Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F.: Golden is her fame—a reflection on 50 years of undergraduate women at Notre Dame

Author: Marianne Murphy Zarzana

Sr Jean Lenz

On a steamy July afternoon 39 years ago in Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F., gave the homily at our wedding. She preached eloquently—and humorously—about “the mystery of love.” Three priest friends concelebrated our wedding—Monsignor Jack Egan, Father Don McNeill, C.S.C, and Father André Léveillé, C.S.C. So why did Jim Zarzana and I ask Sister Jean to be our homilist?

Fast forward to May 2022. While on campus shooting footage in front of Farley Hall for a documentary I’m creating about Sister Jean, Jon O’Sullivan, PentaVision Communications president, told me that his company films all the priests’ funerals at Sacred Heart. Sister Jean’s memorial service at the Basilica was the only time they’d been asked to film a nun’s service, O’Sullivan said. As a Notre Dame undergrad, he had not known Sister Jean, but he noted, “She obviously meant a great deal to many people. And Notre Dame knew that.” 

After Sister Jean’s death on January 21, 2012, I was grateful to be able to fly from Minnesota to Chicago to attend her funeral at the Franciscan motherhouse in Joliet. I was one of many Notre Dame graduates, staff, administrators, and friends to gather there with her Franciscan sisters. I was also grateful to view the livestream of her Basilica sendoff with President Emeritus Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., presiding and giving the homily. I imagine countless others around the globe were virtually present to honor Sister Jean’s passing.

On June 2, 2022, at the daylong event, “Golden Is Thy Fame: Celebrating 50 Years of  Undergraduate Women” at Notre Dame, activities included “Yoga in the Stadium,” “Who Are We? Iconic Women Artists in the Collection,” “Imaginative Prayer,” “A Conversation with Trailblazer and Leader Judge Ann Claire Williams (Ret.) JD ’75,” and Mass in celebration of the 50th anniversary. I also presented a session, “Change Agent: The Sister Jean Story—A Documentary-in-progress.” In the hall outside my room, the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore sold copies of Sister Jean’s book, Loyal Sons & Daughters: A Notre Dame Memoir. I debuted my film’s promotional trailer to a standing-room-only crowd in the new McKenna Hall, the University’s conference center.

In her memoir, Sister Jean writes that when Notre Dame pivoted to welcome female undergraduates in 1972, she received a letter “to invite [her] to come to campus and talk about the possibility of doing pastoral ministry as rector of a residence hall for some of the first women admitted to Notre Dame.” She was on the University’s radar because she had earned a master’s degree in theology at Notre Dame in 1967 after finishing a master’s degree in journalism at Marquette University in 1965. Lenz reflects, “I was happy at [the College of] St. Francis. I liked the students, the staff, and teaching classes. The more I thought of the Notre Dame invitation, the more I realized that I would never respond to an advertisement for the position of rector of a women’s residence hall.” Sister Jean continues:

Sister John Miriam Jones, a Sister of Charity, hired as the assistant to the provost at ND in 1972, also wrote encouraging me to come. We had met in Lewis Hall while she was completing her doctoral studies in biology. Since this invitation involved a possible ministry outside of our Franciscan community commitments, I talked at some length with my general superior, Sister Francine Zeller. She urged me to “write it out”; to list my reasons for staying at St. Francis or going to Notre Dame. We would pray about it and talk some more. She encouraged me to make a trip to South Bend.

When Sister Jean listed the pros and cons, she came up with “thirteen reasons for staying at St. Francis and two for going to Notre Dame. The two reasons were heavyweights. I was strongly committed to Catholic higher education and its mission. I also admired the university for its decision to admit women after 125 years as an all-male institution.” 

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Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F., circa early 1970s. Courtesy of University of Notre Dame Archives.

Of course, Sister Jean and many other women students had earned degrees at Notre Dame for decades, and women leaders had played a crucial role at Notre Dame since its founding.

