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“Salute her towers, 
Her gleaming towers,
Ever aspiring to the sky…

It was a beautiful day in early June, 1929 at the newly renovated St. Mary’s Academy in Monroe. A thin ribbon of black smoke was discovered against the crisp blue sky, wafting from the east attic windows. The cast-iron gong was promptly sounded as the fire quickly grew out of control.

The Detroit News reported “300 girl students were at recess when the fire was discovered” and ran extras of the story as crowds gathered to watch the blaze. In the classic account, No Greater Service by Sister Rosalita Kelly (1892-1964), she details how Mother Domitilla Donohue (1863-1930) reminded the shaken congregation that “Buildings… could be restored, but the precious life of a child, never.” Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) and their devoted community were devastated by the fire that gutted their beloved academy,  “…mercilessly destroying the work of years.” 

Wasting no time, the IHMs announced the very next day that they would rebuild immediately. Plans were made to relocate displaced Sisters and students at various locations for the start of fall classes, some of whom would be housed in their newly established Marygrove College in Detroit. Raising money to rebuild was not going to be easy, but IHM Treasurer Miriam Raymo, IHM (1875-1965) was on the job. She had a reputation for stellar fundraising from her work on the building of Marygrove.

There’s no price too high for women’s education.

In an essay by former Marygrove College Chief Financial Officer Amata Miller, IHM, Ph.D., ’54 published in Building Sisterhood: A Feminist History of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, it was said that Sr. Miriam as a businesswoman “‘… knew every brick in each one of [the IHM’s] numerous buildings...’” The story of how she managed to get Selfridge Air Force Base to airdrop advertising brochures for a massive week-long Marygrove fundraising festival in 1923 is legendary.

Confidence in this congregation of women was strong, as Papal permission was quickly granted to secure another enormous loan for the rebuild of St. Mary’s, despite the Great Depression and the unprecedented debt they were already in from Marygrove’s construction. To those who had built this Sisterhood from the ground up, there was no price too high to preserve what had been created in 1845 for the purpose of educating women and girls. It is a legacy that has been supported through the years, with the generous help of its own. And it has been proven time and time again.

Class of 1929: Three amigas carry Marygrove in their hearts.

…Proclaim her powers,
Immortal powers,
Resolve to do for her or die…

Only a few weeks before the St. Mary’s fire, a synergistic relationship of three close friends would help to shape the future of Marygrove College. The graduates said their goodbyes after commencement in Detroit as they returned to their homes and families in different states. It isn’t hard to imagine Alma, whose high school yearbook told of her love for flower gardens and “pound[ing] a piano lustily;” or Marygrove Class Vice President Evangeline, ambitious and warm-hearted; or Elizabeth, stylish and fun-loving. They made a pact to always stay in touch, and to always remember their alma mater—where their friendships, and the trajectory of their lives began.

This generation of women would not take their educations for granted. They sought higher education at a time when women had just won the legal right to vote, and the social expectation was to marry and bear children. According to Barbara Miller Solomon’s In the Company of Educated Women, A History of Women and Higher Education in America, only 7.6 percent of the female population in the U.S. was enrolled in colleges or universities in 1920. These three, who stood out from their class composite of 37 students, were extraordinary in every way.

Evangeline Sheibley-Hyett ’29 went on to study social work at Catholic University in Washington and later at Western Reserve University (Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland. Alma Stueve ‘29 returned home to Tulsa to enter Tulsa Business College, and Elizabeth Clinton-Keenan ’29 soon took her place in Seattle society as the wife of Dr. James Keenan.

Evangeline, Alma and Elizabeth stridently climbed corporate and social ladders and leveraged their education to help others. The Great Depression wore on, but Marygrove College continued to attract students from all over the country. Gaining an ever-greater reputation for quality Catholic education, its enrollment grew, and grew.

Classes of 1935 and 1946: A tale of two sisters.

A couple of years later, Ann Marie Quinlan ‘35 enrolled at Marygrove in 1931. In the throes of Depression-era restraint, Anne Marie was an eager freshman from a prominent Catholic family in Springfield, Ohio.  She studied art. Ann Marie later decided to enter religious life at St. Mary’s Academy in Monroe. Her sisters were proud of their favorite sibling, but their sobs on entrance day proved it was “…hard to give her up.”  

Rosemary’s sister was a rather free spirit, illustrated well by reports of her entering the convent with a geranium in one hand to “brighten” the dormitory and a half-knitted sweater in the other, a project she planned to finish in her “spare time.”  Sr. Ann Marie “Clotilda” Quinlan gave 57 years of service to the IHM community and 17 of those to Marygrove as a popular art teacher and librarian. It is doubtful that the sweater was ever finished.

Rosemary Quinlan Kelly ‘46 followed in her sister’s footsteps by registering at Marygrove College almost a decade later. Enrollment was bursting at the seams. Rosemary tended to her studies as the deadliest global war in history unfolded. Her preparation and experience at the College was therefore a little different than that of her sister’s.  Seasons of Grace by Leslie Tentler describes how Marygrove instituted mandatory “victory” courses for its students in the winter of 1942. These classes covered relevant issues that women might need in a war emergency, such as auto repair or the general principles of international law.

