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A Leader Educating Leaders

Note: This is the 25th profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

By Julie DiBiasio

When Sr. Mary Marthe Reinhard ’52 took charge of Notre Dame College as its ninth president in 1973, women’s colleges in the United States were closing, merging or going co-ed. Notre Dame was experiencing its own struggles at the time, as merely 495 students were enrolled and debts were rising.

Fifteen years later, Sr. Mary Marthe retired from NDC as the longest serving fulltime president in the College’s history. During her tenure she had increased enrollment to 750, paid off all debts and enlarged the endowment from $250,000 to $3.5 million. In short, Sr. Mary Marthe may have saved Notre Dame College.

Sister accomplished this by implementing educational programs that reached out to non-traditional and minority students, including working mothers and Hispanics. Her passion for education allowed her to see the need for alternative programs that enabled women to obtain a college degree and strengthen the skills needed to succeed in the business world. At the time, there was an emergence of women holding leadership roles in the workplace, and Sister wanted Notre Dame to play a vital part in educating leaders.

“I cannot imagine a more successful leadership of a women’s college in a more trying era,” Sr. Mary Rita Harwood, then head of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio, told Notre Dame Today in 1988. “Sister Marthe recognized that Notre Dame had a unique mission in American higher education, one that was abandoned by other schools. She recognized the challenge of that mission and more than met it.”

As a student, alumna and president of Notre Dame College, Sr. Mary Marthe was part of the Notre Dame community for most of her life. She was known by her friends and colleagues as a spiritual and influential scholar, leader and philanthropist. 

Sr. Mary Marthe was born Leona Reinhard, the eldest of three girls, in McKeesport, Pa., on Aug. 29, 1929. She decided as early as elementary school that she wanted to become a nun. During high school she worked in a drugstore in Warren, Ohio, and her employer offered to pay for college if she promised to come back after graduation. She entered the convent instead.  

Sr. Mary Marthe Reinhard
Sr. Mary Marthe Reinhard served as president of Notre Dame College for 15 years.

Sr. Mary Marthe graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history and Latin from Notre Dame College in 1952 and received a master’s in Latin from the University of Notre Dame in 1961. She also studied at John Carroll University and Harvard Business School and did research at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Education quickly became a passion for Sr. Mary Marthe. She started her lifelong career in educational ministry as a Latin and religion teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Chardon, Regina High School in South Euclid, and Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. From there she moved into administrative positions becoming principal of Regina High School and Notre Dame Academy before being named president of Notre Dame College.

“In a society championing women's rights and questioning the role of the church, Notre Dame witnesses to the unique merit of a woman's college as the basis for true liberation and endeavors to build on its campus a Christian community with faith in God, in His church and in the value of the individual person,” Sister said after he appointment.

Throughout her 15 years as president, Sr. Mary Marthe made Notre Dame a better place. In addition to eliminating the College’s debt and increasing its endowment, she also led a capital campaign that raised $3 million to build the Joseph H. Keller Center, Notre Dame’s indoor athletic facility. Sr. Mary Marthe was also responsible for initiating a strategic plan, providing better access to minority students and increasing the College’s visibility. A highlight of her career was when she hosted Mother Teresa on campus in 1978.

Among Sr. Mary Marthe’s biggest accomplishments, however, was establishing the Lifelong Learning Center and building the Weekend College with Sr. Mary Leroy Finn ’40. These programs enabled non-traditional age women to obtain a college degree while continuing fulltime employment. Sister was passionate about these programs. She told The Plain Dealer in 1984, “Equality of opportunity is one of my major concerns,” and in an interview shortly before her death in 2003 said “it was a thrill to see the increase in minority and older women on campus.”

Sr. Mary Marthe’s belief in the Notre Dame mission and her strong leadership skills allowed her to accomplish these significant milestones. But she knew she could not succeed alone. She spoke highly of the faculty and staff at Notre Dame when she said, “They are just a great group of people with values, concern for students and a willingness to try new things.” 

 Because of her accomplishments at Notre Dame, Sr. Mary Marthe became known for her business savvy throughout the community. In 1984, she became the first woman to serve on the board of directors for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. She later became the chief executive officer of the board.

After retiring from Notre Dame in 1988, Sr. Mary Marthe became the director of development for the Notre Dame Education Center in Chardon for the next 13 years. While holding that position she spearheaded an $8.5 million campaign to raise funds for a new wing and healthcare center for the Sisters of Notre Dame’s Chardon residence.

Sister’s string of successful careers didn’t get in the way of her philanthropic nature and she found time to give back to the community. She founded the Notre Dame Education Association, a national organization of teachers and principals in schools operated by the Sisters of Notre Dame. In addition, she served with the United Way of Cleveland and Geauga County, as well as the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

“Sister Marthe was a wonderful community woman,” Sr. Melannie Svoboda ’67 said in her eulogy for Sister. “If there were meals to serve, Marthe was there. If there were chairs to move, Marthe was there. She was a woman of deep prayer with a great devotion to Mary.”

Sister’s impressive contributions to the College, the Sisters of Notre Dame and the community did not go unnoticed. In 1990 she received the Fidelia Award and was named Woman of the Year by the Notre Dame College Alumnae Association. In 1996 she was inducted into the Ohio Foundation of Independent Colleges Hall of Excellence. She was also named YWCA Career Woman of Achievement, one of the Women’s City Club 100 most influential women in Cleveland, and recipient of John Carroll Universities Centennial Medal for Education. 

Despite all of her accomplishments, Sr. Mary Marthe said she enjoyed nothing more than meeting alumnae several years after graduation to see “what they have done with their lives.”

In 1997, Sr. Mary Marthe made a near miraculous recovery from a car accident that left her with severe internal injuries, a punctured lung, five broken ribs, a broken pelvis and a broken ankle. She died of a heart attack six years later, on April 19, 2003, at the Chardon Provincial Center. After serving as an educator in the Cleveland Diocese for 50 years, her Sisters, colleagues and friends remember her for her faith, compassion and commitment toward education and community service.

Julie DiBiasio is the college communications assistant at Notre Dame College.