Sister Nancy Nolan (formerly Sister Jean Paula)
Thirty-four years ago, Sister Nancy Nolan stood in this church in front of many of the same sisters, family members and friends who join us here today via Live Stream and Closed Circuit, and she reflected on the Gospel reading we just heard proclaimed, said Sister Dawn Tomaszewski in her commentary for Sister Nancy Nolan, formerly Sister Jean Paula, who passed away on Sunday, December 20, 2020, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 84 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 66 years. She was the 15th General Superior for the Congregation from 1986-96.
Sister Dawn continued: It was July of 1986 and it was the Gospel selected for the Liturgy for the Installation of the new General Superior and General Councilors of the Congregation. About the passage Nancy said, “We see Jesus standing in the synagogue in Nazareth and delivering something of an inaugural address for the hometown crowd.”
What followed was her own inaugural address as the 15th General Superior of the Sisters of Providence, and it set her and us on a trajectory for the next 10 years of inspired speeches, down-to-earth reminders and a razor-sharp focus on the charism and mission of Providence “for which so many have given so much.”
Her signature line became Mother Theodore’s trustful words: “Have confidence in the Providence that so far has never failed us.” And she gave abundant witness to this in her life and ministry.
But she had some other zingers as well. She once said: “Mother Theodore encouraged us to grope along slowly, not gripe along slowly.” AND “A dusty Constitutions makes for a dusty commitment.”
The phrase, “Only love transforms,” became the guiding light in her relationship with others. And she urged all of us to have unprejudiced hearts, extravagant hearts — an insight that she credited to the movie, “Babe,” the story of a little pig who transformed the barnyard, affecting human beings and animals alike. She also told us that if we are willing to do this — it will not matter if we buy our clothes at Goodwill, KMART or Neiman Marcus. She was nothing if not authentically Nancy.
She made that clear during that inaugural speech 34 years ago when she stated:
“As I stand before you this morning as the 15th general superior of the Sisters of Providence, a group of women with a mission, I can look into the faces of my brothers and sisters and cousins and wonder if they are not asking, “Is this the same Nancy Nolan that played football with us in the backyard?”
This was indeed the same Nancy Irene Nolan — Paul and Helena Coffield Nolan’s fourth of five children, and their third daughter. Born in Galesburg, Illinois, on May 13, 1936, Nancy loved to say she was almost born in a taxi cab and that is why she spent the rest of her life early for any appointment or event. She also liked to point out that though her sisters Lucy and Carol preceded her into the convent, she was the first to think of it — announcing it when she was in the fourth grade.
She credited her position in the family between brothers Dan and John with enabling her to develop survival skills very early in life. And I have it on very good authority that she and Johnny and Danny would run the neighborhood while Lucy and Carol did the housework. (You can guess who told me that.)
Lucy, Carol and John — we thank you for the role you played in nurturing and forming Nancy into the wonderful human being we celebrate today. We know her reunion with your brother Dan, and, of course, your mom and dad, was joy-filled. I have imagined them gathered around a piano singing whatever songs might strike your dad’s fancy to play.
That is how Sister Joyce Brophy described your family. Joyce, who served in Galesburg and came to know the Nolan family intimately, said that Nancy inherited her love of people — and probably her sense of humor–from her dad. It was Paul Nolan, after all, who would tie a rope to the rear end of his car and pull his children through the streets of Galesburg on a snowy day — a uniquely Nolan way of sledding. Nancy also carried on his tradition of having a song for every occasion. If she didn’t know one, she made one up. Just ask our cat and the sisters in Lourdes with whom Nancy lived most of this past year.
And from Helena came Nancy’s empathy and common sense. Helena spent much of her life as a teacher, including a long stint at St. Joseph Academy, where all of the Nolan children attended grade school. My absolute favorite story about her mother, which so explains Nancy’s own way of being, is Nancy’s description of a proposed overnight at her grandfather’s house.
This grandfather’s sister, Mary Nolan, was a Sister of Providence, Sister Modesta. He lived close to the Nolans, and Nancy remembers that she went to his house most weekends. Perhaps it was the first weekend she was to stay there overnight that young Nancy became homesick and had her grandfather take her back home. When she arrived home, her mother was sitting in the living room on a little stool near the register where the heat came out. Helena made room for her there and offered her half the Snickers candy bar she was eating. No judgement, just pure loving acceptance.
