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A Notre Dame Woman

Note: This is the 12th 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.

Sr. Mary Inez McHugh served Notre Dame College for over six decades. During that time she took on many different roles. She was a professor, a mentor to the student council, an advisor to the Notre Dame News, director of student activities, dean of academic affairs, dean of women, moderator of the Alumnae Association, and president of the College. But if you asked some of the NDC students who knew Sr. Mary Inez over those 60 years, they would tell you that above all she was a teacher and a friend.

“Her biggest love has been for her students. She has always showed concern for them and kept in touch with so many of them,” Sr. Teresmarie McCloskey ’49, a former student and colleague, told the Geauga Times Leader in 1991.

That year Sr. Mary Inez, who was born Catherine R. McHugh in Toledo, Ohio, on Feb. 13, 1901, to a devout Irish Catholic family of five girls, turned 90; and Notre Dame faculty, students and alumnae paid tribute to her with a birthday celebration at the College.

“Her blue eyes were always twinkling and her face would light up when she was teaching,” Sr. Helen Burdenski ’62, a former student of Sr. Mary Inez, told the Times Leader. “She had a remarkable gift for keeping others excited about learning.”

Sr. Mary Inez began putting that gift to use after graduating from Notre Dame Academy in Toledo and joining the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1918. A talented student, she was sent to teach at Notre Dame Academy in Cleveland during the second year of her novitiate. She remained on the faculty for eight years while pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Fordham University during the summer months.

Sr. Mary Inez McHugh
Sr. Mary Inez McHugh was the seventh president of Notre Dame.

The Sisters recognized Sr. Mary Inez’s talent for teaching and sent her to pursue graduate studies at St. Louis University in 1927. She graduated in 1929 with a Master of Arts in Greek and Latin and was sent to Notre Dame College, which thanks to its early growth was in need of new faculty members. At Notre Dame, Sr. Mary Inez taught philosophy, theology, Latin and Greek until 1952, when she became the academic dean, a position she held for three years.

In that role, Sr. Mary Inez continued the work of Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche, the first dean of the College, who had been Sr. Mary Inez’s teacher and mentor at the academy in Toledo. The two women shared the same academic philosophy.

“She was a religious who definitely believed in youth,” Sr. Mary Inez once said of Sr. Mary Agnes. “So do I believe in youth.”

Sr. Mary Inez believed the future of the Church and of the country was lodged in young people. “That they should be able to meet the demands which will be made on them, they have need of two things – intellectual and spiritual preparation,” she said.

In order to be prepared intellectually, students had to submit to discipline, Sr. Mary Inez believed. “Discipline has its blessed uses and happiness is born of crushing impulses,” she said. “And while youth has many distractions and temptations, I think that Catholic college students are willing to submit to the necessary discipline in order to become what they can and should be.”

Sr. Mary Inez demanded excellence from her students and they respected her for it.

“I was always convinced of the worth of what I was teaching, and that carried over to the students,” she told The Plain Dealer in 1981.

For many students Sr. Mary Inez was more than a teacher. She was a confidant and students came to her with their problems. In many ways she became a counselor long before the College had a formal counselor on staff.

“You listen, you state principles, remind them and support them. But they make the decision. You can't legislate virtue,” Sr. Mary Inez told The Plain Dealer.

No matter what administrative position she was in, the patient and kind Sister always found time to listen to the concerns of her current and former students. She not only remembered each alumna by name and class, she remembered the names of their husbands and children.

After serving as dean of women from 1955 to 1956, Sr. Mary Inez took a three-year academic leave to pursue her doctorate in theology at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind. In 1963, she became Notre Dame College’s seventh president. Sr. Mary Inez held that office until 1967, when her passion for teaching drew her back to the classroom. She taught until 1977, when she reluctantly retired.

“My hearing deficiency is a little annoying,” Sr. Mary Inez told The Plain Dealer. “It wasn’t fair to the students to impose it on them.” 

But even after she officially retired, Sr. Mary Inez continued to serve the College as moderator of the Alumnae Association. She held that position until 1990, when she moved into the Provincial House of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio, due to her declining health.

Sr. Mary Inez died on Jan. 24, 1993. For many former students and colleagues, she is a legend whose impact on the College and its students will never be forgotten. Her kindness, her patience and her spirit made her the truest example of a Notre Dame woman.