The graduates who received their diplomas this past Saturday from Mount Mary University should know an accomplished woman had a hand in their education. School Sister of Notre Dame Ellen Lorenz, former president of Mount Mary, has impacted every student of the university through her work in core curriculum, university expansion and the education department.

School Sister of Notre Dame Ellen Lorenz, seated on a bench on the grounds of Mount Mary University, Milwaukee, on May 15, delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2014 and was awarded the university’s first honorary degree last weekend. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)Sr. Ellen was the first recipient of an honorary degree from the university at the graduation. She also delivered the commencement address to this year’s graduation class of nearly 300 women.  

Noted for her “kindness, humility and brilliance” by current president Eileen Schwalbach, Sr. Ellen has had a far-reaching impact on the formation of the university over the past 40 years.

In choosing the first person to receive an honorary degree from the university, Schwalbach said, “Sr. Ellen immediately came to mind.  She has made so many contributions over many years as a faculty member, dean and president. It is only fitting that we should honor her in this way.”

But Sr. Ellen doesn’t want to take any credit for herself. She would rather honor her School Sisters of Notre Dame community.

“It’s an honor for the SSND,” she said in an interview with the Catholic Herald. “As a member of a community, you don’t do anything yourself.”

Deb Dosemagen, chair of the education department, called Sr. Ellen’s humility, “her hallmark,” adding, “She is one of the smartest people I know.”

Born in Berlin, in the Madison Diocese, Sr. Ellen attended several one-room schoolhouses until the eighth grade when she moved to Appleton, attending St. Therese School where she was taught by Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity – her first encounter with nuns – and later St. Mary High School in Menasha.
In addition to the faith formation she received in school, Sr. Ellen noted she had a strong faith base at home with her parents.

They provided “love of family, love of church, integrity, importance of education and a good work ethic,” she said.

Surprising her parents, she explored her calling to religious life as a sophomore at Mount Mary College (now University) in Milwaukee.

“God’s call is mysterious,” she reflected. She entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame, while continuing her college studies. After graduation, she taught high school in the Chicago area.

While Sr. Ellen was happy teaching high school, the SSND community asked her to continue her studies in education. She earned a doctorate in education, and was a faculty member for many years before becoming academic dean of Mount Mary College from 1976-1979.

In 1979, after a search by the board, Sr. Ellen was selected to be president of Mount Mary College where she served from 1979 through 1987. While she had never planned this journey to being president of a college, she said she followed along with God’s plan.

During her time as president, Sr. Ellen’s contributions were significant.

Sharing two highlights, Schwalbach noted Sr. Ellen was responsible for a capital campaign that resulted in the building of the Haggerty Library.

The library opened in October 1981, adding substantial educational resources for the students and faculty of the college.

Second, Schwalbach said Sr. Ellen, along with Sr. Joel Read (president of Alverno College at the time) and Sr. Camille Kliebhan (president of Cardinal Stritch at the time), formed the Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services for area adults. They believed in helping educate adults so that they could in turn help their children. “How can parents help with homework if they aren’t educated?” said Sr. Ellen.

She takes greatest pride in developing the core curriculum for the college and working on core search for meaning, which defines her philosophy on teaching. Creativity, she said, is the most important factor in the search for meaning.

Her impact reaches each student of the university, according to philosophy professor Jim Conlon.

 “The fundamental building blocks of each student’s education are directly tied into her beliefs in how someone should be educated. Every student has been influenced by Sr. Ellen,” Conlon said.

In 2004, the State of Wisconsin overhauled the framework for licensure of teachers. According to Dosemagen, “Sr. Ellen was absolutely instrumental in making the transition effectively.” Sr. Ellen also helped implement the teacher’s portfolio, first on paper and then electronically.

Throughout her tenure as president, Sr. Ellen oversaw change at Mount Mary. In the early 1970s, the vast majority of women were in nursing or education.

“The college changed to accommodate a need for more majors,” Sr. Ellen recalled. “We put in a child care and in 1979 we added an evening degree program.”

Today’s students choose from a broad range of majors, including occupational therapy, social work, health sciences as well as education and nursing.

In her commencement address, Sr. Ellen challenged graduates to consider their next steps and how they can make a difference in the world. She chronicled times in Mount Mary’s history when the leaders were at a crossroads.

“While in 1872, the sisters saw the need for a secondary school for girls and founded St. Mary’s Institute, the forerunner to Mount Mary, by 1913 they were convinced of the need for the next level baccalaureate education,” she said.

“Believing that the education of women, because of women’s role in the family, was key to transforming the world and being confident that they had the potential to meet the challenge, the sisters created the first four-year Catholic college for women in Wisconsin. With few models to follow, they needed to come up with something totally new.”

Sr. Ellen believes that creativity is the key to examining the world and making it better. Mount Mary requires students to take a course called “The Search for Meaning.” She explained why in her address to graduates: “Creativity is essential for graduates today for it is what employers in every field are seeking – they are looking for persons who can go beyond existing knowledge, be open-minded, pose new questions, use imagination, design new solutions, have the courage to take risks, be agile and try again when the first solution does not work. As persons made in the image of God, we each have a specific calling to be creative, inventive and intellectually alert.”

Using one’s creativity with compassion aligns with the school’s long-held mission related to social justice, she added.

Sr. Ellen tutors in the Student Success Center. With no plans for retirement, she is weighing her options for the next chapter of contributions to the world around her.