Sister Ellen Cunningham (formerly Sister Michael Aquinas)
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew 15:21-28
“Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Just then, a Canaanite woman of that district came and started shouting, ‘Have pity on me, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But Jesus did not answer her at all. And the disciples came and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before Jesus saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their owners’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
We know almost nothing about this Canaanite woman. We don’t know the people, the events, the circumstances, the knowledge that made her who she was; but we do know that she was loving, brave, persistent and a quick thinker.
To my way of thinking, Sister Ellen Cunningham and this Canaanite woman are soul sisters. Like the Canaanite woman, Ellen too was loving, brave, persistent and a quick thinker. Unlike the Canaanite woman, we know some of the people and experiences that made Ellen who she was, said Sister Denise Wilkinson in her commentary for Sister Ellen Cunningham, formerly Sister Michael Aquinas, who passed away on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 79 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 60 years.
Sister Denise continued: Let me share some of these.
Ellen Mary Cunningham was born June 20, 1940, in Chicago to Michael and Catherine O’Connor Cunningham. Her younger sister’s name is also Catherine.
Ellen attended both St. Luke’s Grade School and Trinity High School in River Forest, Ill., graduating in 1957.
Two years later, she entered the postulancy of the Sisters of Providence, on July 22, 1959, and received her religious name, Sister Michael Aquinas. She was received into the novitiate on Jan. 23, 1960, and two years later on the same date, she professed first vows. She made her perpetual profession of vows on Aug. 15, 1967.
Ellen earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1963, and fortified with her degree, she was sent to Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne where she taught religion, French and English for two years. The next year, 1966-67, she taught math and other subjects at St. John’s Grade School in Loogootee!
Perhaps this grade school experience as a math teacher caught the attention of her superiors, because the following year, she went off to the Catholic University of America to earn her master’s degree in mathematics and directly on to the University of Maryland for her Ph.D. in mathematics, which she was awarded in 1974.
That year, she began her nearly 40 years in the mathematics department at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College – as assistant professor, associate professor and department chair, as full professor and department chair and finally in her later years as adjunct professor. She ended her time at the college in the alumnae and advancement offices volunteering there until illness prevented her daily trek to Guerin Hall.
Ellen did manage three sabbaticals in her lengthy career – one in computer programming in Chicago (how’s that for a sabbatical!), the other year split between Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles and the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas.
A careful look at these seemingly dry facts reveals much about Ellen. Her life was a web of relationships she cherished: Her family, her Sisters of Providence community, her friends, the academic communities of which she was a part – in particular her much loved Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College – students, staff, faculty, administration and alums.
No one can deny that Ellen had a passionate and deep relationship with all creation and with all Earth’s citizens. She was persistent in her pursuit of justice.
Let’s take a less global and more personal look at Ellen.
About friendship and relationships
A couple of Ellen’s friends offered me some verbal images of an Ellen I barely recognized: Ellen running as she chased two toddlers down the beach; Ellen playing tennis; Ellen on a wilderness trip – paddling a canoe, sleeping in a tent, cooking over a campfire. (And how she loved this experience.) As one friend said, “Ellen was always up for anything.”
Ellen loved sharing a cup of coffee and conversation with people. She loved having dinner with friends and was not to be rushed in finishing it. She had played bridge with the same people for almost 40 years.
Many of you know that the Sisters of Providence gather every summer for a community meeting. Ellen enjoyed these meetings – for the most part, Ellen loved meetings and interactions. We meet in O’Shaughnessy Dining Room, notorious for being very cold. At the end of one summer meeting, Ellen summed up her experience in this way: “I spent a week in a refrigerator with 500 of my best friends.”
In short, she knew how to take and savor the time spent with others.
About being a scholar and an excellent teacher
In the course of her academic career, Ellen learned French, Spanish and German (for her dissertation). She taught herself some Chinese so she could converse with a faculty member’s mother who knew no English. She knew all of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s sonnets by heart and would quietly insert a line or two in a conversation.
Titles of some papers Ellen presented at mathematical and science meetings include: “Matt to Save Lives – modeling the spread of AIDS;” “Linear Algebra and the Long-Distance Learner;” “Consorting with Biologists: Approaches to Biocomplexity and Environmental Modeling.” Even in her scholarly presentations, Ellen’s commitment to a more just world shone forth.
