Of faith and reason: Reflecting on Sister Kathleen Cannon’s 32 years at Notre Dame

Author: Deanna Csomo Ferrell

Sr. Kathleen Cannon

Sister Kathleen Cannon’s teachers in elementary and high school were supportive and excellent educators, fostering her love of mathematics — especially geometry — which she carried into college as she pursued a major in mathematics.

“I remember thinking that this was a lot bigger than just teaching second grade,” said Sister Cannon, who held the position of associate provost at Notre Dame from 1990 to 1997 before moving into the College of Science as an associate dean. “They were changing the world in some way.”But her teachers, Dominican sisters, were so much more than simply skillful. Sister Cannon, O.P., now associate dean in the University of Notre Dame’s College of Science, whose duties include advising students in the science-business, science-education and science-computing majors, saw how they made such an important contribution to the world. From watching and learning from them, she realized from the time she was in second grade that her vocations would be in teaching and religious life.

Sister Cannon grew up in Pittsburgh as the oldest girl and the oldest of 11 children. Like any child with a dream, she practiced for her future job, and began with her brothers, whom she implored to “play school” with her as the teacher. But although they all majored in mathematics like she did, she was the only one who entered religious life, choosing to join the Dominican Sisters of Peace as a religious sister.

As she plans for her retirement, her passion for everything — from advising, to preaching, to championing women and diversity — shines as brightly as her faith.

“Her background, not just in science but also in theology, means she has brought sensitivity to the ways that faith and reason complement each other and are necessary in the pursuit of truth,” said Rev. James Foster, C.S.C, associate dean of health sciences advising — who himself was a physician with board certification in internal medicine and infectious diseases before entering the Congregation of Holy Cross to become a priest.

Sister Cannon’s father, a conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and her mother, a budding journalist who became a homemaker after Sister Cannon was born, didn’t treat her any differently from her brothers. When she was a junior in high school, her father told her, “You may not believe this, but it is really important for you to go to college.”

His advice was highly unusual at the time. But she listened, and after college she taught high school mathematics and religion at an all-girls academy in New Haven, Connecticut. Later, she taught at Albertus Magnus College, an all-women’s Dominican college also in New Haven. She taught men how to preach for years in her role as a Dominican — the O.P., after all, stands for Order of Preachers. Before arriving at Notre Dame, she served as a faculty member at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, where she taught preaching, and held visiting positions in preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary and Wesley Methodist Seminary.

In lectures recorded in 1987 and 2000, Sister Cannon strongly makes the case for the importance of women’s preaching. She engages her audience with a conversational, humble and even humorous tone, despite the serious discussion of her stance on female and lay involvement in the liturgy. Involving more groups into the liturgy can only benefit all members of the Church, she stressed, and her language was inclusive of men and women, laypeople and ordained clergy. 

Her measured pace, steady voice and consistent eye contact give the audience confidence in her position. She takes into account theological and practical concerns, grounding her detailed-oriented argument in both its historical context and its relevance to the faithful today. 

“I have a storage unit, and I actually kept her notes from 35 years ago,” said Rev. Maurice Nutt, C.Ss.R., one of Sister Cannon’s former students and the first Black American to have earned a Catholic doctorate degree in preaching. “Kathleen was very particular about diction and enunciation, and was very critical of that with me, but she was kind and highlighted that I had a gift for preaching, and told me she knew I would be a good preacher.”

All Christians realize that their very first preachers were women — their mothers, Father Nutt said. It was previously common for women to teach preaching, even to Catholic priests, despite not preaching homilies in their parishes.

“Reflecting on this, I realize what a gift she gave me by teaching me to do something she couldn’t, which is the Eucharistic liturgy,” Father Nutt said. “She loved the Church so much that she made that sacrifice; there is no greater love for the Church than to give the best of your gifts.”

Sister Cannon may have been the first — and perhaps only — woman in the United States to be granted canonical faculties to preach whenever necessary. In 1976, while on the staff at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, she approached then-Archbishop John Whelan about preaching because there was no priest chaplain. Archbishop Whelan allowed the exception.

The exception was a big deal, said Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., professor in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, who, like Sister Cannon, is a Dominican Sister of Peace. She explained that while women or lay people were increasingly involved in a variety of preaching ministries in the decade after the Second Vatican Council, it was rare for an archbishop to grant official authority to preach whenever needed. 

