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Mount Mary University (MMU), a School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) sponsored ministry has been in the news for many months due to the new intergenerational facility, Trinity Woods, being built on their campus in Milwaukee. The history of MMU and SSND has been intertwined long before this new development at the University. MMU has its roots in St. Mary’s Institute, which was founded by Mother Caroline in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1872. A college wing was added in 1913 and the Institute was changed to St. Mary’s Academy and College. In 1929, the College moved to Milwaukee and changed its name to Mount Mary College while St. Mary’s Academy remained in Prairie du Chien. In 2013, Mount Mary College was renamed Mount Mary University. Now, in 2020, Mount Mary University is ranked among the best regional universities in the Midwest by the U.S. News and World Best Colleges Report.”

Sister Joan Penzenstadler teaches a course on Blessed Theresa at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee. Sister Joan Penzenstadler, SSND, Vice President for Mission and Identity, initially came to MMU to be on the theology faculty. Her current role was developed in 2004, during a time when fewer sisters were teaching, in order to continue the SSND mission. She says, “The mission was in the DNA of this place and people just took for granted because the sisters always carried it. When I came in 1981, there were 61 sisters here.” She now facilitates an appreciation of the mission in more intentional ways through orientations for all the new employees and presentations about the history and spirit of MMU at the Leadership for Social Justice Seminar classes. Every first-year student is required to take the course because she believes, “It lays out the mission of Mount Mary and we wanted our students to start with that mission in mind.”

According to Sister Joan, Mother Caroline opened the first St. Mary’s Institute in 1851, 20 years before the one in Prairie du Chien, she envisioned it to be, “an institute for young women who would be leaders in their families and, thus, would help transform society. There were no women’s institute like this west of the Allegheny Mountains. Mother Caroline started the first one.” It’s a powerful history. Even with time and societal changes, MMU still strives to be a pioneer and educates their students to become the ones who will transform society.

MMU and SSND recognize the importance of diversity in the struggle for unity in everything they do. Currently, MMU has roughly 60% women of ethnicity in their undergraduate program. They are honored to serve a large and diverse demographic. Sister Comfort Anum is from the School Sisters of Notre Dame Province of Africa and is attending graduate school at MMU. She says of her experience, “When I live in community with people, like at Mount Mary, I try to learn from them and also share my own culture. I am not afraid to share who I am…I like to share my piece, like in the classroom when we talk about American context, I try to bring the other side, my African context. It’s not to compare, but to show it's the same thing, done differently.”

Diversity in other forms, such as financial demographics or age, are also addressed by MMU by providing support through grants, meal vouchers and housing. Trinity Woods, also aims to support students, by providing housing and child care options for single mothers who attend MMU.

The president of MMU, Dr. Christine Pharr, acknowledges the deep history with SSND, “I believe that Mother Theresa and Mother Caroline are there and are supporting us. They believed in what we’re doing and I want to make sure we continue the charism they began.” She cites the charism as the foundation of the university’s values and attributes it to their success in helping students. She says, “Every student is treated with the utmost respect and value. I think this makes people accomplish things that they couldn’t have done otherwise. We like to provide support services that surround the students, so that the only real thing we are trying to help them deal with is getting an education.” Dr. Jason Meyler, an assistant professor and Chair of World Languages at MMU, agrees “The School Sisters of Notre Dame have informed the last few years of my life, living my vocation and my passion to address issues of social justice worldwide.”

Read about the growth and high rates of diversity in 2021 at MMU.


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