In memoriam: Karen Kennelly, C.S.J.

Author: Shane Ulbrich

Sister Karen Kennelly

Sister Karen Kennelly, C.S.J., a celebrated scholar, college president, and longtime coordinator of the Conference on the History of Women Religious (CHWR), died on December 15, 2023, in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was 90 years old.

Kennelly was born on August 4, 1933, in Graceville, Minnesota, to Walter and Clara (Eastman) Kennelly. She entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1951 and earned degrees from the College of St. Catherine (B.A., 1956), the Catholic University of America (M.A., 1958), and the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D., 1962). She began her career teaching at the College of St. Catherine, eventually becoming chair of the history department and then academic dean of the college. Starting in 1979, she took up various leadership roles for her religious community and its educational institutions. From 1989 to 2000, she served a distinguished tenure as president of Mount Saint Mary’s College in Los Angeles.

In addition to teaching and administration, Kennelly contributed to scholarship through writing and editing. Her authored works include The Religious Formation Conference, 1954–2004 (Good Ground Press, 2009), and Speaking the Language of Love: Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Japan (Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Congregation Center, 2009). She edited American Catholic Women: A Historical Exploration (Macmillan, 1989) and, with Paula Kane and James Kenneally, Gender Identities in American Catholicism (Orbis, 2001). As part of her work with CHWR, until 2011 she served as editor of History of Women Religious News and Notes (

Group photo of committee members
Program committee members for CHWR 1989. From left: Christine Athans, B.V.M.; Barbara Misner, S.C.S.C.; Mary Oates, C.S.J.; Karen Kennelly, C.S.J.; Rosemary Rader, O.S.B.

“I first met Sister Karen Kennelly in the late 1960s,” said Mary J. Oates, C.S.J., Research Professor Emerita of Economics at Regis College and one of the original organizers of CHWR along with Kennelly. “I recall our many conversations about why scholars, with few exceptions, still gave only passing mention to the critical roles played by women, religious and lay, in the long history of the Church in America. Karen aimed to change that shameful situation. And her perspectives were always broad. Her generous assistance has benefited hundreds of historians and archivists over the past half century.”

In the 2000s, Kennelly served on the Jubilee History Committee of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which sponsored the traveling exhibit “Women and Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America.” The celebrated exhibit toured the United States from 2009 to 2012 and formed the basis for a one-hour documentary of the same name, released in 2011.

As Kennelly retired from coordinating CHWR in the early 2010s, the conference came under the stewardship of the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and its then-director, Kathleen Sprows Cummings. In 2016, the CHWR conferred its Lifetime Achievement Award on Kennelly, citing her more than quarter century of service in support of the study of the history of Catholic women, both religious and lay. Notre Dame will host the thirteenth triennial CHWR in June 2025.

A funeral Mass was celebrated on January 12, 2024, at Our Lady of the Presentation Chapel in St. Paul, followed by burial at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights.

Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial.
Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial. Photo taken by Paul Keleher; Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

“On one of her early visits to Boston, she asked especially to visit the Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester,” Oates recalled. “Its inscription from Psalm 107, ‘They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters,’ will always bring Karen to mind. Thank you, dear friend.”


This memorial appears in the spring 2024 issue of the Cushwa Center’s American Catholic Studies Newsletter.