Getting to Know Florence Wolff
By Katie Santa Ana
Flipping through the paper finding aids of the Sisters of Loretto archives, one name appears at the top of each page more often than not: Sister Florence Wolff. Her carefully typed pages served as the guide to the individual boxes and file folders that make up the archival collection here at the Loretto Heritage Center since the 1970s, when she first became archivist. When I started working here as archivist in 2017, her decades of labor proved indispensable for me to get to know the collection. Reading through her personnel file here in the Loretto Heritage Center, her life and career during the major transitions of the Catholic Church in the mid 20th century give a uniquely personal insight into that tremendous time of change.
Born Bernice Louise Wolff on January 31, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the only child of George and Louise Wolff. After graduating from Loretto Academy on Lafayette Avenue in St. Louis in 1927, she was ready to join the Sisters of Loretto, but due to her youth was advised to wait and attend college first. After receiving her undergraduate degree in mathematics at Webster College (now University) in 1931, she got a job at The Queen’s Work, a Catholic magazine created by the Jesuits of the Missouri Province. While working for the magazine, she attended St. Louis University part time, receiving her Masters in History in 1936, and got to know the then editor Daniel A. Lord SJ. It was he who observed, “I don’t think you are very happy, why don’t you burn the bridges?” and encouraged Bernice to reconsider entering the Sisters of Loretto.
She did reconsider and entered the order in June of 1936, taking the name she is most well known by: Mary Florence. Florence was a somewhat unusual novice, as she came already equipped with not only an undergraduate, but a graduate degree as well. As she put it when describing her experience of the novitiate in a 1993 interview with Patricia Jean Manion: “They really didn’t know what to do with me.” However, Florence found meaningful work helping Mother Francisca Engels organize Loretto Junior College and Sister Antonella Hardy in the archives.
Following novitiate, Florence taught at Toolen High School in Mobile, Alabama and Loretto Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1939, she began her lengthy career in Denver at Loretto Heights College, first teaching history and mathematics before becoming registrar in 1943, dean of studies in 1946, and assistant to the president in 1951. The year of 1952 was a major transition not only for Florence, but also for the entire order. Florence was elected as a delegate to the General Chapter in 1952 that decided to divide the order into provinces. This significant structural change for the Congregation lasted until 1970. To Florence’s surprise, the Chapter elected her second Assistant General under Mother Felicitas Quinlivan.
At this time, Florence also became heavily involved in the education and preparation of women religious through her work with the National Sister Formation Conference and with the Sisters of Loretto own formation program. During these projects, she became close to Sister Mary Luke Tobin, who became president of the congregation in 1958. Education was a passion for Florence; she once stated “At the time when they talked about the education of nuns, my greatest ambition was to see that they were educated solidly in a college education.” When remembering Florence after her death in 1998, Mary Luke Tobin elaborated:
“What she did for educational planning in the order should be recognized. She saw to it that advanced degrees followed bachelor degrees for nearly everyone. I see her as a woman of vision, competence, intellectual achievements, and a concern for persons and their growth. Nearly every sister who pursued graduate studies between 1952 and 1970 has a Sister Florence story because Sr. Florence was probably instrumental in recommending the university and the field of study.”
Florence took this love of training and educating with her when she was appointed Superior of Loretto House of Studies in St. Louis in 1958. In her short autobiography in her personnel file, she describes her two years there as a very happy time, explaining “I loved the young sisters and I loved Loretto, so I found it a humbling but rewarding work to try to bring them closer together.” During her tenure, she also oversaw the construction of the first wing of the St. Louis House of Studies, later the St. Louis Center. It was painful for her to leave this position in 1960 to become the Executive Secretary of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women, an organization now know as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). However, Florence recognized the importance of the fledgling Conference, and began her role with no more than a mailing list to guide her and the assurance from Cardinal Valerio Valeri that “The Holy Spirit will inspire you.” Florence held this position until 1963, when the office moved to Washington DC and she opted to resign in order to stay closer to her community.
That same year, Florence supervised construction of the Loretto Education Center in Denver for the training of new sisters, which became the Denver Loretto Center. The following year in 1964, Florence was appointed the Provincial Superior of the Denver Province, a role she had seen created years before at the 1952 General Chapter meeting. Of her time as Provincial Superior, Florence writes:
“The 1964-70 period was a critical time in American religious life and as provincial I was in the mainstream of its sorrows and joys. During that period many sisters left religious life and schools were closed…In retrospect it seems like ‘a time for tearing down,’ and yet in faith I am sure it was the dying of the seed which will someday blossom into what God wants it all to be.”
After completing her term as Provincial Superior, provinces became obsolete in 1970 following the adoption of a new government structure for the Sisters of Loretto. Florence worked as Personnel Director at the Education Office of the Archdiocese of Denver, then, at the request of then Loretto president Helen Sanders, organized the Rhodes Tutoring Center at the Loretto Education Center. In 1974, Helen Sanders again tapped Florence for yet another job: that of Congregational Archivist, based at Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky. Arriving in September of 1974, Florence turned her attention to her next monumental task: reorganizing the archives using the latest theories of provenance. Due to her experience living and working through many of the major recent changes in the Church, she was uniquely suited to organize the presidential papers of Mary Luke Tobin, Helen Sanders, and many others. In 1986, Florence stepped down from the role of Archivist to Assistant Archivist, with Sister Aurelia Ottersbach stepping into the lead position.
In the later years of her life, many remember Florence as an active force in the work on “I Am the Way,” the constitutions of the Sisters of Loretto that was ultimately confirmed by the Vatican in 1997. Florence died on March 19, 1998, but left behind her legacy with every box of archival material she organized, in the St. Louis House of Studies and the Denver Loretto Center she saw built, in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious she helped get off the ground, and finally, in the many Sisters lives she touched through her passion to see them all educated.