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A Pioneering Duo: Eleanor Malburg '84 and Fran Babic

Note: These are profiles No. 41 and 42 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 Christian Taske ’07 & Karen Zoller

In 1984, two women at Notre Dame College shared a vision to provide a forum for open dialogue between Catholics and the Orthodox. A year later, they launched a workshop to foster understanding among the Eastern and Western churches. The seminar was the first of its kind in the United States and over the past 27 years has become a prototype for similar efforts.

The Eleanor Malburg Eastern Churches Seminar is an annual dialogue between the clergy, bishops and laity of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the Greater Cleveland area. It began with the shared vision of Fran Babic, former director of the Lifelong Learning Center, and the late Eleanor Malburg ’84, administrative assistant in the College's Pastoral Ministry Office.

“Eleanor and Fran never realized how big this was,” says Sr. Mary Ann Baran, director of the Center for Pastoral Ministry. “They just had a good idea for a workshop. But they had no idea what they were starting.”

Malburg and Babic shared an interest in the traditions and celebrations of the various Eastern church communities. With the support of Fr. Paul Sciarrotta, the director of the Center for Pastoral Ministry at the time, they launched the inaugural seminar on Sept. 13 and 14, 1985. It was the first such seminar that created dialogue between bishops of the Eastern, Byzantine and Roman Catholic churches.

“This kind of seminar was the first one, most likely, in the world. Catholics and Orthodox just didn’t pray and work together,” Sr. Mary Ann says. “I remember the priests who attended in the first few years never in their lives had experienced something like this.”

The historic division between the Catholic and Orthodox churches dates back to 476 A.D., when the Western Roman Empire collapsed and the Eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire headquartered in Constantinople. Relations between the East and West deteriorated until a formal split in 1054. The estrangement between Catholic and Orthodox believers of some thousand years created differences in doctrine and practice that have yet to find resolution.

Since its inception, the Eastern Churches Seminar has helped bridge these differences. The first seminar was so popular that the participating clergy requested a planning committee be formed to make it an annual event. Over the past 27 years it has achieved both local and national recognition and inspired similar efforts.

In 1989 the Cleveland Catholic Diocese awarded the Center of Pastoral Ministry with a plaque recognizing its work in fostering Christian unity; and in 1997 the internationally known Orientale Lumen Conferences were initiated in Washington, D.C., citing Notre Dame College’s seminar as a model.

“Every year I find the level of theological discussion just fascinating,” says Fr. Joseph Hilinski, who is the interfaith officer for the Diocese of Cleveland and a member of the seminar’s planning committee. “It is a tremendous opportunity to be with clergy of other Christian churches and have a discussion and share insights about our differences.”

This opportunity exists thanks to the pioneering efforts of Malburg and Babic, who contributed years of dedicated service to the College and a lifelong devotion to fostering ecumenism.

Fran Babic

Fran Babic
Fran Babic is the former director of the Lifelong Learning Center at Notre Dame.

Frances Babic’s interest in the traditions and celebrations of the Eastern churches came from her Slovenian heritage and her studies in Soviet and Eastern European history and culture. Since the 1950s she has worked tirelessly to preserve, catalog, exhibit and promote the traditional cultural arts of Slavic communities throughout Northern Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Long regarded as an expert consultant on cultural affairs in Northeast Ohio, Babic received the 2007 Ohio Heritage Fellowship for Community Leadership awarded by the Ohio Arts Council and the Ohio Folk Arts Network for her 50 years of work with various ethnic groups in the Greater Cleveland area. She was recognized for helping each ethnic group to find pride in its folk culture and to build bridges between ethnic groups through awareness of shared universal values.

A graduate of Marymount High School in Garfield Heights, Ohio, Babic also attended the Hruby Conservatory of Music, Duquesne University and St. John’s College. She received her B.A. in Russian history and culture from Ursuline College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She received her master’s degree in history from John Carroll University in 1978.

For several years Babic served as a professor in JCU’s Department of Classical and Modern Languages. She has also taught at several other schools in the Cleveland area, including Ursuline College, Lakeland Community College and Notre Dame College, where she also directed the Lifelong Learning Center. She was also featured as the luncheon speaker for NDC’s Kaleidoscope’94 program and the keynote speaker for the 1995 Eastern Church Traditions and Celebrations Seminar on the Feminine Dimension of the Life of the Church.

