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Leadership Spotlight

Sr. Eileen Quinlan ’74 Teaches Social Justice

By Christian Taske ’07

Kode opened her book and let her eyes play over the conjugations. What an amazing thing language was, she thought. She tried to imagine being in ancient Rome, wearing sandals and a long white robe, or in France during the Revolution, and wondered what it would be like to hear people speaking French, with not a word of English at all. Looking out over their shed, over the little frame houses on New Street, down toward the creek and the railroad, her eyes went toward the hills, now shrouded blue-gray in the twilight, the bright summer greens fading into darkness. What was beyond those hills? she wondered. Oil City and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans. Then Cuba, and Venezuela, and Brazil. She loved the feel, the taste of the exotic words in her mouth. “Cincinnati. Venezuela. Patagonia.”

Clutching her Latin book, she stepped slowly into the cool yard. “Argentina. Armenia. Arizona,” she chanted. “Arizona. Arizona Dakota. Arizona, Dakota, Montana, California. The whole world for Arizona Dakota.”

In these excerpts from “The Whole World for Arizona Dakota,” Sr. Eileen Quinlan ’74 brings to life her great-great aunt Arizona Dakota Long, Kode for short, who grew up in Titusville, Pa., in the late 19th century. Sr. Eileen was inspired to write this piece of historical fiction after conducting extensive research about the Pennsylvania Oil Boom, the small town of Titusville, as well as her family, which she can trace as far back as medieval Scotland and New Haven, Ct., in 1640. The professor of English and communication read the short story to her colleagues at Notre Dame College during the 2012 President’s Lecture in March.

Sr. Eileen brings Kode to life as a strong, intelligent and conscientious 14-year-old girl who works hard to support her terminally-ill mother but longs to see the world.

Strong, intelligent and conscientious – these words also come to mind when one thinks of Sr. Eileen. Just ask some of the students who have taken Sr. Eileen’s Great Books course and they will tell you she exhibits a strong presence in class, challenges their intellect like no other teacher at NDC, and asks them to apply their knowledge in a socially conscious way.

Sr. Eileen is not afraid to share her opinions, particularly when they concern issues of social justice. You might have opened up the Cleveland Plain Dealer one morning and found yourself reading Sr. Eileen’s book review of Louise Erdrich’s “Red Convertible” or stumbled upon her editorial about Ohio’s death penalty on Cleveland.com. For years, Sr. Eileen has encouraged her students to share their opinions and write letters to the editor based on ideas derived from the great works of literature they examined in her class.

“It’s not just classroom conversation about textbooks,” Sr. Eileen says. “It’s ‘Here are some great ideas from significant authors. What does that have to do with the world we live in?’ It’s the mission of the College that you use this liberal arts education to be a transformative presence.”

For Sr. Eileen, the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Notre Dame have been a transformative presence in her life.

The second of five children, Sr. Eileen grew up in an Irish Catholic family in East Cleveland. Her father worked for General Electric and her mother was a nurse at St. Vincent  Charity Hospital.

“We went to the parish school and our life really centered on the parish,” Sr. Eileen says. “We didn’t have a car and we were two blocks from school and church and that was really our life. We walked to school; we rode our bikes; we went to church. Like most families in those days, we were very Catholic.”

As a teenager, Sr. Eileen discovered service as an integral part of her life. Together with her sister, she would take the bus downtown and volunteer for the Red Cross. In high school, the Sisters of Notre Dame nurtured that sense of service that Sr. Eileen now aims to instill in her students.

“The Sisters who taught me at Regina were so enthusiastic and joyful and engaged in the local community,” Sr. Eileen says. “Once in high school we packed food for the India missions; there had been a famine. In 11th grade religion we had a project to do a sociological study in local neighborhoods. It was such an awakening to make the connections between what’s going on in school and what’s going on out there, which I think has shaped how I teach.”      

