Sr. Mary Madeleva Wolff, CSC, middle, is pictured with her mother Lucy, to her right, one of her fellow sisters and others in Cumberland, likely from her first visit home as a professed sister in 1915. (Photo by Jenny Snarski, with permission from Saint Mary’s College Archives, Notre Dame, Indiana)
Catholic Herald Staff
“Few loyalties can match the bonds and allegiances of one’s home town. Cumberland has never failed me.”
This assertion from chapter 11 of a Catholic sister’s autobiography, “My First Seventy Years,” follows the brief history, related in the fourth chapter, of her childhood Catholic community.
Italian families whose “names read like an art catalogue,” came to the area for railroad jobs in the 1890s, settling just south of Cumberland; “a simple frame church, St. Anthony’s, constituted their spiritual capitol.”
Two other settlements – one German and another French– also shared the pastor of a second Cumberland parish, St. Mary’s Church, with Shell Lake and Spooner. Throughout the month, Mass would be celebrated at alternating locations with the author’s family providing coffee and toast, “always hot on our range for them before they started back home” through the difficult roads and weather.
With almost all the priests coming from Europe or having European educations, the spiritual leader “of these United Nations had to be a linguist,” she noted.
“Although we did not realize this, the culture of these pastors was not entirely wasted on us,” she writes, describing how within the Latin liturgy, congregants listened to announcements, epistle and Gospel in English, French, German and Italian.
“This is quite a commentary on our heritage from the alleged low mentality of our Catholic immigrant ancestors,” she observed.
The rich cultural diversity and exposure would prove a fruitful seedbed, not only for herself but thousands, as Sr. M. Madeleva Wolff, CSC, would be called after her death one of the most famous Catholic sisters in the world.
Mary Evaline Wolff was born May 24, 1887, to parents Lucy and August Wolff in Cumberland. By the time of her death, July 25, 1964, this gritty northerner would call dozens of the most respected Catholic intellectuals and literary greats friends and colleagues.
August Wolff had come from Prussia as a child with his widow mother and two siblings. Before the age of 12, he was apprenticing as a harness-maker, a craftsman’s trade he would practice until the age of 90. Lucy, a well-educated teacher and one of 13 children born to German immigrant parents, met her future husband while she was a summer clerk in Mauston working at the same store where August ran the harness shop.
The newly married couple moved to Cumberland, where they set up a harness shop serving local residents, including Ojibwe from a nearby village. August sat on the city council and served two terms as mayor. He was instrumental in improving the city’s infrastructure, building a new high school, public library and opera house.
The Wolffs raised three children, Julius Frederick, Mary Evaline and Werner Peter. Their family life centered on nature, August’s workshop and daily life integrated with lifelong education.
“The lake is one of the deep loves of my life,” Wolff would reminisce about her childhood swimming and skating on Beaver Dam Lake. She climbed trees and worked in the family’s garden, responsible for the asparagus and strawberries. On Sunday afternoons, the family would take long drives by horse and carriage; the children learned the names of what was growing in fields, interrupted only by stopping to pick wildflowers or berries.
During the winter, the Sunday afternoon drives were replaced by what became a favorite pastime that would shape much of the child’s adult life. “Father and I would climb into ‘our big chair’ and read poetry aloud. Father always had a store,” she wrote, which was collected from memory, newspaper and magazine clippings.
The cultural education the young Wolff would receive from her parents and diverse community, along with religious instruction from their priest – “among the great spiritual and intellectual experiences of my life” – formed the girl into a young woman and prepared the way for her becoming a Sister of the Holy Cross in Notre Dame, Indiana.
From there, the scope of her influence would continue to increase as an educator, advocate for Catholic women and trailblazer of the landscape that is the 21st-century Catholic Church in America.
During the year after her 1904 high school graduation, Wolff began asking herself life’s deeper questions – why God had made her and what was her existence was meant for. Joining brother Fred at UW-Madison, she became part of the “pioneer group” college and university Newman Clubs. That involvement included the early beginnings of what, to this day, is a very active St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center in the heart of the state’s most notable university.
When Wolff returned that first summer, settling back into her social place in town “just being, in the sun and under the long twilight evening skies, … something extraordinary” happened.
In a center page section on private colleges of “McClure’s Magazine” purchased at the town drug store, the future president of Saint Mary’s College saw a two-inch announcement for one of the only Catholic women’s colleges in the country. In her autobiography, she records, “I said to myself, ‘If this makes a difference in my life I shall always remember it.’”
With the support pf her parents, Wolff transferred and arriving on campus, felt she was finally close to where she belonged. Before the end of that first year at Saint Mary’s, Wolff felt the surprising but distinct call to religious life. On Sept. 14, 1908, she entered the novitiate. She was well aware it was the Feast of the Holy Cross.
