Here’s my favorite anecdote concerning Sr. Jeanne Knoerle, former President of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, my alma mater: It was the day that Ronald Reagan was nearly assassinated. Someone at the college heard the news, and various students were sent to dispatch it to the outlying campus buildings. One student ran into the gymnasium shouting, “The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot!”

“Oh my God!” a senior cried. “Someone shot Sister Jeanne!”

That’s how central she was to our lives, then and now. Sr. Jeanne died this week of a heart attack. It was sudden, as heart attacks so often are, but particularly jarring to those of us who knew and loved her. I can practically hear people saying to themselves, “But I just saw her, and she looked the same as ever.” And she did. Though well into her 80s, she could have passed for 65. She was active, trim, always whip-smart and incredibly present.

It was during her tenure that the college began its distance-learning program, one of the earliest of its kind — practically ubiquitous today, but back then, unheard of. After her retirement, she continued teaching a rare class here and there. I was lucky enough to be a member of her Critical Writing class. For our final critique, she took us out to a wonderfully posh French restaurant, and told us to order anything we wanted, on her.

When dessert rolled around, the junior next to me exchanged a meaningful glance with me. We both wanted to order a cappuccino with our dessert, she because she’d just spent a semester in Europe, me because it sounded so grown-up and exotic. Now, nuns as a rule don’t have a lot of money. Theirs is not exactly a lucrative calling. But Sr. Jeanne generously nudged us to indulge. That’s how she was.

Jeanne was a leader, and her presence will be missed at the college, even though she hasn’t been its president for nearly 30 years. In a way, an era has ended. I try to console myself by thinking that she would have wanted her death to be this way. She wouldn’t have wanted to fade out, losing her memory and her independence. But it’s small comfort.

I sometimes worry about who will mourn me when I die, as I don’t have any children. However, I fully expect Jeanne’s funeral to boast an overflow crowd. We, all of us who attended St. Mary-of-the-Woods, were her children. Her influence was far-reaching. Because of her, many working women earned degrees they never thought they’d have. That’s not just a boon for education; it’s a boon for feminism.

Perhaps this blog is not the proper place for an elegy. But my alma mater is hard-wired into my faith; it is part and parcel of my spiritual life. As was Sr. Jeanne, and all of the Sisters of Providence. And while her loss will be felt and mourned, I can almost imagine her meeting up with our founder, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, up in the heaven where they most assuredly are. Now that’s a conversation I’d give anything to hear.

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