This story came back to mind when Sister Janet Gilligan shared the following:
“Nancy and my sister Donna were in the same band and became lifelong friends. Donna named her first child after Nancy — and my niece Nancy always calls her Aunt Nancy. When I was a postulant Nancy adopted me because she knew I missed my sister. Every so often I would open my prie dieu and find a candy bar from Nancy.”
Nancy’s fourth-grade declaration to enter the Sisters of Providence did not come to fruition until February 2, 1955. She wanted to enter right after graduation from Corpus Christi High School in Galesburg, but her mother was ill, and Nancy delayed entering for six months. During that time she worked as a clerk in a drug store. According to Nancy herself, as captured by Sister Maureen Abbott during a number of oral history sessions, Wayne, the owner of the store, thought Nancy was pretty good. He offered to pay her way to Purdue to become a pharmacist, but she went ahead with plans to enter the Congregation instead. Oh, the designs of Providence.
Upon entrance, Nancy was given the name Jean Paula. She wanted the name Paul in honor of her father. Like most Sisters of Providence at the time, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, hers in education. Nancy was among the first band of sisters to begin the Sister Formation Program and to stay at St. Mary’s following the novitiate to finish their degrees. Later she would add a master’s degree in education from the University of Illinois and one in pastoral studies from Loyola University, Chicago. During her time at the Woods, she professed first vows on August 15, 1957. Eventually, she professed perpetual vows on August 15, 1962.
Her first mission was to St. Philip Neri in Indianapolis, where Sisters Ann Casper and Judy Shanahan were also missioned. Little did they know that one day the three of them would end up on the same leadership team and serve the Congregation together for two terms. It was actually Judy Shanahan who, in response to Nancy’s suggestion that Sister Barbara Doherty offer reflections at their installation liturgy, said to Nancy, “Why don’t you give it yourself?” (Thank you, Judy.)
Next Nancy went to St. Angela’s in Chicago, which enabled her to be close to her sisters Lucy and Carol, as well as establish life-long friendships with Sisters Francis Maureen McGrory, the principal there, and Ellen Kehoe.
In this week since her death, we have heard from numerous former students of both schools citing her influence, her wisdom and her knack for instilling in them a sense of self-worth.
Then, along came Sister Rosemarie Ruffle who changed Nancy’s life forever by inviting her to become the principal at Corpus Christi School in Oklahoma City. In spite of her own misgivings about her administrative abilities, Nancy said yes. Thus began a nearly 30-year stint as an administrator of some form or another.
I love Sister Mary Fran Keusal’s account of Nancy as administrator:
After opening the door to let in the children in the morning Nancy would stand at the door and greet each child as he or she came through the door. I always thought that was so welcoming. I continued that practice when I became principal and for 25 years as a DRE.
Marilyn Skowron, a long-time teacher at Holy Cross High School who joined the faculty at Guerin Prep High School after the closing of Holy Cross, relayed an account in which Nancy urges Marilyn to become an administrator. Marilyn explains to her that one of her mentors had told her not to become an administrator because they had all the problems but none of the joys of teaching. To quote Marilyn:
Sister Nancy said that advice wasn’t completely true. She said that you could still have the joys of teaching as an administrator if you make personal connections with the students. I saw that Sister Nancy followed her own advice. She was at football games, concerts, dances, and plays – all the while making connections with the students. She truly embodied St. Mother Theodore Guerin’s words: “Love the children first, then teach them.”
While at Corpus Christi in Oklahoma City, Nancy was tapped on the shoulder again by Rosie Ruffle, this time to leave her name in for consideration for the co-provincial team of St. Joseph Province. Nancy spent eight years in that position, primarily as apostolic works director, visiting all the ministries and doing convent visitations. There were about 400 sisters in the St. Joseph Province at that time.
Perhaps what she learned to do best during this time was hold her own. Sisters Loretta Schaefer and Barbara Doherty were her teammates and Sister Anne Krause was the provincial treasurer. For those of you listening who are not Sisters of Providence—this was a formidable group. Loretta went on to be elected general superior and Anne became general treasurer. Eventually, the team was reduced to Nancy and Barbara. Nancy explained, “Barbara decided she liked me so there was no problem in our working as a team.”
In these past 10 years here at the Woods, we have witnessed the faithfulness of Nancy and Barbara’s friendship, especially as Barbara’s cognitive changes became more acute. For many of those years, Nancy would pick Barbara up of an afternoon and bring her to our house for spirits and a little visit.
