Sister Maura, poet and English professor

Published poet and gifted lecturer shared her love of words with students at the College of Notre Dame for 50 years

November 18, 2009|By Jacques Kelly

Sister Maura Eichner, a teacher and poet recalled for her spiritual and lyrical writings, died of congestive heart failure Sunday at the School Sisters of Notre Dame retirement home in Woodbrook. She was 94.

Born Catherine Alice Eichner in Brooklyn, N.Y., she grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. Her mother died when Sister Maura was young and she was raised by older family members who left lasting inmpressions.

In 1986, she wrote of her childhood, where "I was always a little startled, then beguiled, by the sound of my Irish grandfather's voice. The brogue was rich and the inversions magical. Like so many children in the New York city school that I attended, I had a German grandfather who sang Bavarian songs to me."

She also said she was influenced by an uncle who would read Alexander Pope's translation of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" aloud.

"I didn't understand anything he was talking about, but I loved it," she said.

While attending St. Joseph's School in New York City, she was taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame and entered their religious order in 1933 when she was 18. She taught seventh grade at St. Mary Academy in Annapolis and moved to Baltimore in 1938 as a Notre Dame Preparatory School teacher. She remained on the Charles Street campus the rest of her professional career and requested to be buried on its grounds in a cemetery not far from her longtime office.

From 1943 to 1993, Sister Maura taught in the English department at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, where she received her bachelor of arts degree in 1941. She later served as the English department chair.

Her first volume of poetry, "Initiate the Heart," was published in 1946. In a Sun interview published a decade later, she said its title poem summed up her philosophy:

"Initiate the heart to change for it is wiser so,

accepting the splendor of the hour

white with clematis or snow.

"Fortify the will with peace:

no season taking root, tranquil in mist, in warmth, in frost,

each bears fruit."

Interviewers described her as a "slim, fair sister with keen blue eyes and an equally keen wit." They also noted her sensitive fingers and her handwriting, a half-and-half blend of cursive and print.

"She had an aura about her. She floated into a room," said Joanna Miskelly Cox, a former student who lives in Baltimore. "It was like she was either regal or a saint. As a teacher, she was encouraging, never negative in her approach."

In a 1959 New York Times interview, she said that poetry should be written "with the humility of a craftsman and the ardor of a saint" and "flaming with the good tidings of the Incarnation." She had no sympathy for religious poetry redolent of "thin piety" and "decoratively sweet nosegays."

She carried a full teaching schedule and wrote her thoughts in black notebooks. She also maintained correspondences with writers Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor and Richard Wilbur.

"She believed in the discipline of poetry, and that's the way she taught her students," said Michael Storey, a fellow faculty member Sister Maura hired more than 40 years ago. "She had a sharp critical mind."

Colleagues recalled Sister Maura, wearing a black veil, in her order's full, near-floor-length habit in the 1950s.

"She was tall, slender and beautiful. She was a born lecturer. She didn't seem to have notes," said Jo Trueschler, a former student who went on to teach at the college. "She ended her talk on the right note and we as students seemed to float out of the classroom."

She recalled Sister Maura's fondness for writing that appeared in The New Yorker magazine, chocolate, soft crabs and the flowers that bloomed on the college campus.

Diane Scharper, a former student who teaches at Towson University and reviews books for The Baltimore Sun, said "Sister Maura made me read and think. She taught me how to be a critic. She let me know that I had to learn the rules before I could break them. She forced me to revise every poem I ever wrote."

Many of Sister Maura's poems were published in her seven other books, including "The Word is Love" (1958), "Walking on Water" (1972), "What We Women Know" (1980) and "Hope is a Blind Bard" (1989). Her work was also recorded for the poetry collections of Lamont Library at Harvard and for the Library of Congress.

"She was graceful and articulate, with always the right image and phrase to clarify her point," said Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty, a former student. "She was quiet and spectacular at the same time. Students were universally moved by her well-crafted classes."

She was the recipient of the Theodore Hesburgh Award for Contribution to Higher Education in 1986, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1985, and the Achievement in Literature Award from Maryland's women legislators in 1986.

A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at Villa Assumpta, 6401 N. Charles St.

Survivors include two brothers, Andrew Eichner of Setauket, N.Y., and Walter Eichner of Garden City, N.Y.; and three sisters, Marie Bluff of East Meadow, N.Y., Madeline Haudberg of Elmont, N.Y., and Theresa Murphy of New Hyde Park, N.Y.

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