As erudite as Ellen was, her students described her in very human terms: Wonderful, wise, gentle, a true mentor, kind, gracious, shining light, leader, intelligent, full of grace, could count on her honesty.
Several, evidently not math majors, commented that Ellen “convinced me I could learn enough math to pass the one and only math class required for graduation – and I did.”
Ellen’s own words, spoken of another sister mathematician, are true of her: “Few things are as beautiful as mathematics. One is a dedicated teacher.”
Ellen’s humor was subtle, wry, quick; but always so appropriate to the situation at hand. Here is one example. When she first moved to Providence Hall, Ellen joined two prayer groups; exercised daily; attended yoga at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and Providence; worked in the alum office at the college. She remarked, “If this keeps up, I’ll have to quit retirement.”
For all her gentleness, her graciousness, her quietness, Ellen was fearless, forthright, outspoken on behalf of people oppressed by unjust systems. She spoke out in clear, unambiguous language – written or spoken – when she perceived an injustice had been done.
In Ellen’s file were various letters to the editor spanning the years from 1989 to 2016. Each is written clearly, forcefully, logically while never denigrating the original writer. The topics are these: Disputing the view that racism had no role in the burnings of local African American churches; US military aid to El Salvador; lack of justification for the war in Iraq; a response to a series entitled “Understanding the Muslim World View.”
Most tender to me was a 1998 letter commending two Terre Haute North High School students “brave enough to take a stand against gender stereotypes and gay bashing.” Ellen goes on to say, “I grieve for young lesbian and gay people in the Terre Haute community, who have enough to suffer from peers … and from their own isolation within our culture.” A brave, compassionate, public statement from a Catholic woman religious at that time – and still today.
For both Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and the Sisters of Providence, Ellen consistently and persuasively brought to the fore issues of justice and worked toward fair and just resolutions. As one of the sisters who served in administration at the college said of Ellen, “She is the moral compass of the College.”
Yes, the Canaanite woman and Ellen are soul sisters – loving, brave, persistent and quick thinkers. But there’s another thing we don’t know about the Canaanite woman that we do know about Ellen.
Ellen loved a party.
At one party of 20 college colleagues, Ellen offered a toast. We all clinked glasses with one another and ended by saying the traditional “Cheers.”
Then Ellen posed this question to us. “How many clinks were there?” Woefully, there was no other math person with us so we made a lot of guesses. Twenty times 20? Nope. Then Ellen explained that this was “a problem of combinations.” This helped none of us.
So, she said more. “Twenty people clink 19 other glasses. So aren’t there 20 times 19 clinks?” By now, we knew better than to hazard a guess. “No. When you clink your glass, you are clinking mine. So we must divide by two. So, 20 times 19 equals 380. Three hundred and eighty divided by two equals 190 clinks. Get it?”
We didn’t really get it then and I’m not sure I do now. In fact, I had to go to our resident mathematicians Sisters Jean Fuqua and Rosemary Schmalz to help me tell this story correctly.
Anyway, what’s the point of this true story?
The point is that Ellen was always teaching – by story, by her actions, by her writings, by her witticisms, by going on walks, by having a cup of coffee with a friend, by talking with alums, students, her sisters, her family – every day in every way she taught. Each of us learned different life lessons from Ellen; and I dare say that each of us treasures what we learned.
So the point of the story is that it’s time to toast Ellen. It’s time to toast Ellen as Jesus toasted the Canaanite woman. “Woman, great is your faith.”
Cheers, Ellen. And I’ll leave it to you and math colleagues to figure out how many clinks there are as we raise our glasses of thanksgiving for your presence among us.
Services for Sister Ellen took place on Tuesday, Feb. 4, and Wednesday, Feb. 5, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A Wake took place from 2:30-4:30 p.m., on Tuesday, Feb. 4, with Vespers at 4:30 p.m. Mass of Christian Burial took place at 11 a.m., on Wednesday, Feb. 5.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Ellen in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions in Sister Ellen’s honor may be made to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Ellen Cunningham (formerly Sister Michael Aquinas)
In Indiana: Teacher, Central Catholic High School, Fort Wayne (1964-66); Teacher, St. John, Loogootee (1966-67); Assistant Professor in Math, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1974-82); Associate Professor/Department Chair, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1983-1992); Professor, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1992-2012); Adjunct Professor/Volunteer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2012-2019).
In Illinois: Computer Programming, McCord and Associates, Chicago (1982-83).
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