Always a champion for women in academia, Sister Cannon more fully understood some of the differences in learning styles between men and women after being hired at Notre Dame. For instance, an engineering professor once asked for her guidance because he wanted more women to pursue advanced degrees.

“‘The women are doing better than the men, but the men have no hesitation; they say they are good enough for advanced degrees,’” Sister Cannon recalls him saying. “‘The women don’t believe they are.’”

Though the number of women in engineering and computing has increased, at the time, Sister Cannon noticed some of the issues are ingrained and reinforced; when people told women they are not good at computing, for example, women internalized those comments. And on tests, men who did poorly moved past their disappointment more quickly, deciding they would do better next time.

“But if a woman did poorly on a test, she’d say, ‘Oh, I’m not meant to be a mathematician, or an artist, or an engineer,’” Sister Cannon continued, adding that women are not internalizing critique as much as they did 25 years ago. “I found that women needed more check-ins along the way to assure them that they are on the right track.”

Similarly, Sister Cannon has been attentive to promoting diversity, even before many people discussed the importance of inclusion, Father Foster said, which led her to continually push for hiring and championing faculty members who are historically underrepresented in the sciences.

“Diversity is really important — it triggers or stimulates ideas when people who don’t think the same way that I do come together,” she said. “It sparks something. It’s also so important for both men and women to do science and engineering.”

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To ensure diversity, Sister Cannon, in her role as associate provost, stressed that staff and faculty families needed to be supported, and that there was a work-life balance for everyone.

Sister Cannon had also been serving on the board for the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) at Saint Mary’s College, which was open to Notre Dame staff and faculty but had a hopelessly long wait list. She set up a committee with faculty and staff at Notre Dame and investigated how other universities handled day care, with the goal of providing the best service possible to the community.

“It was very important that it not be a place only for faculty children,” Sister Cannon said. “We developed a sliding scale, so that people who were administrators, or their salaries were higher, were required to pay more.

“When we unveiled this, people said, ‘That will never work; people will never want to pay different prices,’ but we had a waitlist that first year.”

The committee decided it was important to build the center on campus for more than simple convenience. Sister Cannon wanted students to see both men and women dropping their children off, or stopping by to have lunch with their children, or teaching an art class, “so that everyone can see that fathering is just as important as mothering.”

The doors of Notre Dame’s ECDC opened in 1997, and about a year later, Sister Cannon moved into the College of Science and took the reins of the science-business, science-computing and science-education sequence, which had fewer than 20 students. Students majoring in science-business enroll in 64 credit hours of science and take introductory business courses in accounting, finance, marketing and management, along with microeconomics and an upper-level elective. Students may decide to go into business at a health care agency, but many students also pursue physical therapy, physician assisting, global or public health, or health care consulting, Sister Cannon said.

During her tenure, Sister Cannon grew the majors from 20 students to more than 250.

“Some students’ parents who are physicians have said they would give anything to have had a curriculum like this, so they wouldn’t have had to have taught themselves everything,” she said.

In her role, Sister Cannon has exhibited a kind, empathetic response to students and enjoys getting to know them beyond their academic needs. Father Foster, the associate dean of health science advising, said she even taught him — a priest and physician who already understood a holistic notion of engaging with people to determine their true needs — a different level of mentoring.

As an adviser, Sister Cannon, known as “Pastor Cannon” among her friends, has always shown a desire to know the students on a deeper level. Often, students will visit with an adviser with one question, but in truth have a deeper issue or just feel like venting.

“It’s not like she will probe, but she invites people into a relationship to be who they are,” Father Foster said. “She’s also very good at finding out connections she has with people, and is very sensitive to finding ways to provide opportunities equitably, so that all people feel welcomed and supported.”

The supportive environment Sister Cannon created was important to Rahul Ramani, class of ’18, who is now in medical school at Kansas City University in the doctor of osteopathic medicine program. Sister Cannon helped him navigate a circuitous path, rife with average grades primarily because he took on too many responsibilities. Ramani was a tour guide, a physics lab teaching assistant, a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club and Notre Dame Undertones a capella group, a student union board member, and an employee at WVFI Radio.

He’s someone who relies heavily on the advice of others, he said, so whenever he struggled, he visited Sister Cannon’s office to chat.

