Sr. Marietta Culhane lives the essence of Franciscan charism: willingly, enthusiastically responding to others’ needs with wisdom, kindness, caring, and determination to give her very best. Sr. Marietta grew up in Chicago, far away from her extended family in Ireland. Her parents had spent their childhood in Ireland before moving to San Francisco and then meeting and marrying there. When Marietta was a teenager, her paternal grandmother asked Marietta’s father to write to a cousin of his who had entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. It was Marietta herself who would write regularly to this cousin, Sr. Rosaire Marie, who was living in Baltimore and who answered Marietta’s letters twice a year, at Christmas and Easter.
Throughout grade school and high school, Marietta’s education was entirely from the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-ofthe- Woods, Indiana. She recalls, “They were wonderful educators. I admired them and I certainly knew their history, but I didn’t think their lives were similar to the kind of life I could live.” She continues the story: “Then when I was in college (in prelaw at DePaul University), I had a decision to make. I was praying and asked, ‘What am I going to do?’ I thought, ‘I’ll do an act of charity. I’ll go and visit that nun in Baltimore.’” So Sr. Marietta wrote a letter asking to visit her cousin.
The response from Sr. Rosaire’s congregation—from Sr. Alma Regina, the superior at St. Anthony’s— would change Sr. Marietta’s life. She explains why: It was clear to me the day I received the letter that something was different about the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. The sisters I knew always wrote very formal letters on fine white stationery in black ink. This response to my letter was very informal and written on green paper in purple ink! “We would be so glad if you would visit Sr. Rosaire on Easter Sunday! We’ll all help with the surprise.” Then there were the arrangements they made to meet me at the station, a place to stay, etc. The “realness” of these women, their simplicity, their concern for others and genuine warm hospitality warmed my heart. Like St. Paul, I was “knocked off my horse.”
Sr. Marietta left her prelaw studies, entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in January 1951, and became a professed member in 1953. As a sister of St. Francis, in place of a law degree, she earned a B.S. in secondary education from Villanova University. Next she would earn a Master of Arts in English from St. Bonaventure University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Georgetown University.
A brief overview of Sr. Marietta’s ministries cannot reflect the full breadth and depth of her contributions— which led to her receiving the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross from Pope John Paul II in 2004 for service to the Church. Her decades of teaching spanned elementary classrooms, mathematics and English high-school classrooms, college courses on several campuses, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Church Leadership Institute. For elementary and secondary teachers in public and private schools, she gave more than 260 mathematics workshops in a total of 18 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
For teachers in public and parochial schools, she presented more than 100 in-service sessions on topics extending from the philosophy underlying Catholic education to teaching strategies for developing critical thinking. At the college and university level, she was—to cite one example among her nearly countless noteworthy achievements—the first woman speaker to present a conference for graduate students in the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University. And for the National Science Foundation, she authored a two-year mathematics institute presented at Johns Hopkins University. Other conferences and workshops she conducted ranged in focus from medical ethics to “modern math.”
In the area of administration, she has—to give a small sampling—served as the coordinator of education for the Sisters of St. Francis, as the K-12 mathematics supervisor for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, as the academic dean at Neumann University and dean of instruction for Essex Community College, and as a pastoral life director in the Appalachian region of Maryland. The boards on which she has served include, for example, the board of trustees for the Catholic High School of Baltimore and for Towson’s St. Joseph’s Medical Center, the Biomedical Ethics Committee of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the Sacred Heart Hospital Ethics Committee, Cumberland. Reflecting on her ministries, Sr. Marietta observes, “I’ve been a little bit of everything. The truth is that in every case, something happening at the time led me into that arena—a need arose. For example, in my administrative ministry, I was pulled into work with the modern- math movement. After that, I was pulled into the area of medical ethics because of the ethical concerns that were being raised and because of my background within my philosophy studies. Then Vatican II came along, and we had a lot of education that needed to be done for our laity. Our community also called us to help where there were insufficient resources for the Church: that was one of the bases on which Sr. Eleanor Horneman and I made our move west to the Appalachian region of Maryland,” responding to the extensive spiritual needs of parishes that were sometimes without a pastor. Sr. Marietta sees this history of her ministries as typically Franciscan: “That’s our sisters: they see a job to be done and they pick it up and do it. That’s part of the spirit of our congregation, the charism that we have has really unified us.”
With Sr. Marietta’s knowledge and interests reaching across a broad swath of human knowledge, it is little surprise that even her leisure fun engages the mind: solving puzzles, including crossword, Sudoku, and three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles. Moreover, Sr. Marietta’s desire to serve has not diminished in recent years. She recounts, “When we came up from western Maryland to Wilmington, Delaware, about 10 years ago, Sr. Eleanor and I were considered moving into retirement. But we wanted to help wherever we could, so we joined the Assisi House Liturgy Committee. Every month, we schedule the Assisi House Eucharistic ministers and lectors.” Srs. Eleanor and Marietta also help with the music—Sr. Eleanor playing the organ and Sr. Marietta occasionally serving as a cantor—and have facilitated an Assisi House retreat and other programs. In addition, they have continued contact with their Emmitsburg, Maryland, companions group.
Asked what she would like others to recognize about her, Sr. Marietta responds, “They would say, ‘She did the best she could.’” Clearly for Sr. Marietta Culhane, her best has been and is exceptional in its excellence and significance and in its rich expression of the Franciscan charism.