Historical Sketch: Sr. Mary Luke Tobin Goes to Rome

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Secretum Meum Mihi Press

Historical Sketch: Sr. Mary Luke Tobin Goes to Rome

by Kristen West McGuire

When the U.S.S. Constitution headed to Rome in early June 1964, the newly elected president of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the United States was aboard. After her election, the assembled reverend mothers urged Sr. Mary Luke Tobin to head to Rome.

Why? The Second Vatican Council was underway, and a document on religious life in the modern era was on the table. No one was sure what they intended to change, and the leaders of women’s religious orders in the U.S. had an abiding interest in any proposed changes, although no one had invited a single woman to these sessions. There were no women invited to these meetings. Still, Mother Mary Luke hopped on a boat to Rome.

Mother Mary Luke was a revolutionary in her own way. A ballet dancer in her youth, she had a graceful, fluid style and an athletic constitution. At the same time, she also had a deep intellectual hunger. After she took the reins in 1958 at the Loretto motherhouse in Nerinx, Kentucky, she invited Thomas Merton, and after the Council, noted theologians such as Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, and Redemptorist Fr. Bernard Häring to address the sisters.

Merton happened to live in the neighboring Gethsemani Abbey, and they had a lively friendship. He later inspired much of her peace and justice activism. He encouraged her to trust the gifts of God she had received.

In those days, words traveled faster than people. The abundant press coverage of the event ensured that her arrival would not be discreet. Whether her official invitation as one of fifteen women observers was precipitated by her journey or not, it was a welcome sign of the windows of the Church opening to the world in a truly new way.

Tobin discovered her exalted status from three phone calls from reporters, seeking her comments by telephone after the announcement. She said, “I was to find out all I could about what was happening about religious life, and bring it back. I never expected to go and stay there.”

Back home in Kentucky, Merton anxiously awaited her return every few months for news of the council deliberations. Although cautioned to be a silent observer, she was an active part of the behind the scenes deliberations that drove the council process.

When the Vatican did finally extend the invitation to women, Sr. Mary Luke Tobin was already on her way. Let us emulate her in that, ready to be sent and to serve at a moment’s notice.

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