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Obituary of Sr. Mary Ann Eckhoff: teacher, leader, planner

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 22, 2009 - Sister Mary Eckhoff, who broke many barriers as the first woman in high places, died Saturday, April 18, at the duplex South County apartment-convent that she shared with three other nuns near the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s motherhouse in Lemay. She was 78.

Her funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the motherhouse chapel, 320 East Ripa Avenue in Lemay. At exactly the same time, a memorial service will be held in Rome, at the order’s Generalate which was completely renovated under her direction during her nine years as its administrator in the late 1990s and early years of this century.

Sister Mary Ann was the first woman – the first non-ordained person of either sex – to serve as the St. Louis Archdiocese’s superintendent of education. Her tenure ran from 1981 to 1995. The parish and archdiocesan schools are often called the largest school district in Missouri.

She was the first woman president of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, a regional accrediting body and, also, the first women on the executive board of the Missouri Association of Secondary Principals.

She founded the Today and Tomorrow Foundation which raises funds to support Catholic school scholarships for children in low income families.

“Sister Mary Ann was her own person and she did that very well,” said Sister Elleen Beelman, a Sister of Notre Dame who lived in the same community when the two were stationed in Rome.

“She was very intuitive, very well read and very, very intelligent,” said George Henry, the St. Louis Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools, and her successor in that post.

This week when Italian workman she had supervised during the Generalate's restoration expressed their sympathy to the American nuns stationed there, one called the Missouri dynamo “una donna Stupenda.”

She served on several civic boards and chaired their strategic planning committees. She was in the first St. Louis Leadership program – now called Focus St. Louis leadership program - classmate Jo Curran recalled at the wake. When the Danforth Foundation spun it off as a free-standing nonprofit, Sr. Mary Ann served on the founding board and chaired its strategic planning committee.

She helped in long-term planning with the St. Louis Girl Scouts and the Salvation Army. At the time of her death she was leading a strategic planning study for the Southside Catholic Schools Collaboration, an effort of principals, pastors and lay people to come up with a vision for Catholic education in the city of St. Louis, said Bridget Flood, executive director of the Incarnate Word Foundation.

“She was very good at strategic planning,” Flood said. After returning from the Rome post, Sister Mary Ann spent the last four years as program director for the Incarnate Word Foundation.

In recent years, she has worked with Washington University’s Skandalaris Center that helps nonprofit organizations develop for-profit businesses to raise funds for their core charity mission. One of the groups she mentored through that program was Missouri Women in Trades, which helps women train to get into trade unions.

Many of her religious sisters saw her as a lifelong innovator, said Sister Carleen Reck, the director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Criminal Justice Ministry. In the 1960s when computers were still room-size mainframes, she saw to it that her religious sisters' talents would be better used by putting each nun’s talents, skills, languages into a program. When a superior needed to decide who to send to a mission country like Sierra Leone, they could, with the flick of a button quickly find a list of sisters interested in mission work with appropriate skills. If one of their high schools suddenly needed a physics teacher, the computer printed a candidates’ list.

“She brought very dynamic energy to everything she did,” said Flood, her last boss. Sister Mary Ann was born in Washington, Mo., and went to schools taught by the Notre Dame order. She wanted to win an essay contest that offered a free trip to Milwaukee. She’d been praying not to become a nun but made a pact with the order’s foundress, the focus of the essay contest, that if she got the trip she would join up. She won, went to Milwaukee and at 18 years of age, in 1950, entered the order. Until Vatican II, she was called her name in religion: Sister Mary Eugene.

She was not crazy about her long black nuns’ robes, the habit. She eagerly took to street clothes when it was allowed. Her mother didn’t like the change and insisted her daughter keep wearing a veil. She made another pact.

“She said that when little Martin (her nephew) pulled off the veil it would stay off,” said her sister-in-law Ann Eckhoff of Washington. “I think she gave Martin a little help in pulling it.”

Sister Mary Ann taught first at St. Gabriel Parish grade school in south St. Louis and then for 15 years at Notre Dame High School in Lemay. A former student at Notre Dame remembers her strictness in class but recalled more fondly that Sister Mary Ann was the tech director for all school plays. In the mid-1960s in full nuns’ black habit, Sister Mary Ann would run around back stage in red tennis shoes.

“She was always so much fun,” said that former student Anna DeMerit of Fenton as she visited her beloved teacher’s wake Wednesday evening.

From Notre Dame, she became principal of Rosary High School in the Spanish Lake area and then became an assistant superintendent of the archdiocese schools.

When the late St. Louis Archbishop John L. May appointed her as head of the Archdiocesan schools, he knew he would not need to hover or micro-manage her.

“He gave her a great deal of latitude, and her dynamic style was just right for that type of leadership under May,” said Henry who worked side by side with her for 17 year and called her one of his and his wife’s best friends.

“I have humorously referred to her as a Hoover vacuum who sucks up anything that is not nailed down.”

If an idea didn’t work, she’d move on. And if it had to work, she figured a way to fix it. At the core was the solid faith based education of students, he said.

“She was always open to new ideas, always ready to embrace change and adapt with the times. She was interested in the new innovative way of thinking,” Flood said. “Sister Mary Ann was never a stick in the mud, but always way out there.”

She left the archdiocese of her own accord a year after Archbishop Justin Rigali – now Cardinal Rigali - was assigned to St. Louis. Among the most fun she had in Rome was welcoming St. Louisans. She particularly enjoyed “mothering” now New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan when the St. Louis native was rector of the Pontifical North America College a short drive from her Generalate.

After nine years in Rome, she returned to St. Louis and went to work for the Incarnate Word Foundation. She asked her supervisor Flood to make a list of everything she wanted her to do over the next several months.

“She read my list and said ‘This will take about two weeks’ ... What else do you have?” Flood recalled.

The last week of her life was packed. She celebrated Easter in Washington, Mo., with her beloved niece and nephew and their children. She worked unstintingly all week and had two key evenings: Tuesday night she was the life of the party at the annual fund raiser for the Today and Tomorrow Foundation. Thursday night she had a meeting at Visitation Academy where she served on its board. The board directors were given an evaluation to fill out and return in 30 days. Friday evening after work she settled into a favorite recliner, pulled a quilt around her and when she missed a Mass the next morning was found in the chair.

Curran, the classmate, clicked her heels took a short jump and said she was jumping for joy that her long time friend apparently died in her sleep.

“I can’t imagine how she’d suffer if she couldn’t be busy,” she said.

The evaluation arrived in the mail at Visitation just before they heard the news of her death. “Filling out that evaluation was typical of her, she didn’t let things slip, she got things done,” George Henry said.

She is survived by her nephew Martin Eckhoff and niece Jessica Tomlinson of Washington, Mo. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist who has been covering religion for several years. 

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