When Sister Danielle Sullivan, who ministered with Nancy during her second term as general superior, learned the news about Nancy, she said, “No doubt that Barbara was right there to welcome our Nancy home!” And their mutual friend, Chuck Fisher said of Nancy’s death, “I do believe that Sister Barbara and Sister Nancy were in cahoots about this. They were Besties!”
Nancy, the administrator, always credited Barbara with opening her to the wonders of theological thought. I believe we were the recipients of that gift during Nancy’s time as general superior. Maureen Abbott reflected on this as well:
As a listener, one of the things that most impressed me was how Nancy expressed Providence Spirituality in a way that has taken root in our SP understanding of our charism. I remember how Barbara Doherty was the mover and shaker within the Women of Providence in Collaboration that articulated the theology, but Nancy had a gift for making it practical and accessible.
After Nancy left provincial office, she spent a year as Associate Executive Secretary for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference in Taiwan. In an article Nancy recently dictated for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of our mission in Asia, she explained about this time:
My lack of facility with the language and other’s expectations of me made the year I spent in Taiwan a very difficult one. However, that was not without blessing. In a very real sense, I learned how difficult it is for our Asian sisters to come to the U.S. and be expected not only to adjust but also to manage. It helped me guide future Sisters of Providence as they discerned whether or not to go to Taiwan for ministry and for those Taiwanese sisters to discern about coming to the states. … I would not trade that year for anything.
Returning to the United States, Nany served a brief stint as a religion teacher at Mother Theodore Guerin High School before becoming associate administrator and director of religious education for St. Ann Parish in Terre Haute. And though she loved that ministry and the fun-loving people of that parish, she had hardly put down roots there before she was elected General Superior.
How did Nancy assess her time as General Superior? In an interview she did for one of our vocation brochures, she said that it was the greatest privilege of her life.
I said many times that it probably was the best 10 years of my life. It was during that time we celebrated our sesquicentennial, which I think, was a great moment for our history. We worked on getting the cause for Mother Theodore to go forward. And most importantly, we deepened our understanding of Providence spirituality and its relationship to our charism.
Sister Ann Casper, who served as General Secretary alongside Sister Nancy during the two terms, said, “Sister Nancy was the perfect leader for those 10 years. Her ‘laid-back style’ was somewhat misleading, for she was a woman of great wisdom, vision, strength and courage.”
Both Ann and Sister Ann Margaret O’Hara, who served as a general councilor during Nancy’s second term and later became general superior herself, remembered that Nancy had an interesting way of telling people no.
If at the end of your laying out a case for some new idea Nancy said to you, “Let’s think about that, hon,” you could be sure that meant no.
Another of my favorite stories that Ann tells is about Sister Barbara Ann Zeller’s presentation to the general council about her new ministry idea. Barbara Ann tells the rest of the general council that she has already shared this idea with Nancy Nolan and that Nancy was “wildly enthusiastic.” After Barbara Ann left the group, Ann was heard to say, “I have known Nancy Nolan a long, long time and I have NEVER known her to be wildly enthusiastic about anything.”
Yes, that peaceful, laid-back nature of the Nine on the Enneagram was evident in Nancy. She loved being a nine and quoted the theme song of the nine whenever possible, “Oh, I have so much to do. I think I’d better take a nap.”
But under that peaceful nature burned a passion for the mission. Sister Rose Ann Eaton, another of the councilors during Nancy’s second term, recently sent Nancy an Advent Card, and in it reminded her how instrumental she had been in encouraging new ministry initiatives. Nancy remembered actively promoting our own ministries — Barbara Ann Zeller’s plan mentioned earlier or Sister Brendan Harvey walking into her office and suggesting we start a food pantry. The Ministry Fund was established and the White Violet Center opened during Nancy’s term. And who can forget the possibilities Chapter of 1996 set into motion by Nancy and her council that created more than 20 possible ideas for implementation, many of them ministry-related, many of which continue today.
Following her term as general superior, Nancy actually took on what she named the most challenging ministry of her community life—the presidency of Mother Theodore Guerin High School. After painstaking efforts at collaboration between Holy Cross and Mother Guerin High Schools for the sake of sustaining Catholic education at 80th and Belmont, Holy Cross announced its closing. This led Francis Cardinal George to ask the Sisters of Providence to change the mission of Mother Theodore Guerin High School. The school became the co-ed Guerin College Prep.
Bonnie Brown, the principal who helped Sister Nancy make this happen recalls:
Her leadership in those days kept us all together and the administrative team worked hard to be inclusive and protective. We established new traditions but kept the mission of the Sisters always in mind.