Elizabeth Hogan, senior archivist for graphic materials in the University of Notre Dame Archives, reflects on women students at Notre Dame in “The Ones Who Came Before” in the summer 2022 issue of Notre Dame Magazine. “Overall,” Hogan writes, “between 1917 and August 1971, Notre Dame conferred 342 bachelor’s degrees, 4,128 master’s degrees, 184 doctoral degrees and two law degrees on women.” Most of these women were religious sisters, not laywomen. She notes that, in 1961, Notre Dame: A Magazine “declared that ‘the University salutes these “Coeds of the Cloth,” and welcomes them to the Notre Dame family.’”

In an article titled “The Women of Past Presence,” in the winter 2021–22 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, Cushwa Center director Kathleen Sprows Cummings brings to light the significant and “largely unknown” story of Holy Cross sisters’ contributions to Notre Dame from its beginning. The University’s founder, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., wrote a letter to Rev. Basil Moreau, C.S.C., on December 5, 1842, soon after he arrived in northern Indiana about establishing “a college at the earliest convenience . . . It will be one of the most powerful means for good in this country.” He also wrote that “once the Sisters come—whose presence is so much desired here—they must be prepared not merely for domestic work, but also for teaching; and perhaps, too, the establishment of an academy.” Cummings writes that “Within a year, four Holy Cross sisters did arrive from France.” And others followed them across the ocean, all desperately needed by Sorin as he worked hard to achieve his vision of a great Catholic university. 

As Sister Jean struggled with her decision, she began to lean toward a willingness to support the University’s move to coeducation, thus joining this long line of women from Notre Dame’s past who have made Sorin’s dream possible. “However, the residence hall position remained a big question mark,” she writes, maybe even a dealbreaker. “I did a double take when I discovered that there were infamous rules in place but no job description. It all, no doubt, came naturally to Holy Cross rectors who served for decades and passed such ministry on to the next generation through oral tradition.” 

With these fears looming, Sister Jean had concerns. “What if I can’t do what you’re asking? What if I get to Christmastime and realize this isn’t going to work?” she asked. Sister Jean was promised she could “leave and we’ll find someone else to carry on.” That did the trick. “The mere thought of a ‘bailout hatch’ gave me the final bit of courage I needed to accept the invitation,” writes Sister Jean. “Dr. Frank Kerins, president of the College of St. Francis where I was teaching theology, granted me a one-year leave of absence to offer a hand at Notre Dame as undergraduate women came to campus.” 

After saying a bold “yes” even with all the daunting unknowns of the journey ahead, Lenz embraced her Notre Dame path and served there for 36 years—as an adjunct instructor in the theology department (intermittently), the rector of Farley Hall for ten years (1973–83), the rector and chaplain for the University’s London Undergraduate Program for a year (1983–84), and as assistant vice president for student affairs for 25 years (1984–2009).

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Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F., posed in front of Farley Hall, 1989. Original photo by Catherine Cook. Courtesy of University of Notre Dame Archives.

As the rector of Farley Hall, Sister Jean writes, “I began to court a deep hunch in my heart that someone had laid a great inheritance of ministry at my feet. It seemed to be passed on by much storytelling from one generation of graduates to the next: from fathers to sons and grandsons to great-grandsons. Now daughters would begin to add their heritage.” 

And so those daughters did paint in bold new strokes at Notre Dame. “Farley Hall was never in want for drama,” Lenz writes. “It is in the area of relationships that Notre Dame students ‘grow up and deep’ at dizzying rates. Eighty-five percent of my rectoring time was spent talking to students about roommate problems, romances, and friendship . . . I viewed this role as a front-row seat at an award-winning Broadway drama.”

At times, the drama turned to tragedy. Sister Jean writes:

One day a call from home brought news to Therese D’Angelo . . . that her father, a man in his forties, had died of a heart attack. The shocked young woman packed quickly and flew home . . . A second call came late in the evening. It was from the grieving resident to her roommates. That very morning, she told them, she had received two letters from her dad, which he had written, as he always did, while he was on a business trip. She had read them, welcomed his words, and then threw the letters away. She begged her friends to try and retrieve them. Somehow they did . . . wearing boots, carrying flashlights, and digging their way through all the day’s trash in the giant garbage bin behind Farley Hall, not giving up until the letters were recovered. I distinctly remember an RA remarking, “I think everyone in this hall called their dads today.”

