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Mary Luke Tobin SL

Posted on September 22, 2023, by Loretto Community

A woman of wisdom and insight led by the Gospel, her Community and her conscience to work for justice and act for peace.

Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent.’

Statement treasured by Mary Luke Tobin SL from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vatican II
An older white woman with round glasses and white hair is caught in a candid shot half smiling and looking away from the camera.

Finding challenge and inspiration at Vatican II

by Christina Manweller

A nun in a black habit talking with two Catholic bishops and one cardinal all dressed in red religious gowns.
Mary Luke Tobin SL talks with, clockwise from her left, Bishop Charles Helmsing of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., Bishop Victor Joseph Reed of the Diocese of Oklahoma and Tulsa, Okla., and Cardinal Joseph Elmer Ritter of the St. Louis Archdiocese.
Photo: Loretto Archives

Mary Luke Tobin SL (Loretto’s superior general, 1958 – 1970) was one of 15 women invited to audit Vatican II proceedings in 1964. Though her role was limited, she later said, “I felt responsible for pushing the cause of women forward in the Church as much as I could. Of course, that was not very much, and there were all those who wanted to keep the Church where it was, if not further back.” Three women were invited to take part in sub-commissions. Mary Luke was pleased to participate in the laity commission and a commission on the Church in the modern world. She later wrote that, although the women could not vote, “We were able to speak at the commission meetings so that we could put our influence into the documents, and [we] helped form the final document that was produced.”

She was greatly inspired by insights gained during the Second Vatican Council, including a council statement that she recited throughout her life: “Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent.” As she put it more than 50 years later, “Now that’s a message to my Church and me, and I’ve been dedicated to that ever since then in every way I can do it, within my own Community and in others.” At the council, Mary Luke met key figures, including theologian Karl Rahner SJ whom she called her great mentor, and who, along with her close friend Thomas Merton OCSO, would prove an influence on her spirituality for the rest of her life.

Merton, for his part, referred to Mary Luke in his 1966 Christmas circular as “our Council Observer and our pride and joy. In a journal entry on Sept. 26, 1964, he had written, “Mother Luke (as I rather expected) is one of the women observers at the Council — the only American. Wonderful! … I can hardly think of a better person for this.”

Mary Luke and Merton felt keenly the urgency to address the “social evils,” as she called them, of war and racism. She referred to their friendship as prophetic. Each was a prophet in their own right.

Mary Luke’s commitment to peace and to justice for all lives on in the Loretto Community and in the world.

When a young Mary Luke Tobin stepped toward leadership

by Mary Catherine Rabbitt SL

Black and white photo of a nun with round glasses in a habit.
Sister Mary Luke Tobin.
Photo courtesy of Loretto Archives

Sister Mary Luke Tobin SL (formerly known as Mother Mary Luke Tobin, later known as Luke) was the superior general of the Sisters of Loretto from 1958 to 1970, years that marked great changes in Loretto. Much has been written about her leadership during those years and thereafter, but I was especially interested in learning about what had preceded those years in elected leadership. In mid January 2023, I spent time in the Loretto Archives and was able to read the unpublished manuscript about Luke’s life by Cecily Jones SL. In a chapter entitled, ”The Road to Loretto Leadership,” Cecily details the years 1946-1952, when Luke moved from leadership in various Loretto schools (as teacher, principal and local superior) into formal elected leadership within the Sisters of Loretto.

Luke was a delegate to Loretto’s 1946 general chapter. Prior to that gathering, Mother Edwarda Ashe SL then mother superior, asked Luke to research possible ways to divide the congregation into provinces. Luke met with the leadership of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chicago to learn of their experience with provinces, which she reported to the mother superior and her council. As Cecily noted, it was clear that Mother Edwarda saw in Luke great potential; she also asked her to look into the practice of individual sisters having access to money they received through gifts. This practice, commonly known as the “envelope system,” involved the local superior holding funds for an individual sister who, with permission, could use these funds for her personal use. Luke felt strongly that this practice was not in keeping with the vow of poverty.

It was during the 1946 chapter meeting that Luke met Rose Maureen Sanders SL (later known as Helen Sanders SL), who was also a delegate. As Cecily remarked in her unfinished biography of Luke, “The two women would become friends and collaborators in significant developments in the history of the Loretto Community.” Their chief recommendation to the chapter was that “all small money gifts received by a sister become part of the common fund,” effectively doing away with the envelope system. Cecily went on to remark that “from citations in the minutes, Luke’s participation in the 1946 chapter might seem rather minimal.” Yet, those two contributions concerning provinces and poverty marked the beginning of Luke’s rise to elected leadership in Loretto. It was clear that Mother Edwarda saw something in this young religious that she wished to nurture and encourage.

At the general chapter in 1952, Luke was again a delegate; she urged the delegates to affirm “that the young sisters earn their bachelor of arts before they begin teaching.” A motion to that effect followed, which was adopted by the general chapter. During that same chapter, Luke was elected to serve on the general council — the beginning of nearly 20 remarkable years in which she served the Loretto Community. As Cecily remarked, “She would set out on a road that would change her life and greatly influence the life of the Loretto Community.” Indeed, she did, for which we are all grateful.

Author’s note: My thanks to the staff of the Loretto Archives for permitting me to review Cecily Jones SL’s unpublished account of the life of Mary Luke Tobin. Many of the details in this article come from the chapter “The Road to Leadership: 1946-1952.”

Mary Catherine Rabbitt SL is a former president of Loretto (2001- 2006) and currently serves on the Executive Committee

An older woman with glasses and white hair photographed smiling wearing a pink blazer. She is standing in front of lush pine tree branches.

It’s a tough world out there. If every act of ours comes from that center where God and I are at one, then life is going to be as it should, and we are going to walk on a good way. Not that we won’t make mistakes, but even so, it calls us ever forward on this path that Jesus has so well shown to us.

Mary Luke Tobin SL

Mary Luke on women’s dignity

A black and white photo of a middle aged nun in a habit speaking using her hands.
Photo here and above courtesy of Loretto Archives

‘We need to believe and therefore to hope that eventually the status of women will reach full equality. I feel heartened by every gain that has been made, by every initiative taken by women, by even a small glimpse of progress in the fields of politics, work, economics, religion, autonomy, advocacy.’

On care for Earth

‘The Church should be among those most eager to promote the good of the planet and the good of the earth, because of the gift that it is — for thousands of reasons.’

Two women in patterned dresses walking together on a paved path in between green grass, trees and shrubs.
Widely respected leaders of the Loretto Community, Helen Sanders SL, left, and Mary Luke Tobin SL, enjoyed conversation on many topics, including theology. Helen led the congregation from 1970 to 1978, following Mary Luke’s term (1958-1970).
Photo: Cathy Mueller SL, Loretto president 2007-2012 and current member of the Executive Committee.

On the Church’s future

‘I trust that Catholic spirituality of the future will always be characterized by openness — to appreciation for all of creation, to ecumenical influences, to Eastern thought, to feminist insights, to the call of the poor, to the mysticism in our tradition. I cherish the dream of a faithful openness to the Spirit in our spirituality.’

On living boldly

‘Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.’

To read all the articles in the Fall 2023 issue of Loretto Magazine, click here.


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