Remembering Sister Mary Christine Athans, BVM

I recently learned of the death of one of my seminary professors, Sister Mary Christine Athans. As a teenager, I admired her from afar at my Catholic parish in Arizona.  After many years, I returned to school to study theology, and there she was again, a dynamic professor of church history at — get this long title she used to say — “the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota.”

When Sister Christine retired as a full time professor at the seminary, I was asked to give a talk at her retirement celebration.  She was a pioneering and professional religious woman, and lived through many interesting times in the Catholic church.  Below is a copy of the talk I gave on that occasion.

Ode to Sr. Christine Athans, BVM, by Julie McCarty
May 5, 2002

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Sr. Christine’s new book about the history of this seminary. [To Work for the Whole People: John Ireland’s Seminary in Saint Paul] In reading the opening chapters, I was struck with how pioneering the early Catholics of this diocese were. Out of their dedication to the Catholic tradition, the church leaders were willing to venture into the unknown and endure the harsh asceticism of Minnesota weather, “to boldly go where no man—or woman–has gone before” (well, at least no Catholic).

When I look at Christine, I see a Catholic pioneer.

Pioneers must be creative, because things do not always go the way you plan. When I asked a number of students (both seminarians and commuter students) what they would remember about Sr. Christine, one thing they named was her creativity. They recalled she would do whatever it took to interest them in church history, even if it meant singing songs or shelling out reams of time lines. This led to the discovery that learning and fun are not mutually exclusive.

Pioneers need to build on the past but move into the future. Explorers use their past experiences in new ways when encountering new situations. Christine made sure students learned not only the European roots of church history, but also the history and spirituality of the church in America. One student mentioned his appreciation of Christine’s truthfulness in teaching not only the “good news” but also the “bad news” of church history. Recognizing the human side of the institution is necessary for one committing to a lifetime of church service.

Pioneers also need courage and perseverance “to boldly go where no woman has gone before.” Christine has done a lot of things earlier generations of Catholic women might have enjoyed if given the opportunity, like earn a doctorate or teach seminarians.

When I first met Christine, it was over twenty-five years ago, in my home parish of St. Francis Xavier in Phoenix, Arizona. It was the roaring 70’s and I was a teenager, thrilled with the exciting new things that were happening in the church. I remember the admiration I felt for the BVM[1] sisters in my parish. The BVM’s nurtured my faith with their hospitable ways. I saw them as friendly, devout, and intelligent women serving the Church with gusto.

I will never forget the surprise I felt, when, as a teenager, I opened the parish bulletin and read about this new organization called “The North Phoenix Corporate Ministry.” This was a consortium of five Protestant congregations, two synagogues, and my own Catholic parish, in what was the very beginning of the ecumenical movement in Phoenix. This bulletin insert had photos of five ministers and two rabbis—all men, of course—who were on the Corporate Ministry board ….  and when I looked for my parish priest—OOPS! What was this?—There was Sister Christine, not only on the board, but serving as the full-time executive director.    (It was sort of like the icons you see of the Upper Room at Pentecost: a bunch of male apostles with one fairly important woman, Mary.) You have to remember, back then, my only understanding was that sisters were teachers or nurses: there certainly weren’t any sisters working as leaders at the diocese offices! Christine’s professionalism convinced me that a woman’s place wasn’t only in the home, but also in church ministry.

So much did this impress me, that one Sunday, after Mass, I approached Sr. Christine with a question. Here I was, this little 15 year-old—keep in mind that it was the seventies and all sorts of things were being discussed–and I asked her, “Do you think women will ever be priests?” I can’t remember her exact answer because she replied like the typical theologian: with neither a simple yes or no. Hers was a rather long, careful response. I do recall that she was very graceful, tactful and honest about the whole thing, neither overly optimistic nor bitter.

Finally, pioneers need enthusiasm, or they will not survive the journey. The overwhelming response I got from students when they were asked about Christine related to her enthusiasm, her high energy for education, her friendliness, what one student called her “joyful presence”… I once heard that “joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” It is this “joyful presence,” this enthusiasm, that this community will miss the most.

However, I know that others will benefit from Christine’s enthusiasm for doing God’s work. You see, I’ve noticed that professed sisters never retire, they just shift their priorities a bit, continue the Lord’s work, radiating that “joyful presence” that has its source in God.

Christine, on behalf of all your students—and there were hundreds of us–I wish to thank you, for your pioneering strength and beauty, for the many gifts you have given us, and for your joyful presence. May God bless you. Shalom.


[1] Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary


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