Oral history: Sister Marian Brady the scholar
“I’ll just take what comes.”
Mariana Brady was born in Washington, D.C., on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, 1927. It was 10 years following the end of World War I and one year before the Wall Street stock market crash, which engendered ration stamps, paying $5 for a good pair of shoes and families living on the edge. Mariana Brady would grow up in Washington and go on to become Sister Marian Brady, a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She would follow a path with myriad opportunities, guided by Providence.
Sister Marian is a member of the Silent Generation. Although that generation is given to tradition and conformity, the Silent Generation also produced leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, the ‘60s counterculture, the rock-and-roll music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and one Catholic president of the United States. Like those leaders, and so many Sisters of Providence before her, going back to foundress Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, Sister Marian broke barriers and set a course forward.
Meet Sister Marian
My interview with Sister Marian in June revealed an intelligent, humble, engaging woman with a delightful sense of humor — a soul who had only kind words for whatever we discussed. Her faith shone throughout the interview as an encompassing part of her entire life.
Born into a devout Catholic family, Sister Marian has two siblings living and one deceased. Her late brother, Reverend Monsignor John B. Brady, Jr. is ‘gone to God’, the result of ministering to the Covid-stricken in 2021. He was much beloved and was the oldest and longest serving priest in the Archdiocese of Washington. A second brother, Rupert Brady, is a retired international patent and trademark attorney. And Marian’s younger sister, Therese Brady Donohue, is the founder and former director of the Amherst Ballet Company. Sister Marian has a large and loving family that includes nieces, nephews, lawyers, engineers, a doctor, nurses, an entrepreneur and of course two religious.
Sister Marian’s father, John B. Brady, Sr, was a patent attorney in the radio field who had practiced at the Supreme Court. The first case he represented at the Supreme Court was a company that had developed a replacement for the ‘horn’ traditionally seen on early radios and gramophones (think of the old RCA Victor ad with Nipper the dog sitting beside the gramophone). Because it was his first case, Marian’s mother asked the Sisters at Dunblane Elementary to pray for him. So they placed a vigil light in front of the tabernacle. Her father won his case.
Sister Marian recounted that when she was a student at Dunblane, the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Providence came to Immaculata to visit. All the girls were to dress in fine dresses and descend the staircase to be introduced one at a time to the Mother Superior. Marian had a wonderful godmother who made her clothes, and she had a long dress to wear for just such an occasion. When she was ready to go, her mother suggested Marian borrow her string of pearls to brighten the dress. She did. The girls lined up along the upper balcony of the stairway to descend to their introduction to the Mother Superior waiting at the bottom. Marian turned the corner to begin her journey down the stairs with other girls in front of and behind her.
“Tragedy struck!” The string of pearls broke and bounced down the stairs. “It was awful!” said Sister Marian. But she continued down the stairs pretending there weren’t pearls bouncing all around her while other girls began gathering the pearls from the steps. Sister Marian’s laughter as she shared this story was infectious!
The Immaculata Schools were a substantial part of the family’s faith life. Sister Marian has great praise for the education she received there. Although some girls stayed in dorms at the schools because their parents were away or involved in World War II, Marian and her siblings commuted daily.
After high school, Marian attended Trinity Washington University in D.C. and received a bachelor’s degree. in English. She had wanted to attend Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) because of the beautiful photos of SMWC in the viewbook she had seen, but her father questioned what he called her ‘thin reasoning.’ He told her there were perfectly good colleges and universities in Washington, DC, and he was afraid they would keep her ‘longer than expected’ at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. He perhaps saw the pull his daughter was feeling.
Mariana had wonderful friends at Trinity and worked very hard there. But she went home on weekends because she said of her friends at college: “All they did was get up for Mass at 7 a.m. on Sundays, eat breakfast, and study most of the day … at home we did fun things.”
“Reflect seriously on what you desire to do. Above all pray much that our dear Lord may make known to you what He wishes you to do.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
“After high school and college, the rest of my life began. I went to the novitiate. I felt I was being called. I didn’t have a faint idea what community was all about. No information. Nothing like now. I thought, ‘I’ll just take what comes.’”
She joined the Sisters of Providence Community at the Maryhurst Convent in Rockville, Maryland, in 1949. At Maryhurst they wanted Marian to play the organ, so sent for Marian’s mother, Mary C. (Rupert) Brady to come teach her. Marian’s mother did not work outside of their home. She focused on raising their children. But she was an organist and a dear, dear loving mother who was frail much of her life.
Sister Marian’s family also came to Maryhurst for her first vows there. In those days novices dressed as brides to receive the habit in vow ceremonies. Pictures were taken of Sister Marian in the wedding dress. Now she reports that the younger kids in the family, when they see that photo of Marian in the wedding dress, ask, ‘What is Aunt Marian doing?’ And she laughs that delightful laugh telling it.
