By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published May 24, 2012
In 1968 Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters Mary Ann Flanagan and Sharon Holland journeyed to the mission territory of Atlanta to a budding parish, Holy Cross, to pioneer what was then an innovative new form of religious education in partnership with the laity: a school of religion.
As the years passed, they became among the first women religious to earn doctorates in theological studies. Sister Mary Ann went on to become a professor of theology, while the more reserved intellectual Sister Sharon became a department director within the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life—at one point the highest ranking woman at the Vatican.
But the two nuns and friends retained cherished memories through the decades of their time at Holy Cross. They returned there April 21 to poignantly celebrate their golden jubilee of religious life among some 70 former catechists and friends.
At the jubilee Mass, Sister Mary Ann’s eyes glistened through the tears as she reconnected after 40 years with beloved friends and with the former pastor, retired Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran of Oklahoma, who came to celebrate the Mass. She relived those adventurous early years where she learned to minister with both professionalism and love, empower laypersons and to embrace the spirit of dialogue of the Second Vatican Council as a theologian and pastoral minister.
“It was a time of the Vatican Council. There was this creativity and wanting to really make a change in our worship and all the education. We just had this energy,” said Sister Mary Ann, 69, in a telephone interview.
“I’ve had a wonderful life, but those three years (at Holy Cross) had a very special quality about being church. … That we were all together again was one of the most special experiences. … The spiritual bonds and energy during our Mass were powerful and a true witness to what real Eucharist is: thanksgiving and a mandate to do the commandment of love as we depart,” she said.
Sister Mary Ann recalled having monthly potluck dinners with parents and their children at Holy Cross and recruiting and training many intellectually eager laypersons as catechists, emphasizing the need for parents to teach their children the faith. Previously, religious education mainly took place in Catholic schools and Holy Cross had voted not to start one. Then Father Beltran inspired the young nun with his loving spirit and servant leadership. He also encouraged her to make the bittersweet departure from Holy Cross to go earn her doctorate in theology at the Pontifical University of Louvain, Belgium, reminding her, “The church is bigger than Holy Cross Parish. You go—it will be wonderful.”
“I saw in him an extremely prayerful man who appreciated the gifts of every person,” she said. “He was a very warm individual. How to be an effective minister is to not only be professional but to interact warmly and respectfully with people you are with.”
The daughter of a Ford Motor Co. executive from Dearborn, Mich., Sister Mary Ann was drawn to the IHM sisters’ global focus on social justice, education and prayer. While she thought she was leaving the world, she happily traded her habit for a simple blue suit and returned to her family name after Vatican II.
“I learned very quickly Vatican II said you have to renew your life as a nun and come into the modern world,” she said.
She later taught at seminaries and universities and directed an Institute of Pastoral and Educational Ministry at Assumption University in Canada.
“Once I became a university teacher, from that moment on I absolutely loved it. I was so in love with the spirit of Vatican II. … It reminded everyone that the church is really the people. The church is not just the priests or the sisters, but it is everyone all working together to create the kingdom of God, a transformed society of peace and justice and love,” she reflected. “I taught hundreds of men and women, now pastoral associates and leaders in parishes all over the country and world, and I’m thrilled I was able to put an emphasis on lay leadership.”
She developed a more feminist perspective and desire to advocate for women as she became more aware of restrictions placed on them. Serving alongside Maryknoll sisters in Chile, she saw the “feminization of poverty,” she said, “women and children suffering in such a disproportionate number.”
And while she has loved religious life, she has found herself discouraged occasionally with a perceived conservative movement away from that Vatican II spirit of openness that attempted to listen to those with diverse perspectives on social issues. But she has always served in dioceses where she’s felt affirmed in ministry.
Now a staff member at a spirituality center in Michigan and caring for a disabled sister, she gladly maintains ties in Atlanta and treasures these new memories. The jubilee Mass touched her.
“They made it like our spirit that was beautifully simple,” she said. “The love and care put into preparing the event was just terrific.”
Sister Sharon Reflects
Sister Sharon, 73, found the Mass to be a time of gratitude for her “very happy” religious life and a true reunion after serving for 21 years at the Vatican in Rome.
