Sister Nassif believes in the mission of Notre Dame


September 06, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

On a steamy summer afternoon, Sister Rosemarie Nassif strides across a campus parking lot, slightly late for a punch-and-cookies social outside the small shingled house she shares with Sister Bernice Feilinger.

As teachers and staff members linger underneath the trees to chat with the new president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, they create a vision of a family gathered, a sense that seems a hallmark of this college.

Sister Rosemarie moves gracefully through the party with a generous smile, a firm handshake and an enthusiasm as untrammeled as a teen-ager's. She is tall, vigorous, self-assured -- and some colleagues find her tailored clothes to be enviably stylish.

What most talk about, however, are Sister Rosemarie's forthright manner and her approachability. The 51-year-old president seems to have an unusual appetite for listening . . . and an unshakable belief in women's colleges.

"Many women's colleges were founded to allow women the opportunity for higher education, but access does not necessarily mean equality," she says. "Men and women do not have an equal advantage in a coeducational setting, and I see women's colleges as providing that equal advantage.

"Taking women seriously in leadership roles has found its right moment in history. I think women's colleges are on the edge of helping women insert theirvision and their experience not only into the national community but also internationally."

When she is inaugurated as Notre Dame's ninth president Sept. 25, Sister Rosemarie will begin the task of steering the liberal arts women's college into the next century. Founded and operated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic order that also runs colleges in Milwaukee and Japan, the college enrolls roughly 600 women as full-time undergraduates, 1,600 men and women in its weekend college and 620 students in its continuing education and graduate programs.

Although Notre Dame has a secular board of trustees, it employs about 35 nuns on campus. Nuns also form about one-quarter of the 81 faculty members. All the college's presidents have belonged to the SSND order.

Presidential heir apparent

Coming from a career as a university teacher and religious leader in St. Louis, Sister Rosemarie arrived at Notre Dame two years ago as executive vice president, a position created for her as presidential heir apparent. Working closely with former president Sister Kathleen Feeley -- who will spend a year teaching in India on a Fulbright scholarship -- she took a leadership course with the Greater Baltimore Committee. She also pursued an American Council on Education fellowship that allowed her to study the leadership style of Pat McPherson, president of Bryn Mawr College, one of 84 women's colleges in the United States.

Her apprenticeship presence allowed her to get to know the college -- and the college to get to know her.

"She has enough compassion for the job," says economics professor Charlie Yoe. "She's intelligent, and she has the courage to stand the loneliness of the office. That's the best you could hope for in a new boss."

"She can relate to all kinds of people. She's just as good at talking to my 13-year-old daughter as she is to the board of trustees," says Sally Wall, chairman of the psychology-sociology department. "She also writes absolutely beautiful thank-you notes. . . . And she has a mean Z serve in racquetball."

Sister Rosemarie grew up the oldest of four in a close-knit Lebanese family in a section of south St. Louis known as "The Hill." After graduating from Notre Dame High School there with honors in 1959, she joined the convent run by the order. Although she entered with 11 classmates -- the girls dubbed themselves "the 12 Apostles" -- she became the only one to remain.

Her superiors decided that Rosemarie could best serve the order as a teacher and instructed her to get her undergraduate degree, and then her Ph.D., in chemistry.

"My parents weren't too thrilled initially with her decision to become a nun because it was a big sacrifice for a girl," says her sister Judy Patrick. "But she's been happy ever since, going from one goal to another, living a very fulfilled life."

Sister Rosemarie remembers being completely inspired by the nuns who taught her in high school.

"Their lives looked very meaningful, and I found out that they were," she says. "But it was tough on my family. Although I was a 20-minute drive from my home, there was visiting only once a month during the first year. And no visiting at all in the second year. You couldn't talk to your family, you couldn't talk to anyone."

When Sister Rosemarie entered the convent 33 years ago, she handed over her life to God. And although she is one of Maryland's higher education chiefs, her paycheck goes directly to her order. She must devise an annual budget for food, clothing and housing, which the order must approve.

The job does provide her with a car.

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