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Remembrance of the Life of Sister Mary Genevieve Cavanaugh SL

Posted on August 9, 2019, by Eleanor Craig SL

Sister Mary Genevieve Cavanaugh SL
Oct. 24, 1920 – Aug. 9, 2019

Jeanne Frances Cavanaugh was born 99 years ago, in Kansas City, Mo., to Frank Edward Cavanaugh of Kansas City and Mary Frances Mullen Cavanaugh of Salina, Kan. Jeanne was the only child of her parents and entirely a child of Loretto. In a brief autobiography she wrote for her 75th Jubilee she sketched her childhood thus: “In 1926 I entered primer at Loretto Academy in Kansas City, Mo., my hometown. The world opened up to me as I learned the interesting and dull materials that made up grade school years. High school brought more practical and grown-up subjects. Time to graduate? How could that be? I was just getting the hang of things: the why for all these topics, languages and skills, in areas that would be useful in further studies. June of 1938 I graduated from years spent in a study of piano, drama, debates, math and literature. All these activities—really for what?”

To answer that question, Jeanne wrote the following to Reverend Mother Olivette at Loretto: “After having spent 12 happy years at Loretto, I was graduated here yesterday. For several years I have had a desire to enter the Loretto Order. Now I am asking permission to enter the October class if nothing unforeseen comes up. My mother and father have given their consent to my leaving, although I am the only child.” Her autobiography continues, “October of 1938 saw my father and me headed for Kentucky after the struggle of leaving my mother and grandmother at home.”

Jeanne received the habit and the name Sister Mary Genevieve on April 25, 1939. This past April was the 80th anniversary of her commitment as a Sister of Loretto.

At the beginning of Genevieve’s novitiate, she had had 10 years of training on the piano. As was typical for Sisters of her generation, Genevieve spent more than a dozen summers earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, with a final year off for full-time study. She earned a bachelor’s in music theory from Webster College in 1952 and a master’s degree in music theory from DePaul University in 1965.

With constant musical training, it was natural that Genevieve’s classroom assignments were as a music teacher. For 35 years she contributed to the music appreciation and skills of hundreds of students and, not incidentally, contributed significantly to the cash flow of the convents where she lived in Louisville, Ky., St. Louis, Freeport and El Paso, Texas, and Denver.

Genevieve’s autobiographical summary of her teaching years is brief but enthusiastic: “A first career in music included choral work, piano, organ and guitar. There were many successful recitals, performances and challenges. The height of my happy endeavors was at St. Vincent de Paul [in Denver] with many mixed and boy choirs. My students sang at many events in the public arena and in ecumenical situations.

“[In] 1976, I … experienced many personal and professional changes. … I lived with Sisters Ann Elizabeth Dougherty and Mary Judith Brown at St. Philomena Parish, Denver. … As many school and parish changes occurred, so did our community lifestyle. Moving to a smaller group proved advantageous for me in many respects as I had more time and freedom to pursue other activities dear to my heart: researching, reading and studying. My inherent nature desires quiet solitude and the pursuit of the intellectual. I felt freer to be involved in ministries other than teaching.

“ … Living a faith community demanded daily triumphs and failures to meet all expectations. Living in a small community was my manner of participation in the larger community, the Church. Tensions, inevitable in any human group, were resolved by humor, discussions and openness. Living in close quarters demanded much faith, patience and prayer, without which nothing is possible.

“Mission for me meant spending my time and energies serving my neighbors who were junior high students. My goal focused on their needs and sufferings. … At St. Philomena School, gradual steps led to full-time involvement in the junior high school departmental system. My responsibilities of home-rooming, teaching American Literature, English and religious studies whetted my appetite for more learning advancement and experiences.

“In 1978 I earned a master’s of religious education with a major in religion at St. Thomas University in Houston. This led to my participation in local parishes, teaching catechism and tutoring. I became involved in adult study groups, personal growth groups, scripture classes and volunteer work.

“An invitation to work with the aging by the Denver Archdiocesan Housing Committee Inc. led me [after 43 years in the classroom] to my second career. In 1984, I became administrator at St. Anthony Manor in Casper, Wyo., a HUD-subsidized apartment complex for 68 low-income senior citizens. … The first years in Wyoming [were] stepping stones for more experiences in the ministry to the aging, which I [was] happy doing.”

Genevieve and her good friend Mary Judith Brown were co-administrators at St. Anthony’s for 11 years. In 1995, Genevieve retired, continuing her ministry to the elderly as a volunteer for another half dozen years. She continued to live with Judith in Casper, Wyo., until 2010 when the two moved to Loretto Motherhouse, taking up residence on the Infirmary third floor.

Genevieve loved the intellectual life. For several years the table at which she and Judith sat in the Motherhouse dining room was renown for brilliant and witty conversation and rollicking humor. She kept up to date with contemporary energy issues such as “fracking,” in part because these issues touched her personally: A pipeline company wanted to buy her family farm in Kansas, but she and her family were against it, so the sale did not happen.

Genevieve and Judith shared an affection for all things Snoopy; an original Charles Schultz cartoon graced Judith’s bedroom wall and, upon her death, was transferred to Genevieve’s room. Even Judith’s death in 2015 didn’t still Genevieve’s curiosity. To the end she was an avid reader with a wide range of interests from theology to astronomy. A brief stop in her bedroom revealed a stunning array of books and topics. When Genevieve was recently given a 1941 photo of herself as a young professed Sister, she became pensive. It was easy to imagine this thoroughly Loretto girl quietly thinking through her very full life, seeing new patterns, enlarging her understanding with gratitude and satisfaction.


Eleanor Craig SL

Eleanor has been a Sister of Loretto since 1963 and an educator since birth. She graduated from two of Loretto's best known St. Louis institutions, Nerinx Hall High School in 1960, and Webster University in 1967. She taught mathematics at Loretto in Kansas City, where her personal passion for adventure history inspired her to develop and lead treks along the historic Oregon Trail. From 1998 to 2010 she created an award-winning program of outdoor adventure along the Western trails for teens who are visually impaired. Eleanor claims to have conducted more wagon trains to the West than the Mountain Men! From 2012 to 2021, Eleanor led a talented staff of archivists and preservationists at the Loretto Heritage Center on the grounds of the Motherhouse. Now retired, she still serves in the Heritage Center as Loretto Community Historian.

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Learn more or plan a visit to the Motherhouse!