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Sister Mary Pius Regnier: General Superior from 1966 to 1976

Sister Mary Pius Regnier

The following is the commentary from the wake service for Sister Mary Pius Regnier, held Nov. 30, 2005.

A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews:

In the days when he was in the flesh, Jesus offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered, and when made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. Therefore, my holy sisters and brothers, sharing in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus — fix your eyes on Jesus — the apostle and high priest of our profession, who was faithful to the one who appointed him.

In the annals of religious congregations there stands occasionally a leader whose response to time, place and circumstances has brought true greatness. Such a leader was Blessed Mother Theodore Guerin; so too Mother Mary Cleophas Foley; and now we add a third: Sister Mary Pius Regnier. Much has been written about Mother Theodore and Mother Mary Cleophas, and doubtless much will be written about Sister Mary Pius. I shall leave that for the future, and concentrate on a single aspect of this exceptional woman. Throughout her life she truly considered Jesus, or, as another translation has it, she fixed her eyes on Jesus. She never forgot why she came here.

Helen Marie Regnier was born in Aurora, Ill., on April 28, 1914. She was the eldest of six siblings, four boys and two girls, born to Fred and Anna McDonnell Regnier. In this traditionally Catholic family she learned early to consider Jesus as both model and friend. She graduated from Madonna High School in Aurora in 1931 and just six months later entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Providence, Jan. 23, 1932, receiving the name Sister Mary Pius. During these novitiate years she embraced the path of considering Jesus according to the then current Constitutions of the Sisters of Providence. Doubtless she thought, as did others, that this guide of law and custom would never change.

After first profession in August of 1934 she spent five years teaching junior high students in Indiana and Illinois. She pronounced her final vows in August 1940, the year of the Congregation’s centennial, marking 100 years since Mother Theodore’s arrival at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Sister Mary Pius then began her two decades of high school teaching: Providence in Chicago; St. Simon in Washington, Ind.; Ladywood in Indianapolis; and Reitz Memorial in Evansville. Many were the subjects she taught from year to year, but the master’s in education she received from St. Louis had a specialty in math.

Sister Mary Pius had qualities of character and personality that from the beginning seemed to assure success; she was gracious, friendly, personable, generous and intelligent. These attracted others to her — colleagues, students, parishioners. But perhaps above all, what drew people to her and made them feel comfortable was that she always thought the best of everyone, ever ready to give the benefit of the doubt — sometimes to her peril and disappointment.

In 1947 she was assigned to St. Simon in Washington, Ind., for some years as teacher and then as teacher and principal of both the high school and the grade school. It was here that she displayed unusual facility for teaching boys. (Her lifelong love of sports probably helped.) She was a popular and respected teacher — also an exacting one. When she went in pursuit of a miscreant, her French eyes flashing, word would spread through the school, “Pius is mad!”

As superior at St. Simon she certainly kept her eyes fixed on Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve. Sister Mary Pius admitted she was not the best administrator in the world; she was quick to acknowledge any mistake or error in judgment, equally willing to apologize. She never sought power, never used rank for personal gain. Authority was never more important to Sister Mary Pius than justice or respect for a person’s dignity. Sisters found it easy to have her as a superior; not because her expectations were low, but because she was open and understanding, making it easy for them to respond.

The even tenor of her ways was rather suddenly changed when in 1960 Sister Mary Pius was elected as councilor to Mother Rose Angela Horan. Instead of leading a house of a dozen or so sisters, she shared responsibility for the Congregation, which then numbered about 1,400 sisters. Now she was led to consider Jesus in a new way, not only because of her expanded ministry, but by reason of the winds of change that were now reaching gale force in the secular world and among religious communities. Dissensions about modifying the habit and changing the horarium were prelude to mightier struggles to come.

After one term as councilor, Sister Mary Pius was elected superior general in 1966. The nature of her leadership was indicated in one of her circular letters. As a rather casual postscript she noted: “In studying the beginnings of our Community I noticed that Mother Theodore never used the title ‘Mother’ in signing her circular letters. It seems only proper that I should follow her example” (Letter Circular, December 17, 1969).

