, Vietnam and especially against the specter of a nuclear holocaust that opened yet more doors through which Tobin would pass as an antiwar activist; an international lecturer against rising militarism; an advocate for justice, peace and human rights around the world and frequently as a disgruntled shareholder.
The diminutive nun took on the Blue Diamond Coal Company, attempting to use Loretto's shares to challenge the firm's environmental, health, safety and labor practices. Tobin once walked into a Honeywell annual meeting carrying a plowshare.
She took part in nonviolent actions at Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, the U.S. Air Force Academy and Martin-Marietta in Colorado. She stood her ground at Nevada's nuclear test site, the U.S. Capitol and the nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. She was arrested at the Air Force Academy and in the Capitol Rotunda. Tobin joined picket lines in support of the United Farm Workers.
In 1979 Tobin founded the Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange in Denver, where Merton's spirituality and writings came to be known by many. She gave Merton retreats and cofounded a Buddhist-Christian dialogue/meditation group in Denver.
Following her years as president of Loretto (1958-70), the door toward ecumenical understanding beckoned. From 1972-78 she directed Citizen Action for Church Women United, an organization of mainly Protestant women who work ecumenically on justice, peace and human rights issues affecting women. Tobin represented the group on trips to Belfast and Asia during the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Vietnam.
Loretto Sr. Ann Patrick Ware, who roomed with her in New York much of this time, recalled the joy with which Tobin awoke at dawn, frequently singing a chorus of "Morning Has Broken."
Tobin often greeted Ware "with a burning question: 'You know I was just lying in bed thinking: If all the men on the planet suddenly got a virus that attacked only men, could women run the world? Would we be able to manage the subway system, for instance?"
The two nuns shared a love of good liturgy, but found the city a "liturgical desert," Ware said. "We would bravely attack the recitation of endless psalms by trying to change the overwhelmingly male language to something more suitable for a congregation of aging women. We would listen dutifully to the daily homilies - timeless gems that would as easily have fitted the 13th century as our own - and make up limericks about them on our way home from Mass," Ware said.
For many years Tobin was an adviser to the Women's Ordination Conference and a mentor to its president Ruth Fitzpatrick. When Fitzpatrick was in a quandary over an invitation to be ordained a priest in a secret ceremony in Czechoslovakia in 1963, she consulted Tobin. The nun did not tell her what to do, but assured her she'd know what to do at the proper time. Indeed when Fitzpatrick telephoned her Czech contact, she knew at once that "this was idolatry of ordination, not the renewed priestly ministry," she and the conference had long sought.
The trust Tobin put in lay leaders, such as Fitzpatrick, she also placed in religious women. Upon her return from Rome, "it was almost impossible for her not to let her thoughts flow directly from deep mediation on the Gospels to their message of hope and action for us women religious," said Coyle.
At the time nuns were so used to being obedient to the voice of God as expressed via church officials and superiors that "we'd lost track of the gifts and talents God had given us individually to make the world a more just one for all," Coyle said.
Tobin began the renewal of Loretto both in the classroom and at chapter sessions. The community's current president, Sr. Mary Catherine Rabbitt, was a novice when Tobin was attending the council. Rabbitt remembered Tobin's homecomings as full of hope for a renewed church.
"She took risks, accepted challenges, encouraged others to develop their own talents and always, always, kept current with the latest thinking in theology, ecclesiology, and all that was happening in her many peace and justice circles," Rabbitt said.
Sr. Maureen McCormack, a former Loretto president, had Tobin as a high school teacher and an instructor in the novitiate. McCormack remembered a marginal note Tobin had jotted on a paper the student was assigned on St. Paul's epistles. "How about making up for what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ?" Tobin asked the novice.
"She was always stretching us farther than we wanted or thought to go," McCormick said. "We who followed her in leadership positions were so fortunate to have access to her energy, her wisdom, boldness, encouragement and her laughter." She cited Tobin's ability to place things in a larger perspective with such questions as: "Is this the hill we want to die on? We knew she believed we were capable of handling any situation."
What few in the outside world knew or saw was Tobin's lifelong love and practice of dance. The daughter of a Kentucky couple who moved to Denver early in their marriage to be near the Nevada goldmine owned by her father, Tobin was born May 16, 1908, and christened Ruth Marie. She attended public schools in Denver and traveled to Nevada and California with her parents and older brother.
Since her father's work kept him far from home for long periods, he would indulge his only daughter with trips to the theater upon his return. It was these early experiences that drove her love for dance and her study of classical ballet. She managed a dance school while attending Loretto Heights College in Denver.
"I think the grace, freedom and lithe spirit of the dance infused everything she did," said Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler, whose community residence in Hyattsville, Md., is named the "Mary Luke Tobin House."