The post-war tide was changing for women. Rosemary fully embraced family life and was also very active in Catholic Charities, teaching women about the importance of a healthy diet and good shopping habits. She would parlay her volunteer work into board membership in her diocese, and still maintains an advisory board position with Catholic Charities in Florida. Sr. Ann Marie realized the freedom of greater access to the community she so loved through the auspices of Vatican II. Like other women religious, she segued into parish ministry, and eventually served as co-chair of her diocesan Respect LifeCommission in opposition of capital punishment. One of her greatest passions was tutoring migrant children.

Class of 1964: A new generation of Marygrove women emerge.

…Exalt her great name,
Defend her fair fame,
Gird strong her walls with memory…

A groundswell of social and religious change was never more profound than for the mothers and daughters of the 60s. The IHMs modified their royal blue habits and enjoyed a sharper focus on justice education and advocacy. Nancy McDonough Geschke ’64 was a Marygrove freshman when the first Roman Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, initiated the Commission on the Status of Women.

It was an exciting time to be female, witnessed by new-found protections, such as the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal in the U.S. for employers to pay a woman less than what a man would receive for the same job. The first feminist advocacy group, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966. This generation of women wanted it all—education, career and family— and there was no reason why they couldn’t have it.

Nan, the daughter of a firefighter and nurse in Cleveland, Ohio met her future husband at a religious conference on social action. With a shared sense of ideals and faith, this “power couple” married soon after graduation; Nan began teaching and started her family before returning to grad school to earn her master’s in library science. She launched a new career working in corporate libraries, managing the Westinghouse Research Facility library and also serving as a sales director and consultant for a library placement firm.

In the 90s, Nan turned her energies to volunteering on Nantucket Island, where she undertook the preservation of the island’s historic public library, the Atheneum, built in 1847. She helped launch a successful capital campaign to restore the building and establish an endowment. She went on to fund the Marygrove College Nancy A. McDonough Geschke Writing Center, and helped refurbish the Marygrove Theater. The die had been cast, in the spirit of those women before her, for a lifetime of helping others realize their potential.

Marygrove alumnae will forever leave behind a piece of themselves.

…The torch of Truth’s her claim,
Hold high the flame,
For Marygrove eternally.”*

Before long, the three classmates from the Class of 1929 were ready to retire. Alma Stueve served for 27 years as an executive secretary with Gulf Oil Company. The former head of various social service agencies, Evangeline Shiebley-Hyett was one of the first women to be appointed Dean at Wayne State University in the Social Work Department.  And Elizabeth Clinton-Keenan had traveled the world, and hosted innumerable fundraisers for women’s charities such as the Junior League of Seattle.

In a 1964 Christmas card to her dear friend Alma, Elizabeth wrote: “Someday, without knowing it, I will cause positive and lasting change somewhere on this earth. It doesn’t matter where or when it happens, all that matters is that it happened and that little Bette Keenan caused it…”

The pact they made as classmates in 1929 was all but cinched. The only thing left to decide was how.

● Alma Stueve ’29 very much wanted to help students directly, and subsequently bequeathed the Alma Mary Stueve Scholarship. These funds are provided to at least three Marygrove students each year who choose to study abroad, or major in one of the natural science disciplines, or international business.

● Evangeline Sheibley-Hyett ‘29 and her sister Genevieve established the Albert Franklin Sheibley M.D. fund in honor of their father for the education of students in the health care professions as well as for the physical, emotional and spiritual care of Marygrove College students. Their generosity also helped to refurbish the southeast wing of the College’s Liberal Arts Building to what is now referred to as the Sheibley wing.

● After her husband’s death in 1978, Elizabeth Clinton-Keenan managed the wealth they had built for 30 years, and outlived everyone she was ever close to. In 2010, Elizabeth passed away peacefully at the age of 103. Just as her Christmas card alluded to more than forty years earlier, she left her entire estate to Marygrove College— the largest bequeathed gift since its inception. Her gift was a tribute to Marygrove’s urban leadership vision and mission that was characterized in 2006, something she followed closely in her final days.  Her gift came just in time, as much needed improvements could now be made.  A courtyard renovation that had been placed on hold was completed and dedicated in her name in 2011.

Today, the award-winning Keenan Courtyard features a glorious garden of the indigenous plants and trees Elizabeth loved in Seattle. A bust of her likeness cast in bronze will watch over this beautiful space for generations to come.

● After years of contemplation on how to best honor her sister Ann Marie, Rosemary Quinlan Kelly ’46 followed suit by commissioning Our Foundation, the Keenan Courtyard fountain.  Also cast in bronze, it signifies her sister’s dedication to Catholic education, and to the IHM building of Marygrove. Rosemary’s generous gift represents the sacrifices of Marygrove women who made it their life’s work to ensure the College remains an important educational resource in a city that is toiling valiantly for its renewal.

● When recent Pell Grant restrictions threatened to leave many Marygrove students financially idled from completing their education, Marygrove’s newest Board of Trustees member Nan McDonough Geschke ’64 took a giant leap forward. Nan chose to use her gift to help these students directly, something she had done quietly and graciously for many students before.  Her most recent donation represents the largest single gift from a living donor in Marygrove’s history. In an unprecedented pledge, Nan is challenging her fellow alums by offering to match their donations, dollar for dollar, in this special season of giving.

Thanks to Nan, Rosemary, Elizabeth and all of the wise women religious, sisters, mothers and daughters who generously gave and kept the faith, Marygrove continues to be a blessed place to learn, lead and grow. If you would like more information on how you can give, click here, to make your mark on Marygrove history.


*The Tower Song