Two months after she entered community, Maryhurst closed. Sister Marian and one other postulant took the train to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. It was a sad time for her close-knit family in Washington, DC, who did not want to see her go. But no one tried to talk her out of religious life. Her brother John left for religious community the same year. “That was an awful lot. That was half of the family.”
Did Mariana Brady always know she wanted to be a Sister of Providence?
“No, not until I got to high school. I could talk to the art teacher, Sister Immaculeé. In the last year of my high school, Sister went to New York City to take a summer course on mechanical drawing. It was what everyone wanted. She was our favorite Sister, my brothers and sister and me. She taught us all mechanical drawing, and I tell you I have used it many times, such as at Schulte High School when I had to design the title of the newspaper. My brothers would come in after school to learn mechanical drawing. They still have their tools. They used them for our father with his trademarks. Sister Immaculaeé was an influence on me, always having a great time. I thought that was really nice.”
“We have gone out several times this summer to gather simples and linden blossoms, etc. In each excursion we discover something marvelous, beautiful, and useful in the magnificent forests of Indiana.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
On her first train trip to the Motherhouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Sister Marian awoke in the upper berth of the overnight train and put up the shade; all she could see was flat land. “Oh, I’m never going to see a mountain or hill again,” she thought.
Although there were no mountains at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Sister Marian discovered there were strawberries. And raspberries and blueberries. She states —as do several Sisters —that picking berries was daily when they were in season. In full habit. Many would agree with what Sister Marian said about the cannery:
“We lived a lot of our novitiate life in the cannery. They read a book to keep us quiet during the time we worked, probably children’s books because we were going to teach. Sister Luke, when she was going to the cannery, would say, ‘I’m on my way to Egypt!’”
Sister Marian’s first mission was teaching at Ladywood High School in Indianapolis. And she loved it! Sister Laurette Bellamy was there — as well as strawberries! “Strawberries? Here, too?” So she and Sister Laurette picked strawberries at Ladywood!
After four years teaching at Ladywood, she taught at Our Lady of Providence in Clarksville, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and Schulte High School in Terre Haute. After her first year at Schulte, Sister Francis Joseph told her she was being sent to Washington, DC.
“I had thought I’d never see it again. When you entered, you didn’t go home. My dear family met me at the train. They couldn’t believe I was coming back.”
Back to school
Sister Marian was sent to The Catholic University of America to get a master’s degree in English. Sister Francis Joseph had told her they weren’t sure she could get a degree in philosophy, so just to find the English Department and get enrolled there. As soon as she arrived in DC she went to Catholic University to find the English Department. Nobody was there. She kept going back day after day. Nobody home. Nobody home.
“I thought, well they said no one had ever had a philosophy degree so I went to the Philosophy Department. They were home!”
The Dean at the Philosophy Department told her he believed her record was there and he went to retrieve it. (“That’s the Philosophy Department – organized.”) The Dean asked Sister Marian if she could come in the summer and she boldly replied she thought she could. She did get permission, and she worked very hard on her degree. Her grades were sent back to the Woods.
“They weren’t all A’s, I tell you. Saintly Mother Gertrude Clare wrote: ‘Ask if they will accept you in the doctoral program.’ I shook all the way there. I really shook. It never occurred to me that would be in my future. But I told her via telegram that I would do it!”
“Put yourself gently into the hands of Providence.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
So Sister Marian Brady entered the doctoral program in philosophy at The Catholic University of America. She enjoyed every bit of it, but a doctoral degree is the most rigorous and advanced type of degree and it was hard, really hard.
St. Ann’s Church was the Brady family spiritual home in D.C. The boys attended St. Ann’s School while Marian and her sister Therese attended Dunblane and Immaculata Seminary. They were all taught by the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Sister Marian described Dunblane Hall as a ‘fascinating building’. (It was rumored by some that George Washington had had tea there, such rumor no doubt tongue-in-cheek alluding to the fact that Dunblane Hall was a ‘very old building.’)
“We had nice classmates, several nuns and priests. It was a very rigid schedule, but it was worth it all.”
A four-year doctoral program became five years when in the middle of Sister Marian’s second year in the PhD program her father was struck by a car as he headed to a retirement luncheon for a friend. He was taken to the hospital and the first family members there were Marian and her priest brother, followed by the rest of the family. Sadly, Marian’s father died suddenly a week later in the hospital because of the accident. Sister Marian’s mother, whose health had always been frail, continued to live in the family home until her own death.
The dissertation for Sister Marian’s doctorate degree was titled “The Philosophical Basis for Human Values According to Thomastic Principles.” It took 365 days to complete and was 365 pages long. It looked at the simple question: ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ based on Thomistic Principles. How someone answers that question determines choices they make. The extensive research for the dissertation required a working knowledge of Latin and French. Although Sister Marian is fluent in no other language than English, she can read Latin. As we spoke in the interview, another Sister of Providence came by and shared with us that Marian had taught them Latin at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC). Sister Marian explained that prior to Vatican II she had taught some of the sisters Latin for prayers.