Much like her imagination of her great-great aunt Kode, Sr. Eileen was an independent teenager. Maybe that’s because Sr. Eileen hails from a family of “activist kind-of women,” as she says. Both of her grandmothers were involved in local politics, even before women could vote and despite their husbands’ objections. And much like the heroine in her short story, Sr. Eileen was an intelligent teenager, and a talented writer. During her senior year at Regina High School, Sr. Eileen won a national contest with a short story she wrote about the Vietnam War. She won $50, which was enough to buy a dress and a ticket to the 1969 prom at the Statler Hilton.

When Sr. Eileen enrolled at Notre Dame, the College was gearing up for its 50th anniversary in 1972 and giving out so-called “Golden Opportunity Scholarships” for gifted students, which covered the $800-a-year tuition. Sr. Eileen, who double-majored in French and English at Notre Dame, was one of the recipients. Ironically, she had exactly $800 in the bank at the time.

“That was my life savings,” Sr. Eileen says, “and I could either go to college for a year, buy a new Volkswagen or go to Europe for six weeks. So I went to Europe with the College for six weeks.”

The trip in collaboration with Ursuline College was for French majors and people interested in French. They took classes at the Sorbonne for a month and visited places like Belgium, England and Spain.

Two weeks after returning from her freshman trip to Europe, Sr. Eileen joined the convent.

“It occurred to me in high school that God had given me so much that the best thing I could do is to give back everything,” Sr. Eileen says.

What had not occurred to her was that she would give back as a teacher. The Sisters of Notre Dame turned her on to that idea.

“In high school I could not imagine anything more boring than being a teacher. Same thing day after day? Are you kidding?” Sr. Eileen says. “But that’s what the Sisters did. So I thought, ‘OK, I give it a try.’ It turned out to be great fun.”

After graduating from Notre Dame in 1974, Sr. Eileen taught at Regina High School for four years; at Notre Dame Academy, a boarding school in Middleburg, Va., for six years; at Elyria Catholic High School for three years; and at Notre Dame Academy in Chardon, Ohio, for eight years starting in 1987.

From 1981 to 1986, Sr. Eileen earned her M.A. in English during summer sessions at Bowling Green State University. In 1995, she began doctoral studies at Loyola University in Chicago, where she also taught classes. Sr. Eileen’s dissertation was titled “Healing Connections: Feminist/Womanist Ethical Reflection on Community in the Fiction of Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, and Louise Erdrich.”

Sr. Eileen’s interest in Erdrich’s works eventually led her to study Native American theology during a sabbatical in 2007. She attended the National Tekakwitha Conference of people ministering with the Native American Catholic population and took classes at the Native Ministries Consortium Summer School at the Vancouver School of Theology. Today she teaches a class on Native American literature at Notre Dame.

Sr. Eileen joined Notre Dame’s faculty in the fall of 1999. Over the last 13 years, she has left her mark on her students and has shared her research studies with her colleagues. In recognition of her work, she received the Distinguished Faculty Award in 2006 and was named the 2012 President’s Lecturer this March.

But Sr. Eileen’s contributions to the Notre Dame community extend beyond her academic work. Among other things, she has led and participated in countless volunteer projects, served on the Abrahamic Center’s internal advisory board, and served as a committee chair for the alumni board.

Sr. Eileen is also part of the Sisters of Notre Dame’s Water for Life committee, which aims to raise awareness locally about the shortage of drinking water in developing nations, the personal risks impoverished women take to collect drinking water, as well as the importance of recycling water bottles. The Sisters have also financially supported various well drilling and sanitation projects in Central America, East Africa and India.          

“Our community took a corporate stance that we would all work together to support the UN Millennium Development Goals, especially for water,” she says. “In developing nations, where they don’t have city water, women and girls spend a disproportionate amount of time hauling water. That means they don’t have time to go to school.”

The Sisters’ water project concerns issues of social justice, women’s rights, and education, three aspects Sr. Eileen is passionate about and stresses in her academic work. It’s her commitment to these issues that make Sr. Eileen an example for her students of someone who lives personal, professional and global responsibility.

This is one profile from an ongoing series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility. To read more profiles, visit NotreDameCollege.edu/90/90-Stories.