Almost everything about the College of Notre Dame of Maryland was vulnerable when Sister Kathleen Feeley took over as president 21 years ago. It was small, it was Catholic, it was a liberal arts school, it was in the middle of a city and, worst of all, it was a women's college.
Notre Dame is still all of those things as Sister Kathleen retires this week. It is still vulnerable, but its president for these two decades has worked miracles -- little ones and big ones -- to keep the college a vital part of Baltimore's educational and cultural life.
There should be no mistake: Were it not for Kathleen Feeley, Notre Dame today would be closed or an adjunct (instead of a competing neighbor) of Loyola College.
Sister Kathleen's devotion to undergraduate education for women has been nothing short of a crusade. But she also recognized early that the college needed to diversify if it were to survive.
The coeducational Weekend College, launched in 1975, was the first of several attempts to bring older students and men, new "product lines," to the Charles Street campus. (This year it opens a branch in Harford County.) It was an innovational idea 17 years ago. Today, it is widely copied.
Sister Kathleen's hair turned gray while she was doing all of this. In a city still run by men, she schmoozed executives over lunch at the Maryland Club. (She, of course, was the guest, not the host.) During an economic downturn, she raised $14 million. She sought minority students and opened the campus in summer to programs helping blacks from Baltimore prepare for college.
She was a founding board member of Marian House, a 10-year-old home for women rebuilding shattered lives. But she soon found that being a board member was not enough. She volunteered regularly on Saturday nights, closing the doors at midnight.
One night she talked for seven hours to one of Marian House's guests. "How would you like to go to college?" she asked at the end of the conversation. The woman, who contributed an article to the page opposite a few weeks ago, is now an undergraduate at Notre Dame with scholarship help and a campus job arranged by Sister Kathleen.
In a few days she will hop a freighter in Dundalk for a trip to Europe and the Mediterranean. Then it is off with her new laptop to teach American literature at the University of Madras in southern India. We wish her bon voyage but hope she will return to her hometown quickly. No doubt she has more work to do.