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Living His Gospel

Note: This is the 24th 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. Cleophas] and Sr. Carmellette often went to the Ambassador Nursing Home. There [Sr. Cleophas] came in contact with a person who was extremely critical of both her and God. Undaunted, Sr. Cleophas said that it might take some time, but with God’s help she would bring her back to the Father. Then, one day, after many visits, the person suddenly took her by the hand and asked forgiveness. Every Sunday after that she would be waiting for Sister. They would then go hand in hand to visit all the patients.

“There was another lady so bent over by her illness that her head practically touched her knees. Sr. Cleophas always knelt down next to her so that she could look into her eyes. One day the woman told Sister that she was the only one who took any time with her.

“And there was a man covered with sores. Sister would go in and talk to him, and he would ask for her hand. Then he would kiss her hand. And he would tell her what a wonderful friend she was, and how he looked forward every Sunday to her visit.”

These anecdotes by Fred Mambu illustrate what kind of person longtime Notre Dame College professor Sr. Mary Cleophas Garvinwas.

Sister was a woman of concern and compassion, who served as a financial aid advisor for needy students; who was a supporter of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement; who gathered stipends, food and clothing for needy priests who had left the ministry; and who organized the distribution of bread, clothes and bed linens to the poor.

“Her life is right out of the New Testament. Her discipleship measured up to the ideal of Jesus,” said Mambu, who helped her found the Cleveland chapter of the Co-workers of Mother Teresa to assure the continuation of her work. “Her caring took so many forms that it would be impossible to mention them all. Wherever she saw need, she did something about it.”

Sister was also a loving teacher and friend who had a remarkable gift for challenging her students and colleagues to develop intellectually and spiritually. Alumni remember Sister promising prayers for them by “putting them on a candle or the sanctuary lamp in the chapel.” Then when she passed them in the hall she would motion with her fingers, suggesting a candle flame. It was a reminder of the ever-present love of God and of Sr. Mary Cleophas.

And Sister was a visionary who brought the first desktop computer to campus and introduced students and faculty to computer science. She was a brilliant mathematician and chair of the mathematics department for over 40 years.

“Sister Cleophas was the very best teacher I ever knew,” Marie Goetz Geier ’60 once wrote about her. “She had the unique ability of putting herself in her students’ position and understanding the problems they were encountering. She was then able to explain away the difficulties and free her students to move forward.”

Sr. Mary Cleophas Garvin worked at Notre Dame for 50 years.

Sr. Mary Cleophas was born Linetta Anna Garvin in Vickery, Ohio, on Dec. 11, 1899. Her mother, Odelia Margaret, was a housewife; her father, Austin Edward, worked as a meat dealer, a salesman in a meat market, and a foreman in an auto factory. She had one older sister and four younger brothers.

Garvin attended grade school at St. Ann’s and high school at Notre Dame Academy in Toledo. She graduated from high school and entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1917. She chose her religious name, Mary Cleophas, in memory of her brother who died at age 4 when she was 11.

Sr. Mary Cleophas taught math, physics, religion, history and Latin at Notre Dame Academy in Cleveland from 1919 to 1929. While teaching full-time, she spent eight years in part-time study earning her bachelor’s from Fordham University in 1927.

She took courses in French and education at Fordham in the summer of 1928 and courses in education at Columbia University in the summer of 1929 before enrolling full-time at St. Louis University. There Sr. Mary Cleophas earned her master’s in physics in 1931 and a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934. She was one of the first women in the university to receive that doctorate.

After receiving her doctorate, Sister returned to Cleveland to serve as professor of mathematics and physics and head of the mathematics department at Notre Dame College. She remained at the College for 50 years, as a professor until 1975 and as an archivist until 1984.

Besides her gift for teaching, Sister’s contributions at the College included special classes for parents to learn the “new math” with their children. She provided elementary and secondary teachers with information about curricular changes and introduced computer science to teachers and college students.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Sr. Mary Cleophas secured several grants for desktop computers and computer-related workshops. She focused her last few years at Notre Dame on the computer center, which was later named The Garvin Computer Center.

Although Sr. Mary Cleophas worked most of her life with college women, she had a passion for the very young and the old. “I always liked working with little children or old people,” she told Notre Dame Today in 1981. So when St. Helen’s Parish in Newbury, Ohio, need a first grade teacher, she volunteered to fill in. She ended up teaching there for five years.

Sr. Mary Cleophas was ever concerned for the needy and the poor, and her outreach increased as her retirement from the classroom drew near. She organized the distribution of food, clothing and shelter, and visited residents of nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.

To ensure her work would continue after her retirement, she founded the Cleveland Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, a group of lay and religious volunteers. In 1985, she received the Vincent P. Haas Memorial Award for “putting Gospel values in action” and Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich presented her with a volunteerism award.

After her retirement in 1985, Sr. Mary Cleophas moved to the Provincial House in Chardon, Ohio, where she died of pneumonia on Jan.16, 1990, shortly after a celebration of her 90th birthday. The Sr. Mary Cleophas Award for Excellence in Mathematics was established at Notre Dame College after her death.