I had become the director of advancement as part of the transition and so was present on that first day of the co-ed school. Nancy gathered all of us in the auditorium and in her understated but direct way let us know that we were going to respect one another — girls-boys-teachers-janitors-the people who served our lunch. Everyone was deserving of respect. That became her clarion call, and it worked.
But the work and worry, compounded by broken promises impacting the financial state of the co-ed endeavor, ultimately led Nancy to seek retirement. However, this was not before the school held a 50th jubilee celebration for her that included her family, Sisters of Providence, local educators, as well as students, faculty and staff. It was a whole day affair. I still believe her favorite moment was the singing of Our Lady of Providence by the male members of the faculty, most of whom had joined the staff from Holy Cross.
Once Nancy returned to the Woods, she was involved in an array of activities — as vocation secretary, docent in Providence Center, volunteer at the prison, answerer of prayer requests left on our web site, friend and mentor to many. She cultivated wonderful relationships with her associates. She loved being with the newer members and her admonition to them that their egos would be crushed is one of their Nancy legends.
I believe this time also brought her closer to her siblings Lucy, Carol and John, whose constant phone calls, especially during this past year, have been a saving grace. It was a great grace for me to connect John and Nancy via a Zoom call the day before she died. And Lucy and I were both blessed to be reciting aloud our Prayer of Reunion when Nancy took her last breath on Sunday, December 20.
Maya Angelou has written, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Perhaps Sister Denise Wilkinson, who leaned on Nancy as mentor and friend, summarized best how Nancy made us feel.
Her faith made it easier for us to believe. Her hope for the future made it easier for us to have hope for the future. Her love for us made us feel safe and at the same time challenged.
A close second would be Sister Florence Norton’s message to Nancy in a birthday card:
You are like comfortable shoes. I’m glad you are here with us.
In these days since Nancy has died, so many people have reached out with their Nancy stories — times when Nancy reached out to them in the most vulnerable moments of their lives; times when Nancy tapped them on the shoulder and challenged them or just loved them. I wish I could have included all of these stories, but I already fear that I have gone on too long. I loved what Sister Marie McCarthy, another of Nancy’s teammates, wrote to me by way of consolation:
Just about everyone who knew her will be claiming a special relationship with her — and they will be right — because Nancy was so genuine and deeply authentic in her relationships.
Nancy was genuine and deeply authentic in her relationships because she saw each person as precious. Which brings me to the selection from Isaiah chosen as the first reading for today’s service, and God’s words to Israel: “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
When I was first getting to really know Nancy, I began to notice her use of that word — precious. She always called her godson Peter Precious. In fact, she used that term so often that I just figured this was some Nolan thing and that Pete’s middle name was actually “Precious.” But then pretty soon, the kitties were the Precious Kitties. And the new great and then the great-great nieces and nephews of her life also were precious. During one of the last times I was able to take Nancy to the doctor, while we were driving around campus so she could see all the new projects, she sighed and said, “This place is so precious to me.”
And so, in the manner of Nancy Nolan, I challenge each of us today in her honor and in her memory to love God, to love one another and to never forget that each of us is precious. Let us have confidence in the Providence that so far has never failed us.
Nancy Nolan, you will always be precious in our sight, and honored. Thank you. We love you.
Funeral services for Sister Nancy took place on Monday, December 28, 2020, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.
A Virtual Wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by Funeral Liturgy without Eucharist at 11 a.m.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Nancy in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Nancy to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Nancy Nolan (formerly Sister Jean Paula)
In Indiana: Teacher, St. Philip Neri, Indianapolis (1959-65); Associate Administrator/Director of Religious Education, St. Ann Parish, Terre Haute (1985-86); General Superior, Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1986-96); Convent Service, Terre Haute (2011); Vocation Official Coordinator/Volunteer, Mother Theodore Guerin Shrine/Federal Prison Ministry, Terre Haute (2012-17); Prayer, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2017-2020).
In Illinois: Teacher, St. Angela, Chicago (1965-71); Co-Provincial/Director of Apostolic Works, St. Joseph Province, Park Ridge (1975-83); Theology Department, Mother Theodore Guerin High School, River Grove (1985); Programs Director, Institute for Spiritual Leadership, Chicago (1997-99); President, Mother Theodore Guerin High School, River Grove (1999-2008); Convent Service, Chicago (2009-11).
In Oklahoma: Principal, Corpus Christi, Oklahoma City (1971-75).
In Taiwan: Associate Executive Secretary, Federation of Asian Bishops’ Center, Taipei (1983-84).
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