Remembrance of the Life of Sister Marian (formerly Sister Marian Joseph) McAvoy SL
Loretto Sister Marian (formerly Sister Marian Joseph) McAvoy died June 30 at Loretto Motherhouse Infirmary in Nerinx, Ky., in the company of many of the Community. Marian would have been 95 on July 15 and was in the 71st year of her Loretto commitment. She lived much of her life in the service of the Loretto Community, including as Loretto’s second President from 1978 to 1986.
Marian McAvoy was baptized Lucille Marie. She loved to tell about her place in the middle of the family, “three older, three younger, three sisters, three brothers.” They were all the children of Bernard Francis McAvoy of Pierce City, Mo., and Edith Katharine Nilges of Jefferson City, Mo. The large and expanding family was the source of endless fun and support; they cherished family reunions. They were bound together by love deep enough to sustain them through the many tragedies, illnesses and deaths that come with a large family.
Little Lucille and the older children were born in Kansas City in Guardian Angel Parish, an urban parish where Sisters from Loretto Academy taught. By the time little Lucille was ready for school, however, her family had moved to southwest Missouri, to Joplin, where Mr. McAvoy took charge of the local Sears Roebuck store. Lucille enrolled in St. Peter’s Parish grade and high school, taught by the Sisters of Mercy. Years later, Marian would say that the Mercys regarded her as “theirs,” expecting her to join Mercy, but she was looking instead to Loretto, the community of her beloved aunt, Sister Louis Marie Kroeger. From high school, Lucille — now known as “Luc,” enrolled first at Joplin Junior College, then transferred to Webster College in St. Louis, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor’s in English and a minor in history.
Luc returned to Joplin and accepted work at St. Peter’s with the Sisters of Mercy — one year as children’s librarian, the next as second grade teacher. On Valentine’s Day 1951, Luc wrote to Reverend Mother Edwarda, “As an English major graduate of Webster College, I should be ashamed to admit this is the most difficult piece of composition I’ve ever attempted. But I hope you understand it is not because it is dreadful to me, only because it is so new to me. I am writing to ask your permission to join the Loretto order in June. This is not a recent decision, but one made when I was a Senior at Webster [two years ago.]
“I visited Webster this past weekend and Sister Carlann, who has been a silent ‘prodder’, assures me that she will be happy to help me get all the necessary things together — if I am accepted, that is. … I am more than eager to hear from you.”
In a later letter Luc wrote, “If I should not be accepted, I shall just have to convince one of my friends that they have a vocation to the Lorettos, so that all Sister Carlann’s efforts and my money won’t be wasted.”
Luc arrived at Loretto on June 8, 1951, and was received — along with Nancy Wittwer, Bea Klebba and Kathleen Vonderhaar — on Dec. 8. As Sister Marian Joseph, she made her first vows on Dec. 8, 1953. She went first to teach at St. Ann Grade School, in Normandy, Mo., for three years, then to Newman High School, Sterling, Ill., for a year. After making her final vows in the summer of 1957, she spent two years each at Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves, Mo., and De Andreis High School in St. Louis. Along the way she earned a master’s degree in English from St. Louis University. Sister Marian Joseph’s final classroom assignment was five years at Elizabethtown Catholic High School. From that small town in Kentucky, Marian moved to another small town, Fairfield, Iowa, where she donned contemporary clothes and simplified her name to Marian. With Ann Spillane and later Mary Catherine Rabbitt, Marian contributed to some of Loretto’s earliest adult education initiatives, creating programming for and with parishioners and lay parish councils in the diocese of Davenport.
The year 1970 found Marian, with all of Loretto, engaged in creating a new form of government to support renewal of Loretto’s community life and enable broad innovations in Loretto mission and work. Sister Helen Sanders, serving as Loretto’s first President, appointed Marian as Director of Loretto Work Development. The need was pressing, for Loretto had just opened the way for sisters to choose their own work and mission. For the next eight years, Marian and her staff created programs and provided individual guidance to facilitate the mission and career decisions of Loretto Sisters. Some may remember the yearlong workshop using the booklet “What Color is My Parachute?”
One of Marian’s most innovative and influential projects was The Third World Project — nearly a dozen Loretto women volunteered to go to third-world nations in the Pacific, Africa, Asia, South and Central America to bring back insights about what was going on beyond the borders of the U.S. Marian planned the project for 1976-77, the time of our nation’s bicentennial. The anniversary ought to enlarge our vision, she said, and be a way to move from national independence to global interdependence.
In 1978, Loretto elected Marian as its second President. She served eight years, to 1986. During that time, Marian presided over some of Loretto’s most significant and controversial days, chief among them the tensions with the Vatican and within our Community over the signing by six Loretto sisters of a New York Times ad, published on Oct. 7, 1984. The ad stated there was “diversity of opinion” within the Church on the subject of abortion. The Vatican, claiming this was defiance of Catholic doctrine, directed Marian to demand retraction from our sisters or dismiss them from the congregation. Marian did not do either. Moreover, she carefully arranged that every member had access to the full story as it unfolded; there would be no wall of secrecy behind which patriarchy could hide.
Early in Marian’s presidency another controversy developed. The Loretto Investment Committee initiated a lawsuit on behalf of coal miners against the Blue Diamond Coal Co. The company resisted and threatened to counter sue for millions of dollars. Marian stood firm with the Investment Committee. Loretto’s suit against Blue Diamond was successful, and the company reluctantly accepted the public scrutiny Loretto had insisted on.
In her final year as president, Marian’s mother and one of her sisters developed cancer and died in the summer of 1987. In the same year her oldest brother also sickened. She wrote to the community that his death in the spring of 1988 “concludes two years of a watch with waning life that has engaged us as a family. During all that time I have been aware of the presence and prayers of my other family, the Loretto Community.”
Also, in 1988 and into 1989, Marian worked with a committee to devise a major evaluation of the “new” government structure. Out of that work came the idea of Community Groups, which Marian shepherded through the first decade, shaping the processes and agendas of these small groups which were designed to be at the very heart of Loretto’s decision-making.
Having lived in Denver for the 16 years of her administrative work, Marian decided to settle nearer her family, in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood. She taught part time and studied part time for several years, focused on international relations and efforts for peace in third-world nations. She traveled to El Salvador and to Beijing. She drew strength and inspiration from the LEN retreats at Santa Cruz, Calif. Above all, Marian spent time with family, planning and celebrating reunions with nieces and nephews and her dear sister Helen. She went to the Atlantic Coast to watch the stars with her close friend, Pam Solo, and son Tommy. As she approached her ninth decade, Marian’s life was full and active, but her eyesight was deteriorating and her hearing failing.
In 2015, Marian reluctantly left Kirkwood for Loretto Motherhouse, only slightly mollified by the light-filled room prepared for her. She struggled with declining vision, sometimes fretful and determined to remain independent. She was an eager passenger in any car headed toward St. Louis and anywhere else her friends and family gathered. In 2017 her youngest sister, Helen, died, and Marian traveled more than once to New England to be with Helen’s children. Near the beginning of the Covid pandemic, Marian moved one last time, to the Motherhouse Infirmary, where she continued to lose weight and eyesight, but never lost her interest in people and in their good works. To the end, Marian’s conversation was bright, and her heart was warm and open.
Marian was buried in Our Lady of Sorrows Cemetery at the Motherhouse. Please keep Marian, her family and all who loved her in your prayers. May she rest in peace.