“She was a very JOYFUL person, and still smiling the last time I saw her, at John Alvis’ funeral here at UD, because she had just received her leg prosthesis and hoped to walk again after a bad accident,” said Assistant Registrar Sandy (Caldwell) Morgan, BA ’68 MTS ’01, who went to high school in Houston as well as to UD with Sister Mary Brian.
“Our mothers were friends because they both volunteered at the high school,” said Morgan — the only one, according to their UD classmates, who outside of the family still called Sister Mary Brian by her given name, Alma. “The School Sisters of Notre Dame taught us through grade school and high school, and inspired her to join their order.”
Originally Alma Ann Bole, the second of 11 children born to New Orleans natives Thomas J. and Alma Lagarde Bole, Sister Mary Brian entered both UD and the School Sisters of Notre Dame simultaneously in 1963, believing that it was her calling to teach through the School Sisters — and this, indeed, she did.
“She was a larger-than-life person; she had a heart of gold, she always connected people, and she would do anything for you,” said Sister Mary Brian’s UD classmate and fellow politics major Jo Ann (Shoaf) Gasper, BA ’67 MBA ’69.
Another classmate and fellow politics major, Professor Emerita of Spanish and History Alexandra Wilhelmsen, Ph.D., BA ’67, concurs with Gasper: “Sister Mary Brian was an amazing lady: a dedicated nun, a wonderful teacher, and a woman with fantastic people skills who constantly reached out to help others. She was great at putting people in touch with one another when it would be beneficial, a great networker — she networked like crazy for the benefit of other people.
“She had an exuberant personality,” added Wilhelmsen. “Exuberant is the word I’m looking for. She was very talkative, had great people skills and was a joy to be with.”
Sister Mary Brian was traditional but could embrace change when she came to see its benefit. The School Sisters of Notre Dame originally wore habits, of course, and actually made their own. At some point the order determined that they would move away from the habits in favor of street clothes so as to be less conspicuous when going about their work. Sister Mary Brian resisted this change, continuing to wear her habit, until she realized that it was setting her apart from the other sisters and making them less receptive to her.
“She had great strength of character as well as the ability to know what it takes to be heard,” said Gasper. “She was a remarkable lady.”
“She was very polite and interested in proper form, old-fashioned, affectionate, but not shy — she would always speak up if she didn’t agree,” added Wilhelmsen.
Professor Emerita of Drama Judy (French) Kelly, BA ’63, and Professor Emeritus of Drama Patrick Kelly watched Sister Mary Brian’s funeral on YouTube.
“We were truly moved by Bishop Greg Kelly’s liturgy and remarks,” said Judy Kelly. “We knew immediately about Sister’s five pages of instructions vis-a-vis the ceremony! She was always so very particular! Patrick called her ‘constant’ — an adjective which would be most clear if you could see a photo of her in her first SSND habit next to a more recent photo of her in her ‘street clothes.’”
The Kellys remember Sister Mary Brian from her very first days on campus as a UD freshman.
“She was determined and dedicated herself to her UD studies,” said Judy Kelly. “For fun, she became our first, most amazing stage manager.”
Judy Kelly herself had just arrived back on campus to found the Drama Department (which replaced the former Speech and Drama Department), dedicated to staging the classics like those read in the Core Curriculum. They performed in Lynch Hall, with Carpenter Hall classrooms providing all “backstage” costume, makeup and dressing spaces.
“Moliere’s 17th-century comedy The Miser was on ‘the boards,’ and Sister was dashing back and forth between buildings, chasing actors like the young Bainard Cowan (now a professor of classics) and Robert Scott Dupree (now a professor of English),” recalled Judy Kelly. “They remember how their behind-the-scenes ruckus would be calmed and quiet the minute they heard the rattle of Sister’s rosary beads as she approached to cue for ‘places’ — she was constantly in charge!”
“May she rest in peace knowing that we all loved her,” added Judy Kelly. “We were blessed to know her!”