One hot June near midnight, Sister Jean heard a knock on her door. “Would you run through the sprinklers with me?” asked a student overwhelmed with organic chemistry and the heat. “I heard them swish on outside, but I don’t want to go alone.” Lenz stood for a minute with an open mouth. “Then I simply closed the door behind me, and we left the building laughing.” The two women “did” the north quad, arriving back at Farley “drenched, laughing, out of breath, a bit exhausted, and so refreshed.” Lenz writes “that precious midnight moment has settled in me more and more as a fitting image of my years of ministry at ND.”

That ministry, and its intensity, continued in her student affairs position: 

I suspect my strongest credential for the position was that I was a woman. It was time for Notre Dame to place a woman at this level of administration in the division of Student Affairs . . . While these experiences would serve me well in this appointment, I sensed that this new ministry would tap into the deepest experiences of my life

In 1998, Lenz was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Portland for her service as “a mentor and example to students of how one might live a life in pragmatic, patient, humorous and prayerful service to others.” In 2007, her name was added to the Wall of Honor in Notre Dame’s Main Building.

At my “Golden Is Thy Fame” session, I shared my story of how I met Sister Jean. As a freshman in mid-fall 1974, I was choosing classes for spring semester. I planned to register for one of the two required theology courses, so I asked Sister John Miriam Jones, who lived near me in Badin Hall, for suggestions. “Take Sister Jean Lenz’s class,” advised Jones. “She’s great.” In January 1975, when I walked into Sister Jean’s course, “The Gospels of Christ,” I had no idea what career path I wanted to pursue. At that time, I was a business major for two reasons: first, with new doors opening up for women in business, my father, Robert O. Murphy, had encouraged me in that direction, and second, I wanted to be certain of a good-paying job after graduation, which a business degree seemed to guarantee.

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Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F., leading a discussion, circa early 1970s. Original photo by Paul Joyce. Courtesy of University of Notre Dame Archives.

Sister Jean proved to be a brilliant theology instructor, and I learned a great deal in her course. At the end of that semester, I still had no idea what I wanted to be, but Sister Jean helped me to discover who I wanted to become. This was long before I read Brené Brown’s books, such as The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. But Sister Jean’s pedagogy style featured a skill that I had never witnessed before in a leader or teacher—an ability to ask questions (“How do you deal with that?”) and invite our answers as if she was a fellow traveler with the motley crew of students before her, not the one with all the answers. She embodied the quote by U.S. physicist Richard P. Feynman that “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

At the end of spring semester 1975, I had the courage to switch from being a business major and declare myself an English major. I’ve always been gainfully employed, and I’ve always had jobs I’ve loved: journalist for Catholic Crosswinds newspaper in Pueblo, Colorado; editor of Notre Dame Publications; communications director of Logan Community Resources in South Bend; freelance writer with M. M. Zarzana & Co.; assistant women’s tennis coach at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU); and co-director of university relations at SMSU. In midlife, I returned to the classroom to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing. In December 2019, I retired from teaching after 15 years as an associate professor of English and serving six years as the director of creative writing at SMSU. Sister Jean was always a guiding presence in my classroom and during office hours with students. I had spent many hours visiting her room at Farley Hall, in the Huddle, and the Pay Caf seeking support for challenges I faced as an undergrad and, later, as a Notre Dame employee. She was a great listener, and I always left with a new, broader perspective of my issues. Our daughter, Elaine Zarzana, a double major in English and Arabic studies during her time at Notre Dame, also met with Sister Jean for friendly chats. Father Hesburgh wrote that Sister Jean was “sought out as a friend, counselor, and almost-confessor. The time students spend with her exposes them to goodness, fun, and deep beauty. Her teaching brings them face to face with the Christ in whom she deeply believes.”

