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The Passionate Teacher

Note: This is the 13th profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

What shall I name thee, My Beautiful One…Shall I call thee my Star, my Guide,

My Goal, my Trust, my Strength, my Love…Nay, Mary, my Lady,

Thou art more than Star, or Trust, or Love…

Thou art a Mother to me.

Poetry was one of many passions of Sr. Mary Luke Arntz ’35. The late Notre Dame College professor, department chair and president used to carry around a notebook with journal entries and poems she had written or come across. These entries included reflections on her spiritual journey, poems about nature and short pieces capturing the essence of community living and teaching from the 1930s through the 70s. In the poem above, Sr. Mary Luke expresses her love for Mary – Our Lady, Notre Dame.

Sr. Mary Luke spent 76 years with the Sisters of Notre Dame. “For us Sisters, Notre Dame is our whole life,” she once said. She loved the community the Sisters offered and she believed in their educational mission – a mission she helped shape as a teacher and administrator for over 50 years.

Mary Elizabeth Arntz was born on July 6, 1911, in North Industry near Canton, Ohio. She was the second youngest of seven children, the only girl among six brothers. Her mother died of cancer when Mary Elizabeth was 12, leaving her father and brothers to raise her.

Mary Elizabeth first encountered the Sisters of Notre Dame as a student at St. Peter School. She then attended Notre Dame Academy as part of the aspirant program and entered the community on Feb. 2, 1930.

In 1935, Sr. Mary Luke graduated from Notre Dame College magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English and Latin and a minor in journalism. She then spent a year teaching seventh grade at St. Stephen School in Cleveland before teaching at Notre Dame Academy in Cleveland until 1947. In 1944, she earned her master’s from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.     

Following her time as a teacher at Notre Dame Academy, Sr. Mary Luke became the school’s principal in 1947. She held that position for six years before transferring to Notre Dame Academy in Los Angeles, where she was principal for another four years.  

From 1957 to 1961, Sr. Mary Luke pursued doctoral studies at Fordham University in New York City. She excelled as a student and had her doctoral dissertation published by the University of Salzburg, Austria, in 1967.  

Sr. Mary Luke was as passionate about teaching as she was about learning. Her love of literature and her keen observation of human nature made her an excellent scholar and an even better educator. In 1961 she returned to Notre Dame College as an assistant professor of English. 

Sr. Mary Luke Arntz
Sr. Mary Luke Arntz was the eighth president of Notre Dame College.

“Teaching has always been my priority, the apostolate inspired and fulfilled perseveringly through my religious commitment,” Sr. Mary Luke said. “This work is not merely done for the intellectual advancement of my students but for their development as complete persons, with emphasis on the proper hierarchy of values.” 

Sr. Mary Luke was a kind, gracious and soft-spoken nun, who always seemed to be smiling. But she was also known for her high academic standards and expectations of her students and teachers. “We demand a high degree of professional competence and a willingness to live the philosophy of the school,” Sr. Mary Luke said. 

Even after she became president in 1967, Sr. Mary Luke made a point to talk to all new students individually. Her philosophy was that the College should do more than giving its female students tools to find a job.

“We feel we can offer something the large universities cannot, particularly in the training of young women,” Sr. Mary Luke said. “The atmosphere here is more warm, more spiritually oriented. The young woman goes out with the idea not just of getting a job, but also of becoming a better person.”

During her five-year tenure as president, Sr. Mary Luke oversaw some major construction projects on campus. Under her watch Connelly Center, Alumnae Hall and the Clara Fritzsche Library were built between 1968 and 1971.

Sr. Mary Luke also achieved personal success. She was granted a National Endowment for the Humanities grant as a member of the workshop on “Restructuring American Literature” at Yale University in 1967, and was named as one of the “Outstanding Educators of America” in 1974.

After her presidency ended in 1972, Sr. Mary Luke’s passion to teach led her to Clearwater Central Catholic High School in Florida. She taught English there for a year before returning to Notre Dame College to head the English department.

One of Sr. Mary Luke’s beliefs was that every class she taught, no matter the grade or difficulty, was a learning experience not only for her students but for herself. She stayed in the classroom until June 1986. During that time, she led the group that launched the plan for the Skills Reinforcement Program, which was created for freshmen to help develop the necessary life and educational skills needed on the collegiate level. The College recognized Sr. Mary Luke’s countless contributions in 1981, when it named her the first recipient of the Distinguished Faculty Award.  

Upon retiring from teaching and active ministry, Sr. Mary Luke dedicated herself to researching and writing biographies of the Sisters of Notre Dame in the Chardon Prov­ince. She died on June 4, 2008, at age 96.

All her life Sr. Mary Luke was an inspiration to all she encountered, particularly her students. But she would tell you that they gave her much more in return.

“During those decades, many changes and adjustments have taken place so that there has been no time for resting complacently. Always there has been a fresh incentive for renewed purpose,” Sr. Mary Luke said after retiring. “That is one of the great beauties of teaching, a marvelous way to stay young with the young.”