Sister Theresa Khirallah, SSND, who serves as the Director of Ministries for the Diocese of Dallas, remembers Sister Mary Brian from her own early days in the motherhouse. Sister Mary Brian was a few years older than Sister Theresa.
“She was very helpful to the younger Sisters, getting us through our hardest times,” said Sister Theresa. “She was always there to lend an ear and give advice and suggestions on how to get through whatever we were going through at that time. She was very honest and truthful, and very forthright in giving the best advice possible.”
Sister Theresa and Sister Mary Brian later lived and ministered together at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Oak Cliff in the 1970s and 1980s.
“She was very passionate about education, and her faith, and her belief that God was always directing her life,” said Sister Theresa. “She lived that out and practiced it.”
By all accounts, Sister Mary Brian deeply valued the education she had received at UD and was dedicated to passing similar opportunities on to others. As an undergraduate at UD, along with Gasper and Wilhelmsen, Sister Mary Brian had studied with legendary UD professors such as Leo Paul de Alvarez, Wilmore Kendall and Frederick Wilhelmsen.
“Sister Mary Brian frequently referenced our UD professors from the ’60s, passages from books we read, ideas we absorbed, and even class discussions we had,” said Wilhelmsen. They would meet up periodically for coffee or lunch over the years, and Sister Mary Brian’s memories of undergraduate class discussions remained vivid and strong. “The UD education meant so much to her,” added Wilhelmsen. “That’s why she was always so involved at UD and wanted students to come to UD.”
“She was hoping to do graduate study with the late Dr. Wilmore Kendall,” said Judy Kelly. “In fact, he died before he could initiate that graduate politics program!” Sister Mary Brian instead went on to get her master’s degree in political science from Northern Illinois University.
“After she got her master’s degree, her order sent her to teach,” said Wilhelmsen. “When she taught in high schools in the area she sent us, at UD, a good number of students; we received many letters of recommendation from her. She worked in UD’s Admissions Office in her middle age (and team-taught some courses); Mrs. Gasper was doing fundraising in the Advancement Office, and I was a full-time member of the faculty. We three classmates who’d been politics majors had kept in touch over the years, and enjoyed coinciding at UD during that time.”
Sister Mary Brian was also the principal of Nolan Catholic High School while Gasper’s daughter was a student there: “She did a tremendous job as principal,” said Gasper.
Though she had earned degrees in politics, Sister Mary Brian also loved literature and in fact taught English. She had specifically requested that the conclusion of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets be read at her funeral. Bishop Greg Kelly, BA ’78 MDiv ’82, who had also been Sister Mary Brian’s friend, of course obliged.
“Those texts we studied in school meant something to her throughout her lifetime,” said Wilhelmsen.
Sister Mary Brian was a faithful participant in the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass in UD’s Church of the Incarnation, and her funeral was held there and also broadcast on YouTube for those who, like Judy and Patrick Kelly, due to distance or COVID-19 or some combination thereof could not be present in person.
“Bishop Kelly arranged a beautiful funeral on campus for Sister Mary Brian,” said Wilhelmsen.
Four Cistercians concelebrated the Mass, including Affiliate Assistant Professor of English Father Robert Maguire, PhD ’77. Sister Mary Brian’s nine living siblings and their families were among those gathered to celebrate her life.
“With 11 children in the family, Alma was always focused on family things,” said Morgan. “Even in these last years, she would always try to attend first Communions, confirmations, weddings, etc., of siblings, nieces and nephews. Her life was so diversified.”
“Sister Mary Brian was responsible for a number of conversions of young alumni,” recalled retired University Historian Sybil Novinski. “Clearly she had a razor sharp mind and was a distinct presence.”
“Sister Mary Brian was an exceptional, lovely, intelligent lady,” said Wilhelmsen. “She was always involved with UD — sacristy, choir, Admissions. She was the type of person that UD could be very proud of; she loved UD and was connected to UD, in one way or another, all her adult life, and was very highly respected.
“Sister was very sick at the end of her life,” added Wilhelmsen. “May she now enjoy the Beatific Vision in Heaven.”