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Sister Marilyn Kofler: Breaking boundaries through education and gentle influence

Sister Marilyn Kofler, SP, loves people, learning and working for social justice. Overarching it all is a deep love for her ever-present God.

Sister Marilyn Kofler in 1966, graduating with her bachelor’s degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Sister Marilyn was born in 1934 in Chicago. Both her parents emigrated to the United States from Austria as young adults. A young Marilyn was quick to pick up on injustice in their household.

As the middle child of the couple’s five children, Sister Marilyn remembers asking her mother one day after dinner, “How come I always have to give in to Helen and Betty? And my mother said, ‘Because they are older.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ Then I said, ‘Mom, how come I always have to give in to Lorry and John? My mom said, ‘Because they’re younger.’ And I said, ‘Oh, this is not good.’ But I think that may have been the kernel of my work for justice, because justice has always been an important part of who I am.”

Sister Marilyn today posing near one of her favorite places at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, in front of the tabernacle in the Church.

God’s call

Sister Marilyn entered the Sisters of Providence within a year of completing high school in 1953. Despite some struggles, she said deep down she had known since second grade that she would be a sister.

“I wanted to be a priest, but I knew I would be a sister,” she said. Priesthood for women was not an option. “You didn’t even talk about it,” she said.

Sister Marilyn recalls playing Mass in the backyard with her sister. She would always be the priest, handing out the Wonder Bread “communion.”

Seeds of influence

“I was very conscious of being a woman in the church. Right after Vatican II one of the things that was beginning to happen was there was a ‘token woman’ invited to be on committees that were mostly men. Because of my position in the Archdiocesan Schools Religious Education office, I frequently was the token woman,” she explains.

Her place in the Catholic Church: Sister Marilyn at Mass, one of her most beloved forms of prayer. Despite a call to priesthood, a dedicated lifetime of service in the Church and having earned a doctorate in ministry, Sister Marilyn remains in the pews due to her gender.

How did Sister Marilyn make a difference in her long career sometimes as “the token woman?” It was through relationships, she said. As a person who loves people, she had no problem making friends with the people in charge, often a priest. Then, when they had built trust for each other, she had the opportunity to plant seeds. Her path to influence was often indirect, but real nonetheless.

In her career spanning decades as a teacher, principal, archdiocesan consultant, mission development director and executive assistant, perhaps one of Sister Marilyn’s most unique roles was that of Associate Pastor at Church of the Holy Spirit in Schaumburg, Illinois, from 1979-1992.

That’s not a title commonly held by women in the Catholic Church. Sister Marilyn came to the role through her friendship with Father George Kane, the pastor at Church of the Holy Spirit.

“Father George invited me to do everything the priest would do, except say Mass, of course.”

Sister Marilyn served as director of liturgy for the parish. She even took turns preaching the homily at Sunday Mass. She stayed in the ministry until it came time to finish her doctoral degree.

Power of education

As a life-long learner, Sister Marilyn has used her vast education to be in the right places to plant ideas and influence the church. She has a master’s degree in educational administration, a master’s in pastoral theology and a doctorate in ministry.

Today, at almost 90 years old, she says, “I love to learn … and I try to share what I know. I’m never done learning.”

She sees Sisters of Providence breaking boundaries by advocating for and educating women. She credits early sisters in leadership for valuing higher education for the sisters themselves.

“When you educate a minority, you’re going to have a revolution. And I think that breaks boundaries because education opens one up to all kinds of new experiences, new people, new geography.”

Spirit-led risks

Sister Editha Ben gives communion to Sister Marilyn Kofler during weekday Mass at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Sister Marilyn is thankful for her life as a Sister of Providence. “So many people to love came into my life. The students, the sisters, the people I met. So many loving people who loved me back.”

These days Sister Marilyn continues to make a difference through social justice ministry within her local community in Chicago and with the Sisters of Providence. She works toward comprehensive immigration reform, toward confronting climate change and with local social justice advocacy.

Sister Marilyn is preparing to leave her home of 32 years in Chicago to “retire” to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in April.

“I think openness of mind and heart and willingness to take risks are key to the Sisters of Providence’s future,” she say. “But, not just to take any risks, but to take risks while being led by the Spirit.”

Originally published in the Winter 2024 issue of HOPE magazine.

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Amy Miranda

Amy Miranda

Amy Miranda is a Providence Associate of the Sisters of Providence and a staff member in their Advancement Services office. Amy is a 1998 graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She currently manages the SP publication HOPE and works on marketing support for Providence Associates, new membership and Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar Joni Luna on January 18, 2024 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful witness to the Kingdom of God.
    You like so many Sisters of Providence inspire me to live a life of selfless giving.
    Thank you for your witness, your inspiration and your life committed to the mission and
    legacy of Saint Mother Theodore and of Jesus.
    I am looking forward to seeing you around the Woods and getting to know and learn from your wisdom.

    In Providence,

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