“It was a wonderful thing to be back. … There was something of the same spirit that had been there of the parish community. The very special thing about Holy Cross was the involvement of lay people in liturgy, in catechesis and care for one another,” she said in a telephone interview.
The daughter of a Baptist father and Catholic mother who attended public schools, Sister Sharon particularly enjoyed establishing adult religious education at Holy Cross.
“The whole concept of religious education was to bring something to everybody,” she said. “The experience that I had of the parish and the enthusiasm of the parish for the renewal of Vatican II continually informed my thinking about things as I went on. I saw the potential for lay participation.”
The educator was later surprised to be asked by her order to pursue a doctorate in canon law. “The superior saw the need for women religious to be trained in canon law to work with women religious, and I was the chosen soul. I got interested later,” she recalled. “It was all new to me. It seemed like something I hoped I could do. … In those days we didn’t plan ahead for ourselves. You were asked to go and serve.”
After earning her doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University and serving in the Archdiocese of Detroit and at The Catholic University of America, her next surprise invitation came from the Vatican.
“It just seemed like something you wouldn’t say no to easily,” she said.
Working near St. Peter’s Basilica, Sister Sharon strove to do her work with a spirit of truth. Her labors included helping congregations to rewrite their constitutions and helping Catholic health care and other institutions to reform their canonical structure to preserve religious identity with fewer vocations. Aware of a tension between religious’ prophetic voice and the Vatican’s work to preserve the best of tradition, she found a sense of mission in building bridges of understanding between the Holy See and the American church and with communities around the world.
“It was a wonderful experience. I met so many wonderful people from all over the world,” she said. “I often thought of what I was doing as trying to build bridges of understanding between people with different viewpoints and understanding and languages and cultures. … There were a lot of different opinions.”
While there have been areas of religious growth, particularly in India, Pakistan and Africa, she watched the decrease in Western Europe and North America as part of the broader global decline in vocations alongside a growth in lay ministry. She knows religious life will continue but with more collaboration with laity.
“I don’t expect us to have big numbers, but there may be more focus back on people being called to give their lives entirely to God in the mission of the church,” she said. “From the first centuries there was consecrated life. It is a gift to the spirit of the church.”
Retiring from the Vatican in 2009, she resides in the IHM motherhouse in Michigan and continues working, most recently called by the pope to serve as an apostolic visitor to women’s congregations in Ireland. This summer she’ll begin a six-year term as her congregation’s vice president.
“I’ve been very busy in these three years and am going into congregational leadership, which is full time. We joke that we are re-hired, not retired,” she added. “I’d like to do things while I’m able.”
Holy Cross Embraces IHM Legacy
Linda Hardin, who organized the jubilee Mass at Holy Cross with her husband, Mike, and their small faith group, which began in 1967, said that with Sister Sharon, “you’d never know that she’s a canon lawyer and is requested all over the states and other countries to speak.” And Sister Mary Ann is “one of the warmest, most welcoming persons I’ve ever met. You feel very welcome just being in her presence.”
They forever shaped Hardin’s path, giving her the confidence to become a catechist and teach her five sons.
“Those who teach learn. … Continuing education was a very important point they both got across. … They were very good at reaching out to the community and bringing people in,” she said. “Probably they (the sisters and Archbishop Beltran) are the reason that I have a love for the Catholic Church. … They are some of the most humble people I’ve met.”
Hardin saw Sister Mary Ann last year and the nun mentioned the anniversary. It inspired old friends to plan the Mass for the sisters.
“They renewed their vows. It was their homecoming. I think it was a very joyous event. It did mean a lot to each of us,” she said. “It just felt right.”
Retired Deacon Dick Suever has remained a dear friend of Sister Mary Ann ever since she roped him into becoming a catechist for sixth-graders, no less.
“I survived and moved on to high school and adult education,” he recalled.
He also remembered how she included in staff breakfasts the African-American custodian who became like a brother.
“She always included everyone and kind of set the tone for the community that persists to this day,” he added. “She really inspired me and many others to use the gifts we had for the benefit of the community.”