On June 2, during the 50th anniversary celebration of undergraduate women at Notre Dame, Sister Jean demonstrated her lasting impact. The energy in that room was palpable through the stories people told. The session started at 1:30 p.m. and ran 50 minutes. But I didn’t leave that room until 4:30. People interested in my film project on Sister Jean swarmed me, eager to offer ideas and suggestions. I reconnected with a fellow member of the Community of International Lay Apostolate (CILA), a campus social justice group, and many others who loved Sister Jean deeply. 

After my presentation, I opened the floor to Q&A. Attendees shared their own powerful Sister Jean stories. Elizabeth Moriarty had known Sister Jean since she was a baby because her parents, Steve and Kathy Moriarty, were close friends. After attending Notre Dame as an undergraduate and living on the second floor of Farley, four rooms down from Sister Jean, Moriarty had returned to become rector for a year as a graduate student in 2012–13. Indelibly shaped by decades of Notre Dame experiences, hundreds of liturgies in the Farley Chapel, and inspired by Sister Jean’s faithful witness and friends, she’s pursuing her calling to ordination as a priest in the Episcopal church. 

That evening my husband, Jim, and I attended the Golden Gala Dinner and program in the Joyce Center with Susan Grace Murphy, my doubles partner on Notre Dame’s first women’s tennis team and a Farley Hall resident. Susan and I joined in the enthusiastically raucous response when President John Jenkins, C.S.C, announced that the words of the Notre Dame Victory March were being changed officially to add “and daughters” to “while her loyal sons and daughters march on to victory.” 

In the summer 2022 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, a news item notes, “More than a century after its debut, the fight song has undergone a bit of fine tuning to make it more reflective of the student body.” Of course, women undergrads and alumnae had been adding those words—“and daughters”—unofficially since we arrived on campus in 1972—always sung with gusto at the top of our lungs. For those of us early female athletes, the reality was that we were much more frequently marching on to defeat, not victory. 

The first Notre Dame women’s intercollegiate tennis competition was organized by Betsy Fallon that first year of coeducation when her self-formed team challenged Saint Mary’s College to a match. The next year Fallon as captain and Jane Lammers as co-captain met in dorm rooms with Carol Simmons, Andi Smith, Ellen Callahan, and Sharon Sullivan to organize an official team. While undergraduates themselves, they arranged fundraisers, recruited players, advertised for coaches, and called university athletic departments from their dorm rooms to set up tennis meets. They held tryouts for the team on October 23, 1973. John Donahue, Dave Wheaton, and other students helped coach, and later that year assistant history professor Dr. Carole Moore, who had run track at the University of California, Santa Barbara, saw the team’s flyers calling for a volunteer faculty sponsor. She enthusiastically contacted us and we not only had a faculty coach but a driver for our meets. Our fledgling ragtag tennis team played powerhouses like Purdue. At Indiana University—Bloomington, we mistakenly wandered into the men’s locker room. When we won our last tennis meet of the fall season against Northwestern University, we were just elated. After our previous matches, our ritual was to head to Bresler’s 33 Flavors to console ourselves with ice cream cones. After our biggest victory of the first season, Coach Moore drove our van to Chicago’s Greektown where we feasted on flaming saganaki and joined heartily in the “oompahs!” Some ouzo may have been consumed as well, which fueled a tennis team conga line snaking through the restaurant. Another first for Notre Dame women. The next season, fall 1975, the women's tennis team’s record boosted to 5-2. Through grit, teamwork, and vision, the first women's intercollegiate sport at Notre Dame was on its way. 

After the Golden Gala Dinner, my friend Susan and I walked from the Joyce Center to the Grotto in a long, streaming candlelight procession. We snagged “golden flip flops” provided to all at the Joyce exit, so we could swap our fancy formal shoes for comfort. Susan and I had both been dealing with challenging life circumstances over the past several years. This was a moment of celebration, laughter, and stories shared by two longtime friends of 48 years. Susan had not planned to return for the 50th anniversary gathering, but when I told her I was on the program to present about my Sister Jean documentary, she said yes. She’d make it happen. The presence of my doubles partner and best college friend made the victory of the soft launch of the promotional trailer to a packed room that much sweeter.

