Living for 100 years is a milestone, but for Sr. Lucille Walsh, a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi who celebrated her 100th birthday last month, it’s her work and achievements that are the treasures of her life story. From dentistry to the teaching of theology and world religions, Sr. Lucille is a renaissance woman.

Sr. Lucille celebrated her birthday at Clare Hall on the campus of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi on Monday, Jan. 13.

“I have been so completely satisfied with the journey my life has taken that I would not have changed it a bit,” she said in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “I have always felt that as a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi, my life was going onward and upward.”

Sr. Lucille addressed her birthday guests with a recollection of her life. She was born on a cold winter day on the prairie of Alberta, Canada in 1913. The youngest of six children, she spent seven years in Canada and then, “the family loaded up their seven-passenger Buick, along with two hounds for the drive through Montana and North Dakota to Parkston, S.D.”

In Parkston, she attended Sacred Heart boarding school for five years where she was taught by Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Inspired by the sisters, she called them, “loving, kind, gentle people who exemplified the congregation’s world view which was based on the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi who would call all creatures his brothers and sisters.”

At 19, she joined the congregation, boarded the train alone, headed through Chicago to Milwaukee where she joined the Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi.

At the start of her religious life, she worked as a dental assistant and earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry at St. Clare College (now Cardinal Stritch University). At the same time, the congregation needed a dentist.
“Dentistry was the farthest from my mind when I entered the convent,” Sr. Lucille recalled. She was the first nun to earn a Doctor of Dentistry Degree from Marquette University, was ranked first among her 100 classmates and voted most popular
student in her class. Her male classmates called her a pacesetter because she always had her work done.

She practiced dentistry at the convent for 23 years, serving the congregation’s 1,000 sisters. When back pain interfered with her dentistry, she pursued her true passion – theology and world religions.

She asked for permission to enroll at Marquette University where she earned a Master of Arts in theology. She took additional post-graduate courses at the University of San Francisco and the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. She joined Cardinal Stritch University as an associate professor in 1964, teaching courses in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islamic and African religions for 23 years.

Sr. Lucille considers her co-founding of the Islamic-Christian Dialogue of the Milwaukee Archdiocese with Dr. Abbas Hamdani, a professor at UWM in 1980 and her subsequent involvement in interfaith efforts as her greatest accomplishment.

The dialogue was a group of 15 to 20 people who met monthly for 20 years to discuss Islamic traditions and beliefs. She later learned that Belgian Archbishop Jean Jadot, former apostolic delegate in the United States who was in Rome to promote a dialogue with Muslims, informed Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland that Milwaukee was one of the only archdioceses in the world with an Islamic-Christian Dialogue and encouraged him to support it.    

Sr. Lucille worked side by side with her close friend and fellow Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Jessine Reiss, teaching at Cardinal Stritch University and working on the Islamic-Christian Dialogue together. The two were awarded the 1999 Vatican II Award for Interfaith Relations.

“She is most intelligent and knowledgeable with a deep, natural propensity to studying theology and philosophy. It has been a blessing from God to know her and live with her for 60 years,” said Sr. Jessine of Sr. Lucille.

An avid reader, Sr. Lucille searches for different points of view. One of her favorite authors is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest. She recently read a National Geographic book, “In the Footsteps of Jesus: A Chronicle of His Life and the Origins of Christianity,” by Jean-Pierre Isbouts, published in November, 2012.

Franciscan Fr. Jim Gannon was among 70 guests at the centenarian’s party. Fr. Gannon, vice president for mission at Cardinal Stritch University, has known Sr. Lucille for about six years and called her “resilient” because he has given her the sacrament of anointing of the sick three times, most recently while she was in the hospital on her 99th birthday.

After her recovery, he celebrated Mass for her birthday in her apartment where she gave “a moving reflection on the resurrection,” according to Fr. Jim.

After so many years of exploring other world religions, Sr. Lucille’s faith is strong. As she concluded her remarks at her birthday celebration, having taken her guests across the Canadian prairie through her dental practice and interfaith dialogues to her retirement home on the shores of Lake Michigan, Sister Lucille said, “I am enjoying love’s embrace in merciful glory. Thank you, God.”