The Other I

November 27, 2007

Sister Mary Edith, MM

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 9:52 pm

Sister Mary Edith was the Maryknoll sister whose courses in philosophy and history opened up a world to me that was the most exciting thing I’d ever known.  She was very frail, thin, almost translucent.  I think she might have been ill or in constant pain, but no one ever talked about it.  I don’t know very much about her background because in those days when we entered the convent, the idea was that we left our old selves behind.  So we took new names and rarely talked about our previous lives in the world before Maryknoll.  I heard once she had her graduate degree from Oxford University in England, which is quite credible.

During our second year as novices, we had classes several afternoons a week when Sister Edith taught us philosophy and history.  Encompassing everything I remember about them is the amazement I felt when I realized that women could be just as smart, just as incisive, as analytical and far-sighted as men. 

What an old fashioned thought this seems even to me as I write it at the end of my academic career.  But although from first grade at the age of six to high school graduation at eighteen, I was always the first in my class, I never thought of myself as smart.  I was just an older sister, which was why I always knew more.  And besides I was a girl.  My father was the one who could think;  my mother was supportive and loving, but didn’t even try to analyze things the way my dad could.  In a traditional Catholic family, it was made clear to me that I was expected to be differential though cheerful and not obsequiously subservient, which would have been considered in poor taste.   It was suggested that I might be a nurse but not a doctor, a teacher but not a leader.  Girls could be nuns but not priests.  In fact, a priest once told me that I could not possibly have an IQ of 150 because if I did “I would be as smart as my father.”  I accepted that possibility as patently impossible.

Although I entered an order where I thought I could be independent, I did not go in with the attitudes of feminism we take for granted today.  I had no idea I had anything but quite acceptable intellectual abilities.   But here was Sister Edith, a nun who was smart the way I thought only men could be smart.  And what’s more, I understood what she was saying.  I grasped almost immediately the difference between Aristotle’s essence and existence.  I understood when she said a lesson of Greek mythology is that behavior has irrevocable consequences, that wanting to do the right thing wasn’t enough.  If it was the wrong thing, the result would be wrong too.  That is probably when the core first formed of a contrariness which is with me still.  In the face of the great tragedies played out on our global stage every day, I know that just because something is desperately wrong, it doesn’t mean any good hearted person knows how to make it right.

After I’d been in Maryknoll for six years, I was assigned to take courses at Mary Rogers College to train to be an elementary school teacher.  Mary Rogers was a Maryknoll college, staffed principally by Maryknollers themselves.  I thought it was a secondary place providing a sub-standard education until I went to New York University where I was shocked to find so little to challenge me.  Some of the best and most committed teachers I would ever have in my life had been at Maryknoll.

In psychology, logic, and anthropology, the teachers were brilliant women who knew their subject as well as their students and I learned a great deal from them.  But for me, Sister Mary Edith was unique. 

Many years after leaving Maryknoll, I asked about Sister Mary Edith in the hopes that I might tell her how her classes had so profoundly shaped my life.  But I was too late;  she had died.  And as I write this now, I wish I knew more about this beautiful woman who gave me so much, and I am sure, never suspected the magntitude of her gift.


  1. You stated, “I was always the first in my class.” I was too.

    You obviously inherited both of your parents’ intelligence. Go far with great things for your mind. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

    Your father, as you have described him, was intimidated by your intelligence and/or made you feel “little or insignificant” because he needs therapy. Don’t let him hurt your feelings.

    Forgive him, and be great things for yourself and the world. Contact me anytime, if you would like to talk.

    Best wishes,
    Nina M. Sherwood
    Professional Writer/Editor/Proofreader/Researcher


    Comment by Nina M. Sherwood — December 4, 2007 @ 3:38 am | Reply

  2. […] was a Maryknoll sister whom I’ve written about before who smashed this icon.  I took philosophy and history classes with her and sat there amazed.  It […]


    Pingback by The genetics of intelligence « The Other I — June 13, 2010 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

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