This beginning set a precedent: that UD is home to women with a religious vocation. Our religious alumnae and Dominican professors have shared their discernment stories and the role UD played in discovering their lifelong call to religious life, in hope that their experiences will aid young women at UD in their own discernment processes.
This month in our new series “Sisters Serving UD,” we are sharing the discernment stories of our two current professors who are a part of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia order, more commonly known as the Nashville Dominicans: Affiliate Assistant Professor of Theology Sister Mary Angelica Neenan, O.P., and Affiliate Assistant Professor of Philosophy Sister Elinor Gardner, O.P., beginning with Sister Mary Angelica.
The Nashville Dominicans first arrived at UD in 2016, when Associate Professor and former Chair of Theology Mark Goodwin extended an invitation to alumna Sister Jane Dominic Laurel, O.P., BA ’92 MA ’95, to teach systematic theology full time at UD. As a result of this conversation, three Nashville Dominicans arrived in Irving and established a convent. Prior to this, the Nashville Dominicans had dozens of other mission houses, but not one in Dallas. Though these three sisters have since returned to their mother house in Nashville, the convent in Dallas and the relationship between UD and the sisters is still thriving.
The Dallas convent is currently occupied by five Nashville Dominicans, three of whom serve at Mary Immaculate Catholic School in Farmers Branch, and the other two, Sister Mary Angelica and Sister Elinor Gardner, serving as beloved members of the UD faculty community.
Sister Mary Angelica Neenan, O.P., grew up in a loving Catholic home in Boston with four siblings. She attended the Massachusetts College of Art, where she was pursuing an art degree and had no post-graduation plans besides wanting to “get married and have 12 children.” During her junior year of college, she began to feel a pull toward religious life, but the idea was not yet appealing to her. When a priest randomly asked her if she had ever thought of becoming a religious, she exclaimed, “No! Why?” and in her thoughts added, “Get away from me!”
But the seed had been planted. After wrestling with the idea for some time, Sister Mary Angelica went back to that same priest and asked, “OK, what if I had thought about it?” He immediately responded, “Nashville, Tennessee. That’s the place. As soon as I saw you, I knew you should go to Nashville, Tennessee.” Despite her objections to moving out of Boston, Sister Mary Angelica decided to at least look at the Nashville Dominicans, but her mind was resolute on “crossing it off the list.”
When she visited the motherhouse in the summer of 1989, though, it was love at first sight. Not having really had a glimpse into religious life before, Sister Mary Angelica was shocked to find that the sisters were “normal.”
“I thought that they would be weird, and that I would have some reason to say, ‘I don’t like this!’” she explained. “But I didn’t.”
She spent time alone in the chapel, and while sitting in the back pew, she asked God for a sign, because she did not want a decision that big to be based on a feeling. “I really expected the word ‘yes’ to appear on the wall. But instead, I received what I now know from St. Augustine to be called ‘infused knowledge,’ which I teach about in my theology classes at UD.” She truly understood the concept of “free choice” at that moment: “That I could say no to this, and God would still love me, and He would not hold it against me. And He could not force me. It had to be free.”
Upon this realization, Sister Mary Angelica prayed, “Are you asking me to marry you? Is that possible?” And when she understood that this was an invitation and her answer was pending, she said, “Yes! Well, what next? What do we do now, Lord?”
Sister Mary Angelica visited with the Mother General, who asked if she would like to join their community in three weeks that August, or wait until the following year. “Three weeks will be fine,” said Sister Mary Angelica, and it has been 31 years since her enthusiastic response.
After Sister Mary Angelica became a Nashville Dominican, her younger sister, Mother Anna Grace Neenan, O.P., followed suit and in 2017 became, and is still today, Mother General of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. One week into this position, Mother Anna Grace informed her older sister that she was sending her to Dallas. Sister Mary Angelica protested, because she dreaded the Texas heat and knew that she would miss her life in Nashville. “But when I got to Dallas, it was like a thousandfold back,” said Sister Mary Angelica. “You can never sacrifice more than God is going to give.”
When asked about how she feels about UD now, Sister Mary Angelica said, “I think I must have died and gone to heaven. I can’t say enough about UD — it is such a gold mine of academic and spiritual life! It is so balanced. It is so wonderful to see a college where the students' faith is encouraged and nourished, and you can’t always engineer that — it takes all the students, faculty and administration all agreeing on that and living it out. But that’s what I see: the students living out the great ideal of John Henry Newman, which is the university where the truth runs your life. So Dominican!”
Sister Mary Angelica added, “UD also challenges me and helps me to be a better teacher because I can teach to the top, and I can challenge them in a way that hopefully brings them closer to God, because that’s my goal.”
The impact UD has made on Sister Mary Angelica Neenan has certainly been reciprocal.
Business major Maddie LiMandri, BA ’21, says Sister Mary Angelica is one of her favorite professors.
“I took Western Theological Traditions with Sister Mary Angelica my sophomore year, simply to fulfill the Core requirement, but at the end of the semester, I found myself excited to go to class and with a new favorite professor,” said LiMandri. “I made sure to leave room in my schedule to take Mariology with Sister Mary Angelica during my last semester at UD, so that I can have one more class learning from her wealth of knowledge and kind heart.”
In her final remarks, Sister Mary Angelica noted that though she is not an alumna, she feels at home at the University of Dallas. “UD is a place where people are trying to know the truth and live the truth, which matches well with our Dominican motto of veritas. It’s such a perfect fit.”
Stay tuned for Sister Elinor's discernment story next week.