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Sister Ellen Cunningham (formerly Sister Michael Aquinas)

Sister Ellen Cunningham

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!

Sister Ellen Cunningham

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.

Sister Ellen Cunningham (right) with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College President Dottie King.

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.”

Social Justice

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)

Complete Ministry

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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  1. Avatar Mary Wade Kiscaden ‘81 on January 30, 2020 at 9:37 am

    Oh my:( Sr.Ellen was so so nice! She was my advisor until I declared. Could not have been more patient! Just a gentle, kind person! Quick to giggle, lend an ear and celebrate baby victories. 🙁

  2. Avatar Jane Fischer, PA on January 30, 2020 at 11:27 am

    Oh my! Look at how her career developed! When very young, she was sent to Ft. Wayne (population 177,671 back then) and then to Loogootee (pop. 2953 in 1970). I think the leadership saw her potential, gave her some “big city” and “small town” experience, and then sent her quickly into the post-secondary community where she could help develop the great young women sent to SMWC. Thank you, Sister Ellen, for your generosity.

  3. Avatar Michelle Tesar Barrentine '78 on January 30, 2020 at 11:36 am

    S. Ellen started teaching at the Woods the same year our class started learning there. She always had a smile for everyone, right up to the last time I saw her in November 2019. She was, for sure, a light to the world. Peace, S. Ellen.

  4. Avatar Cathleen Richert on January 30, 2020 at 12:15 pm

    Sister Ellen was my professor and advisor at SMWC. I also worked for her, helping to grade papers and she was the kindest and happiest every single time I saw her. An angel then and now.

  5. Avatar Madonna on January 30, 2020 at 12:45 pm

    Thank you so much for continuing to include where the Sisters were sent on mission. I really appreciate it.

  6. Avatar Madonna on January 30, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    I am so sorry that the world is losing Sisters of Providence. We are in such need of people like them.

  7. Avatar Margi Owen Miller '79 on January 30, 2020 at 1:40 pm

    So sad at this news for us, and so happy for Sister Ellen, believing she is rejoicing with all our loved ones that have gone ahead. Sister Ellen was a model of living life with abundant joy and enthusiasm. She was instrumental in helping me believe I could do math – because she believed I could…..and she was right 🙂

  8. Avatar Sharon Ammen on January 31, 2020 at 10:27 am

    I spent many an evening at Sr Ellen and Sr Roe’s place enjoying food and playing Shakespeare games. I remember when Roe and Ellen were in The Winter’s Tale at the Conservatory. She was a fighter and defender of the theatre major and program and outspoken in her support. How wonderful it was when so many Sisters of Providence were on the faculty at SMWC. How much she will be missed. We love you so much, Sister Ellen.

  9. Avatar Allen Shotwell on January 31, 2020 at 1:21 pm

    I worked with Sister Ellen on a joint project with the Woods, ISU and Rose-Hulman. She was always willing to share and advise me about teaching. She was a great teacher and great mentor. I will miss her.

  10. Avatar Jane Curley on February 5, 2020 at 7:52 am

    Sister Ellen was a friend personally and professionally. Her brilliant mind, genuine humility, and loving spirit were gifts to us all. As Parkinson’s Disease was affecting her ability to speak, she asked me to pray for this intention. As she left this life, her voice strong, kind, and clear will remain. I loved you my friend. RIP

  11. Avatar Kristina Allen on February 5, 2020 at 1:43 pm

    Sister Ellen was a most kind spiritual mentor and companion. As an incoming Providence Associate candidate and also as an alum, I had the pleasure of knowing all sides of her. Sister Ellen taught with a loving firmness because she saw the value of learning whether it be about Stats or the Lord. Her laugh was gentle and oh so infectious! We shared lunches, coffee dates and dinners and she became my family. After my confirmation, she reminded me to continue to fall in love deeply with God because when others were gone from this earth, He would always be with me at my side. Sister Ellen, thank you for many loving moments, many joys, much laughter and for the talks that I will always treasure. I love you always. K.

  12. Avatar Steve Modde on February 9, 2020 at 6:15 am

    Ellen’s passing has touched me. Two years ago, I ran into her in the gift shop. As I always remember her, from years past, she was warm and welcoming. No doubt the Lord has warmly welcomed her into the kingdom! She is a shining, welcoming light to us all!

  13. Avatar Dianna M Shaffer '66 on July 2, 2020 at 9:45 pm

    Sister Ellen was one of the coolest nuns at Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was so lucky to have her for a teacher…always kind and patient!

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