Recognizing the liturgical or saint feast of the day became a lifelong practice. She begins her autobiography by stating that her birthday is the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians. In countless letters in the archives at Saint Mary’s College, she dates correspondence or written speeches including these feasts. Even the funeral card for her Lutheran father includes the dates of his birth and death with their corresponding saints’ days.
On Dec. 10, Wolff received the habit and her religious name, Sr. Mary Madeleva – combining the name of Mother of God, the mother of mankind and Christ’s friend, Magdalene.
Although Sr. Madeleva had never aspired to be a teacher, starting in 1910 she began instructing college classes. She graduated with her master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1918.
It was during this period that she met her future mentor, Fr. Charles O’Donnell, a Holy Cross priest and poet. When the sister was a student in his creative writing course, Fr. O’Donnell was impressed with her work and encouraged her to continue writing and submitting poetry for publication. The two corresponded and shared their work until his death in 1934.
Through Fr. O’Donnell, Sr. Madeleva met Joyce Kilmer, a poet best known for “Trees and Other Poems,” who visited Notre Dame numerous times. Both priest and poet volunteered to serve in World War I. When Kilmer was killed in action in France on July 30, 1918, Sr. Madeleva wrote “The Poet’s House,” as a memorial to him.
Among her personal items in the college archives are collected clippings of a newspaper article describing Kilmer’s death with related poems tucked inside. Sr. Madeleva’s relationship continued for decades with his widow, Aline, son Kenton and daughter, who also became a Catholic religious.
From early on, Sr. Madeleva recognized that writing poetry fed her spiritual life. Although the sister would struggle with insomnia and exhaustion throughout her religious life, recovery periods allowed time for her to write the verse that came to her so easily as her way of understanding the world and expressing experiences.
In 1940, by then a widely published poet, Sr. Madeleva wrote the forward to a commemorative volume of verse, “Songs of the Rood,” collecting poetry of more than 30 sisters with the subtitle, “A Century of Verse by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.”
She wrote, “The precedent for verse in religious life is continuous. It includes the greatest poetry in the world.” She notes how the practice of writing verse in the community – which she said on another occasion is one of the most difficult disciplines – is “a commentary on the reality of its spiritual life. It is a revelation of its capacities for contemplation, for poetry is the heaven of contemplative thought.”
Besides the autobiography published five years before Sr. Madeleva’s death, she has been the subject of countless articles even to the present. A comprehensive biography was written in 1997 by Saint Mary’s College professor Gail Porter Mandell. Most recently, Sr. Madeleva was the introductory case study in a 2023 book by Nick Ripatrazone, “The Habit of Poetry,” on women religious poets in the mid-20th century.
The legacy list of Sr. Madeleva’s accomplishments includes numerous poetry and education awards, publications in both Catholic and secular spheres and travel around Europe and the Holy Land. She had friendships and professional relationships with leading intellectuals, including C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Christopher Dawson, Mortimer Adler, Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, Edith Wharton, Wilfred and Alice Meynell, Jacques and Raissa Maritian, Frank and Maisie Sheed, Charles Du Bos and Etienne Gilson, among others.
Of her work, G.K. Chesterton said it was “the only poetry of a modern woman that could stir me.”
She was one of two first women religious to earn a doctoral degree at the University of California-Berkeley, seven honorary doctorates, membership in a dozen professional societies, countless speaking engagements and lectures given, inclusion in almost two dozen biographical directories and multiple awards.
Potentially the most significant impact she left was establishing, in 1944, the Sacred School of Theology at Saint Mary’s College. This was the first-ever opportunity for graduate study in theology for women and lay people and began a movement towards the formation of Catholic religious women as professional teachers.
All that said, the depth of Sr. Madeleva’s spiritual sense of the transcendent has yet to be rediscovered. She rarely spoke about the present moment or current events without alluding to divine providence and the eternal role each person was acting out, whatever their vocation and undertakings.
Although she was aware of the leadership in her grasp, she redirected attention away from herself to the mission at hand. In her archived letters, she gave as much attention to homemakers who sent her poems for review as she did -corresponding with politicians and famous authors.
If Sr. Madeleva’s complete body of poetry indicates the summary of her person and place in the world, it should be noted that the dominant theme is the incarnation of God. The Christ child, his mother and the Christmas story appears again and again as the eyes through which she understood the world. Speaking as various characters in the historical reality of Jesus’ birth, Sr. Madeleva’s sense of God as creator shines through as even a “Happy Christmas Wind” plays a role in salvation history.
In the conclusion of “My First Seventy Years,” the sister quips that she liked to visit the Marshall Field’s store in Chicago, “just to see how many things there are in the world that I do not want.” What she did want was to write more books and watch her beloved seedlings on campus grow into great trees.
“Some day I shall have only One, Infinite, Absolute want…I shall not even want the breath I breathe. When the last of nonessentials of encumbering humanity have been cut away, when the last tenacious grasp has been relaxed, what shall I say? What shall I say when I see God?”
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