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Inspiration Through Enthusiasm

Note: This is the 30th 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.

By Caroline Pratt ’13

“In the history of any new movement the creators of institutions are so eagerly determined to bring their ideals into reality, that their enthusiasm attracts others who join them in the dream.”

When Sr. Mary LeRoy Finn ’40 wrote these words for her column in Notre Dame Today in 1997, she was talking about how the mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame helped build the College and led it through many changes over the years. The quote, however, would also be fitting to describe Sr. Mary LeRoy’s lifelong enthusiasm and dedication to her alma mater, which continues to inspire others to this day.  

Throughout her 41 years at Notre Dame College, Sr. Mary LeRoy was a constant inspiration for her students, colleagues and fellow Sisters. Considered a visionary by many of her peers, she held many titles including director of lifelong learning, academic dean and acting president. On three separate occasions she was elected to represent the Sisters at the General Chapter of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Rome.

Two of Sr. Mary LeRoy’s greatest contributions to the College and the community, however, were creating the Office of Lifelong Learning and establishing the Notre Dame Weekend College.

After researching the emerging trend of adult women returning to colleges in the late 1970s, Sr. Mary LeRoy converted the Continuing Education Office into the Office of Lifelong Learning and served as its first director from 1976 to 1987. She also founded Tot Spot, the College’s daycare center, which allowed mothers to take classes at NDC.

Around the same time, Sr. Mary LeRoy also created the Weekend College. The program was the first in the area to focus on the needs of adult women. Within four years of the program’s initiation, Notre Dame’s enrollment had doubled and Sr. Mary LeRoy’s project had been deemed the strongest weekend college for women in the Midwest.

The weekend classes continue to thrive today as part of Notre Dame’s Finn Center for Adult, Graduate and Professional Programs; and Sr. Mary LeRoy’s legacy lives on in the hearts of those who knew her and in the education of every adult student that earns a degree from Notre Dame. To honor that legacy, the College every year presents an award in Sr. Mary LeRoy’s name to the outstanding adult graduate.

Sr. Mary LeRoy Finn
Sr. Mary LeRoy Finn shaped adult education at Notre Dame.

“It is fitting that the College named the adult student award given at commencement after Sr. LeRoy,” said Mary Lou Currivan, associate dean of academic affairs, after Sr. Mary LeRoy’s death in 2009. “The recipient is selected on the traits embodied by Sr. LeRoy and inscribed on the custom-made award presentation bowl: ‘Scholarly. Catalyst. Diligent. Resilient. Spiritual.’ Sr. LeRoy was all this and more.”

In the words of that inscription and in the words of those who knew her live the strongest reflections of Sr. Mary LeRoy’s work. That work earned her the Alumnae Association’s Woman of the Year Award in 1992, the College’s Fidelia Award in 1994 and an honorary degree in 1996.

“No effort has been too much, no task too difficult [for her] to help women or to further the mission of NDC,” said former Notre Dame College President Sr. Mary Marthe Reinhard ’52 when she nominated Sr. Mary LeRoy for the Woman of the Year Award. “She, more than anyone that I know, has given herself unstintingly and selflessly for the advancement of Notre Dame women and the College that she has served.”

As dedicated and as tireless as she was, however, Sr. Mary LeRoy also had a delightful charm that attracted others to her.

“Sr. LeRoy loved fashion, especially anything in the color brown,” said Karen Poelking, vice president for board and community relations. “She once mentioned how she really liked spectator pumps, so Mary Lou Currivan and I bought her a pair in black and white since brown wasn’t a color the Sisters could wear. She would put them on for very special occasions along with one of her many favorite hats.”

Sr. Mary LeRoy was a model of a religious woman totally dedicated to Jesus Christ.

“She lived the gospel every minute of every day and had a heart as big as the ocean,” said Sr. Helen M. Burdenski ’62. “She was transparent, uncompromising in her values, always approachable, warm and engaging.”

Sr. Mary LeRoy was charming, she was wise, and she was vibrant.

“I know some people who have retired at the age of 30 and they have not maintained that youthful spirit. But I have been blessed,” Sr. Mary LeRoy said in a 1996 interview with The Plain Dealer.

Sr. Mary LeRoy was born Geneva Margaret Finn in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sept. 19, 1916, as the oldest of seven children. She graduated from Notre Dame College in 1940 and received her M.A. from the University of Notre Dame before rejoining NDC in 1950 as a philosophy professor. She later served as academic dean, executive vice president and vice chairperson of the board of trustees. She was acting president from October 1972 to July 1973. Offered the College’s presidency, Sr. Mary LeRoy quietly declined saying she would prefer being in the “number two position rather than at the top.”

Researching higher education needs of Cleveland’s Hispanic women, Sr. Mary LeRoy created the Hispanic outreach project, forerunner of the College’s multicultural focus. She also initiated the Catechetical Center (now the Center for Pastoral Theology and Ministry). After her many attempted retirements Sr. Mary LeRoy volunteered in the Advancement Office until moving to the Sisters of Notre Dame Educational Center in Chardon in 2000.

Sr. Mary LeRoy died on Jan. 20, 2009, at 92 years old. Until the very end she maintained an enthusiasm so strong that students, professors, staff and administrators still pursue her dreams for the College today.

When she wrote in her 1997 Notre Dame Today column about how enthusiasm can inspires others, Sr. Mary LeRoy followed up with a caution. “As time passes, however, the original impetus can get lost,” she wrote, “unless it is reawakened, rekindled and restated.”

Under Mary Sr. LeRoy’s leadership and the vibrancy of her dream, the Notre Dame mission was never lost; it was strengthened.

“Our objective [...] is to prepare a Notre Dame student for the real world,” Sr. Mary LeRoy said during her 1973 convocation address. “When you walk out of Notre Dame you want to know something, but you also want to be something – the best person you can become. And in addition to that you want to do something. You want some skill, some expertise, some ability in a service area so that you can contribute to the society in which you live.”

Sr. Mary LeRoy did just that. She lived her life for God, and for Notre Dame College she inspired through enthusiasm.

Caroline Pratt ’13 is a senior communication student at Notre Dame College.