Fiedler, who divides her time between the Women's Ordination Conference and the Quixote Center, recalled a card Tobin sent her a few years ago when Fiedler was involved in an "uncertain venture." It read: "Go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is."
The greeting epitomized Tobin, Fiedler said. "She went out on the limb again and again for peace, for social justice, women's rights, church reform and for the freedom of all women religious." Up until recent years she danced after Sunday liturgies at Nerinx.
Loretto Sr. Cecily Jones, a friend of Tobin's for 57 years, frequently typed her texts, drove her to and from airports and celebrated "happy hour" with her each evening during their years in Denver. Jones, who has written a biography of Tobin, said she has often met sisters who reminded her how much Tobin did for the renewal of their congregations.
Notre Dame Sr. Mary Daniel Turner, who like Tobin, led the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said that Tobin's ability to lead rose from "a deep trust of herself and others and a belief that all things are possible."
She credited Tobin with "profound common sense and an exquisite sense of timing."
She was a mentor to many because she invested herself in "the signs of the times." Filled with hope, Tobin "saw frustrations, tensions, conflicts and obstacles as the raw material for creativity and action," Turner said.
Because she was a lifelong learner, she welcomed companions on the way, Turner added. Tobin often asserted that the Loretto community welcomed "co-members," preferring that term to "lay associates."
Not only did Tobin inspire renewal in countless communities of women, she also honed in on the leadership qualities she saw in others. Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister recalled the first conversation she had with Tobin - in an elevator at a meeting.
"She launched into the purpose of my life and the direction of my future, which she was not shy about defining. She never forgot that elevator ride, nor did I," Chittister said.
"I had the idea that she watched me all my life. I know for sure that I watched her."
In Tobin, Chittister saw passion and vision as the core of commitment. "You must see what must be done and care about what you're doing," Chittister said. Tobin became a light for other sisters, "because she carried her light inside herself." It was the light of a true disciple, the Benedictine said. "It wasn't external events that fired her; it was the unremitting conviction that the Gospel was now."
Only last month at the 50th anniversary of Leadership Conference of Women Religious in Atlanta, Chittister - in her keynote address - cited Tobin as a "bearer of the vision" and a leader who spoke for women in a woman's voice.
Although Tobin heard the applause of thousands in her lifetime, won regard for her 1981 book, Hope is an Open Door, and was awarded seven honorary degrees, she always deflected praise with lines like: "I didn't do it by myself," Jones recalled.
The Rev. Paul Crow penned Tobin a farewell letter in September 2004 when she was hospitalized and in danger of death. In it, he refuted her frequent claim: "Oh, I have done nothing important." The retired president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who knew Tobin 40 years, wrote: "Luke, for countless people of faith you have been a prophet of Christian hope in the midst of a divided, self-serving world. You have taught us that unity, justice and peace will eventually reign among God's people."
Tobin willed her body to the University of Louisville. Arrangements for a memorial liturgy at Nerinx are pending.
[Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.]
Sr. Tobin Remembered
Loretto Sr. Mary Luke Tobin was among a handful of standout personalities who shaped the American Catholic church over the last 60 years, according to author and religion journalist Ken Briggs, who recently completed a book on the history of Catholic women religious in America.
Briggs described Tobin’s role as a leader among American nuns in a podcast prepared for NCR and posted to the NCRcafe.org Web site today.
In an interview recorded a week before Tobin’s death, Briggs describes the Loretto sister as “a remarkable person … dignified, highly intelligent and persistent.”
In the second episode of the podcast, Briggs talks about Tobin’s presence at the Second Vatican Council in Rome in 1965 and how she served on one of the committees that helped write Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.”
Tobin’s contribution almost didn’t happen, because there were no women at the council deliberations. “None of these people [religious women] who had carried the church on their backs for a long time in this country and every other country was there as a voting member or a participating member,” Briggs said in the podcast.
In 1965, Tobin was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious when the conference members decided they needed someone present at the council deliberations, so they booked passage for Tobin on the U.S.S. Constitution and Tobin set sail for Rome.
“When somebody found out that [Tobin] was already coming, they went ahead and issued her an invitation,” Briggs said. “She actually received the invitation while she was on her way across the Atlantic Ocean.”
Briggs book is Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns, published by Doubleday. Briggs discusses his book in a series of interviews now available on NCRcafe.org. Click on the podcast link.
August 25, 2006, National Catholic Reporter
Link to online story.
(Note: Online stories may be taken down by their publisher after a period of time or made available for a fee. Links posted here is from the original online publication of this piece.)
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Plainfield Today, Plainfield Stuff and Clippings have no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of these articles nor are Plainfield Today, Plainfield Stuff or Clippings endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)