“I remember her always laughing because my nature in undergrad was very disorganized, and I would come into her office like a tornado,” he said. “And she would tell me, ‘You’re doing so much, and that’s really impressive, but I think you’re doing too much.’”

Sister Cannon helped him navigate his path to medical school since she knew he was a student who would not immediately be admitted, he said.

“She was always calm and centered, and faith plays a huge role there, but she also had many years of experience dealing with pre-med majors and that probably also lent her to having a calming presence.”

Before his cohort’s science-business degree ceremony, Sister Cannon reached out to him to perform a solo for the graduates. Ramani wasn’t the only musician, but she knew that many of the other students had already been accepted to medical school and had other victories to celebrate that day.

“That was really important to me,” he said. “She valued that I was accomplished outside of academics alone and saw Commencement as an opportunity to celebrate and showcase my other successes."

Sister Cannon also has a surprisingly wry sense of humor, Ramani said, but that’s well known to her friends, including Sister Hilkert and Susan Sheridan, associate professor of anthropology. Sheridan met Sister Hilkert and Sister Cannon through connections she made while completing research at a Dominican monastery in Jerusalem.

Sheridan, in her lab surrounded by skulls and drawers with every type of bone fragment possible, shared that the three of them — two Dominican sisters and herself, a Methodist —joked that Sisters Cannon and Hilkert were her spiritual mothers.

In part because of the coronavirus pandemic, their friend group hasn’t had a chance to get together. But Sheridan saw Sister Cannon recently during one of the lectures in a series Sister Cannon started — the Distinguished Women’s Lecture Series (which now bears her name, the Kathleen Cannon, O.P., Distinguished Women’s Lecture Series). 

“She sponsored somebody that we brought in as a department, and I was just sitting there waiting for the lecture to begin, and she came in and just literally walked right up to me and gave me a Kathy equivalent of a bear hug,” she said.

Sheridan found it interesting that even though Sister Cannon established the series, she didn't mention this to speakers, and they had no way of knowing that her efforts paved the way for their lecture on campus. 

“She doesn’t take credit, and maybe this is my Protestantism coming out, but I know I was always taught to make donations anonymously. … You do good works without having to bring a lot of attention to yourself,” Sheridan continued. “And she certainly embodies that.”

In addition, Sister Cannon also embodies the qualities needed in an effective facilitator. Carl Ackermann, the Nolan Professor for Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction and teaching professor in the Mendoza College of Business, joked that he gauges the importance of a meeting on whether Sister Cannon is attending.

Several years ago Ackermann was gearing up for a potentially contentious meeting, and wondered how the issue would be handled. Relief washed over him when he noticed Sister Cannon in the room to facilitate.

“I just laughed at myself because I thought, you know, whatever issues might be contentious to people at the moment, they're just going to disappear,” he said. “The skill set with which she facilitated that meeting and built consensus and community is something that I'll always remember.”

Though Sister Cannon said she believes her facilitation of the ECDC development is the most important mark she’s left at the University, it’s the little things — from writing prayer cards to advising students, to listening to colleagues and ushering guidance with a calm, steady hand — that others say are their fondest memories with her.

Sister Cannon, in her role as associate provost, shepherded Carolyn Woo, who served as dean of the Mendoza College of Business from 1997 to 2011, through Woo’s interview process in 1996. Sister Cannon’s warmth and hospitality put Woo at ease, and also gave her a sense of the culture and tone of the University, Woo said.

“When I got ready to leave, she realized that I had hardly eaten because the meetings during meals were taken up with conversation,” Woo said. “She was concerned about me, and I did not want to delay my return trip — and out of her desk drawer came some crackers.

“They provided sustenance not only as food, but the first of many gracious acts of support just when I needed.”

The example is just one of many that people shared when describing Sister Cannon’s overall demeanor; in fact, the list of people whose behavior Ackermann said he tries to emulate is short, and Sister Cannon is on that list. Father Foster agreed.

“She is a very good friend to everyone; very attentive. Very loyal. Very thoughtful. Very supportive,” he said as he looked back over her career at Notre Dame. “She is the voice of the integration of faith and reason, and how that informs our Catholic mission.”

Naya Tadavarthy '22 contributed to this report.

Originally published by Deanna Csomo Ferrell at science.nd.edu on May 19.