Babic has curated numerous exhibitions at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus, Notre Dame College, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Croatian Heritage Museum in Eastlake, where she was museum curator for 10 years and her husband, Nick, served as treasurer. Her exhibits included Croatian, Slavic and Slovenian art, textiles, clothing, domestic goods, paper cuttings and psysanky, elaborately decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs.

She has also lectured widely and written extensively on traditional Slavic culture, music and art. Most recently she co-authored “Maiden, Mother, Woman of Wisdom – Wedding Traditions and Folk Dress” (2010), an introduction to the customs of rural Croatia that define the social place of women in the community.

Babic has a long personal involvement with tamburitza music as well. During her college years she was a member of the Tamburitzans, a renowned student performing ensemble at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Since 1937, this group of full-time students has toured the country and the world, performing as many as 80 times a year and doing an incalculable amount to keep Slavic music and culture alive.

A February 1950 Plain Dealer article highlighting musical events for the week included the Tamburitzans. It singled out Babic’s solo work, referring to her as a “stellar performer” and featuring a large picture of her. Babic chronicled the group’s history in her 1981 book “Keepers of the Idiom of the People: The Duquesne University Tamburitzans.”

In 1999, Babic received an award from the Republic of Croatia, the Presidential Order of the Croatian Pletera, for her efforts on behalf of the folk cultures of Eastern Europe.

Eleanor Malburg

Eleanor Malburg
Eleanor Malburg was instrumental in the establishment of the Eastern Churches Seminar.

Eleanor Malburg enrolled at Notre Dame College in 1976 after she moved from Pittsburgh to Cleveland with her husband Ray and their three children. That same year she was approached by Sr. Mary LeRoy Finn, SND ’40 to help out in the Lifelong Learning Center. Malburg signed on as a part-time employee and continued her studies while raising her children.

Malburg later became an administrative assistant in Notre Dame’s Pastoral Ministry Office. She worked there until her death in December 2003. Her skills and initiative far exceed her job description. She was always kind, a bright conversationalist and an excellent listener.

When the Clara Fritzsche Library was built, the Pastoral Ministry Office was moved into a space that was one half of what is now the library’s first floor computer lab. Out of that tiny office emerged big ideas.

Not only did Malburg established the Eastern Churches Seminar, she also proposed the creation of a resource center to house the growing collection of materials donated by seminar planning committee members and participants. The Baker Exhibit Room on the first floor of the Library, vacant since the archives moved to its new space on the ground floor of the Administration Building, was selected as its home and on April 19, 1999, the Eastern Church Resource Center was dedicated.

The center now houses growing collection of books, videos, DVDs, icons and audiotapes of all of the past seminars. Malburg was involved in every detail of the center down to the purple and white logo stickers used to identify the collection. Ironically, they were delivered to the library just a few days after her death.

Working under six directors in the Pastoral Ministry Center, Malburg, through her dedication and passionate interest in ecumenism, was the heart and soul of the Eastern Churches Seminar. She organized committee meetings, provided refreshments, cleaned up, and coordinated communications. She did all of it cheerfully and with boundless energy.

In addition to hosting family gatherings and babysitting, Malburg also found time to help out at her son-in-law’s restaurant, Mark’s Time Out Grill, near 185th Street in Cleveland. She was never one to complain, even though she had witnessed personal tragedy in her own life.

Her husband of 48 years, Ray, was incapacitated by multiple sclerosis, eventually only able to move his head slightly and use a computer controlled by a special device utilizing puffs of breath. Malburg made a point of bringing Ray to all of the Eastern Church anniversary celebrations, college art exhibits and other events. She also elicited his help in creating the brochures for the annual seminar.

When she lost a relative to a malignant melanoma, it gave her pause about the unpredictability of life. Yet she persevered, creating a lasting legacy of scholarship and goodwill in the form of Eleanor Malburg Eastern Churches Seminar.

“A welcoming smile can often times make a difference between a good day and a bad day,” Malburg would often say.

Malburg always had a smile on her face and made a difference in countless lives. In 2007, Notre Dame College received a $100,000 endowment gift in honor of Malburg’s life from her sister Leona Szulinski O’Brien and her husband Bernard. The money was used to establish the Eleanor Malburg Scholarships, which provide grants each year to help deserving students with tuition, fees and books.

In addition, the Eleanor Malburg Campus Ministry Internship makes possible a stipend each semester that enables a student to take on a greater leadership role in campus ministry by undertaking a project that furthers the work of the ministry.

Christian Taske ’07 is the director of print & digital communications at Notre Dame College.

Karen Zoller is the director of the Clara Fritzsche Library at Notre Dame College.