Teaching and leading at the college level
Sister Marian returned to teach at SMWC for five years after receiving her PhD. There she held Dean of Students title. She then returned to Immaculata College of Washington DC as a professor of philosophy and president of the college. She remained President of Immaculata College of Washington for 14 years, until it closed.
When the college celebrated its 70th birthday at the Chinese Embassy in DC in 1977, the Washington Post interviewed Sister Marian about Immaculata College. In her office filled with artifacts from Japan, Thailand, Tanzania and other places around the world, she talked about the women-only Immaculata College environment and education:
“The college undertakes to offer a value-centered education in a world too busy or too big to bother with human bias. Students here are taught to reach across social, cultural, and age differences for interpersonal relationships,” said Sister Marian, who is especially proud of the lack of barriers between students and faculty at Immaculata.
“There can’t be any,” says Sister Marian, referring to barriers. “They are always borrowing my stapler.”
“It is really so exciting being in this environment. Religious, plus cultural heritages, just to learn about them and share them is such an enriching experience… Our country is so large, the young take security in sameness. Here we try to foster respect for differences … a non-threatening environment in which women may gain confidence and a chance to succeed. There is a whole dimension women have to give the world, which we should encourage regardless of vocation. A woman has a special vocation in a love for children. We think we encourage this. But I think we’re very contemporary. We offer a course in child development and one in introduction to law.” (Mooney, Elizabeth C. “Immaculata College to celebrate 70th birthday.” The Washington Post, January 20, 1977)
Empowering women and travel
There is no doubt in conversation with Sister Marian that she embodies the understanding that women have so much to give the world. She has led the way from her early years and could not help but continue to create and foster that environment at each mission where she served.
When Immaculata College Washington closed, Sister Marian became a philosophy professor at her alma mater, Catholic University of America, where she remained for 35 years teaching philosophy.
“You learn from the classroom. And you learn from your travels.”
She has traveled throughout Europe, which she loved. When she was at Immaculata College, camaraderie with the world was encouraged. One of her best friends was from Belgium. When Immaculata closed she knew she wanted to go to Europe and especially to Ruillé-sur-Loir in France, where Saint Mother Theodore entered the Sisters of Providence.
“The Ruillé Sisters are so hospitable. We went to the Chapel in Ruillé where Mother Theodore had prayed.” She has a great love for Mother Theodore’s home congregation, the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé-sur-Loir.
“I would not give up my travels for the world.”
Sister Marian was at the beatification and canonization for Mother Theodore and appreciates the many things that Rome and the Vatican offer but are never talked about. She traveled to Mont-Saint-Michel-Abbey in France. When she describes her travels, the splendor, dignity, and gloriousness she experienced is evident.
“What strength the soul draws from prayer! In the midst of a storm, how sweet is the calm it finds in the heart of Jesus.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Sister Marian Brady has been back at the Woods since November 2022. She does miss her wonderful extended family back home.
“I wanted to come to the Woods. I have more attendance at Mass here. Back there it was only one time a week. I love that I can be at Mass more. I am amazed at the care here. I am happy to be back.”
She has been a Sister of Providence for 74 years. What does Sister Marian say about her vocation?
“Religious life is all about understanding your relationship with Jesus. Talking to Him. If you have a big problem, talk to Jesus about it. Nobody else is going to solve it. And Jesus will solve it in a way you might never have expected. Give it to Jesus, ask Him ‘do something about this.’ This is Providence.”
Sister Marian has a sacred place, where she feels close to God.
“The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is my place. I also love the rosary. It’s very important to me. I love looking at the windows that Sister Jody O’Neil designed in the health care chapel, the bluebirds and cardinals. We pray for the Sisters, living and dead. I still wear a semblance of the habit. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
What advice would you give someone considering a vocation as a religious?
“Come and visit. Get a list of questions together. I wouldn’t have known a question to ask when I entered.”
Love for community
What delights her?
“In my late life to be able to know about the history of the community, more than I used to know. We’ve had a lot of chances to do that. The other night we had visitors from Taiwan. I want the community to go on and on and to have imaginative people run it.”
“You ought not give way to uneasiness about the future. Put yourself gently into the hands of Providence.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Sister Marian Brady could not help but be a Sister of Providence who fostered and created environments for student knowledge and success at each mission she served — the oldest of four children. A loving and supportive family. Determination — All no doubt contributed to Sister Marian’s path of firsts and accomplishments.
She has been a student and teacher all her life. She has served missions and taught in Indiana high schools, taught at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, was President of Immaculata College Washington for 14 years and professor at The Catholic University of America for 35 years. Her love for her community shines through her telling of her life’s path guided by Providence. Her love for Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, her hope that her community will go on and on, and her strong faith and spiritual life are a powerful statement. When she says “the rest of my life began” when she entered the novitiate at Maryhurst, she exemplified putting herself gently into the hands of Providence when she told herself: “I’ll just take what comes. I’ll just take what comes.”