“With the dawn of coeducation here . . . we invited her back to the campus to be the rector of one of our first halls for women undergraduates,” writes Father Hesburgh in his foreword to Sister Jean’s memoir. He continues:

Sister Jean has been with us ever since, serving now as assistant vice president for Student Affairs, after more than a decade of rectoring at Farley Hall. No one is better suited than she to recall our early days of coeducation after a century and a quarter of being an all-male school. In fact, she has been at the heart of all of our coeducational efforts over the past quarter century, and above and beyond anyone else she has guided us to a new life of peaceful coexistence between men and women students here . . . .

It would be an understatement to say that Sister Jean’s influence affected only the female side of this historical adventure. I would have to admit that all of us men (as professors, administrators, and students) were affected profoundly by Sister Jean’s presence, her leadership, and the inspiring ways she lived her life here as an integral part of a bold adventure. We have all been enriched by the presence of women but deeply enriched by the presence of Sister Jean, who could easily be called the First Lady in this time of transition . . . She should get the lion’s share of the credit as we entered this unknown world in Notre Dame’s development.

For those who dive into reading Sister Jean’s book, Hesburgh writes: 

. . . you will find yourself laughing and possibly crying. She did a great deal of both by always being there, always being open and friendly and inspiring, even dealing with impossible situations with wisdom and humor. Once when some streakers arrived at the door outside her offices, she simply stepped into the cold night and told them, “You don’t think I’m going to let you come into this hall dressed like that?” She immediately defused a very difficult situation with all those young men scattering into the bushes, and they did not try it again.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of female undergraduates at Notre Dame, I stand on Sister Jean’s shoulders, and I’m working to honor her legacy by creating a documentary about her impact as an agent of change at Notre Dame. I also stand on the shoulders of my mother, Eileen Ahern Murphy, and of my grandmothers, Sylvia Garriques Ahern and Helen O’Connell Murphy. And so many other shoulders. By remembering and honoring those women who came before us, new generations of women gain strength to forge their own challenging paths ahead.

So why did Jim and I invite Sister Jean to give the homily at our wedding when we could have asked one of the three priests concelebrating? Because we wanted to honor her and the essential part she played in our lives and at Notre Dame. Because she was an amazing storyteller. Because she was a force for good. Because she was a compassionate, radiant follower of Christ who preached the gospel daily without words but with her life. I’m creating this documentary because I’m passionate about sharing her presence, her story more widely with the world.

This October, my husband, also a retired English professor from SMSU, and I will both receive the Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award from the SMSU Alumni Association over Homecoming Weekend. When I got this surprising news, I thought of the quote on Sister Jean’s Farley wall: “I can believe anything as long as it’s incredible.” I also thought of a quote by Abby Wambach, retired soccer player, coach, and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, who writes in her book Wolfpack, “Sometimes you will be the goal scorer. Every goal belongs to the entire team. So when you score, you better start pointing—to the teammate who assisted, to the defender who protected, to the midfielder who ran tirelessly, to the coach who dreamed up the play, to the bench player who willed this moment into existence. This goes for on the field and off. Let’s amplify each other’s voices, celebrate each other’s successes, and give credit to those who contributed to ours. And when one of us falls, let’s pick her up, and help her get back in the game.”

I’m pointing at Sister Jean, amplifying her voice, giving credit to a woman leader of deep faith, a pioneer, a woman of many firsts at Notre Dame. She has contributed mightily to small and large successes throughout my personal and professional life and in the lives of countless others. What is true for me is true for the whole Notre Dame community—we have all benefited immeasurably from the presence of this remarkable Franciscan nun, Sister Jean Lenz, under the Golden Dome.

Marianne Murphy Zarzana is a 1978 graduate of Notre Dame and retired from Southwest Minnesota State University in December 2019 after 15 years as an associate professor of English, six of which she also spent as the director of creative writing. Her documentary on Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F., “Change Agent: The Sister Jean Story,” will release in September 2024. 

Editor’s note: Much of the background content in this piece comes from Sister Jean Lenz’s published memoir, Loyal Sons and Daughters: A Notre Dame Memoir (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002).

Feature image: Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F., in 2002, when she was assistant vice president for student affairs. Original photo by Notre Dame Photography.