Sister Mary Pius and her Council were faced with a vital concern: how to maintain the stability and financial security of the Congregation in the face of declining vocations, erosion of membership and aging of personnel. The flow of vocations had slowed by the mid-1960s and — regrettably — a moratorium on entrants prevailed between 1972-1974; departures from the Congregation were numerous, and the professed sisters were aging. Money (never plentiful) was scarce because of building projects in the 1960s. Under Sister Mary Pius’ leadership the Council engaged the firm of Touche-Ross for a first ever study of the Congregation and its resources by a secular company. Following the firm’s recommendations was not easy. Aside from the sisters, the available resources of the Congregation were chiefly in brick and mortar; so the General Chapter of 1972 voted to sell the Congregation-owned schools — an extremely sad and painful decision to most sisters, but a point of bitter opposition and resentment to some sisters and to many students and their parents. Additional financial resources became available when the Congregation decided to buy into Social Security, available to religious congregations only in 1972. This was indeed an innovation.

At the same time, the more pressing need for adaptation and renewal had to be addressed. One of the first concerns of Sister Mary Pius’ first term was to prepare for the Special General Chapter which Rome required in 1969. And just two years later, in 1971, Pope Paul VI issued the apostolic exhortation, Perfectae caritatis: On the Renewal of Religious Life According to the Second Vatican Council. This became the guide book for the preparation of the regularly scheduled General Chapter of 1972 and led also to the appointment of a group to rewrite the Rule. Adaptation is relatively easy and many changes had already been made, beginning in the early 1960s. Genuine renewal is far more difficult. Almost overnight the sustaining structures of religious life had disappeared, and now there arose deeper questions about the meaning and living of religious life. Soon serious differences and sharp disagreements occurred among the members: can’t we trust each other; are we moving too fast, too slow; are essentials being neglected or lost? There was enough suffering to go around, but Sister Mary Pius bore the brunt of the storm. That the Congregation survived is owed in great part to her ability to bow and bend but not to break, to remain serene and magnanimous under sometimes humiliating personal attack.

During this period, did her considering Jesus lead to a deeper recognition of Jesus in all of her sisters? And did it bring her to realize that it is chiefly in the pain and suffering of sisters living together lovingly that Christ is formed in us and we are transformed? Sister Mary Pius saw that at a time of rapid and radical change a method of shared decision-making was essential. Therefore the General Officers appointed a renewal team — Cor Unum — to prepare the way for a serious engagement of the members in a process of decision making, so that the choices made by the Congregation would follow prayerful reflection and genuine dialogue. The fruits of these efforts are apparent in the Congregation today, although we have not arrived at the full measure of genuine dialogue and corporate decision-making that we desire.

When Sister Mary Pius finished her second term in 1976, she took up residence in St. Dennis Convent in Lockport, Ill., where she graciously and unobtrusively melded into life once again as a private sister. After a year of theological update at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago she became secretary of the Joliet Diocesan Tribunal, where she was greatly respected and appreciated by the bishop and clergy — and indeed by people throughout the diocese. Retiring as tribunal secretary in 1986, she remained at St. Dennis until she came back to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1993. She spent almost a decade visiting the sick — a ministry which she took very seriously. At this time, she was able to devote more time to prayer as she continued to consider Jesus. She was often in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which she once described as her favorite spot on campus. Growing infirmity required that she gradually limit her work of visiting and move to Lourdes Hall and then to Mother Theodore Hall and, at last, to God.

For her, this Advent has indeed marked the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We think of her with eyes still fixed on Jesus, no longer from afar, but face to face. What would Sister Mary Pius say to us from that heavenly spot? Oh, many things. But she might call our attention to a further text from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and persevere in running the race that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and finisher of our faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Written by Alexa Suelzer, S.P.

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