June 14, 1928 – August 27, 2018
“My life has been full and varied, and I am grateful for every minute of it,” Marian wrote at the 60-year point in her Notre Dame journey (2007). Truer words would be hard to find! Marian’s infectious laugh, gift of song and wide-ranging ministries are among her most memorable gifts. What stands out even more, though, is her tenacious faith in God’s goodness as the shadow of the Cross fell across her “full and varied” life.
No one who knew Marian can forget the life-changing accident one night in December, 1995, as she was walking across Harford Road to sing in St. Ursula’s Christmas concert: “I was hit and thrown 14 feet by a large van. I landed in the shock trauma unit of a hospital.” Marian spent six months in that hospital, surviving successive surgeries, and another six in rehab. In an illuminating oral-history interview three years ago (2015), she reflected on the experience this way:
It was my cross. I didn’t think that God did it to me on purpose. (laughter) But I did think I had plenty to offer through it. So I thought, some people say, “Why me?” And I say, “Why not me? Everybody gets something.” So I used that time to try to get closer to Him and try to figure out what I was going to do and decided that I wasn’t going to moan and groan about my accident. And I didn’t. . . . I got over it and walked with a walker, and then with a cane. . . . . I can see practically all the reasons why I had this accident. It wasn’t because I was bad or anything. I was restless, maybe. And the Lord was showing me that I had to slow down and know what I’m here for. So, I think I know what I’m here for: to go to Him. That’s it.
Two years later, celebrating her 70th anniversary in Notre Dame, she wrote in a similar vein:
As I celebrate Jubilee, I feel especially blessed to know and love Jesus and all the others I love in His Sacred Heart: my family, friends and relatives. Two other falls and arthritis have put me in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, at 89 I’ll live for HIM until He is ready for me.
By her own account, it was when Marian was in 8th grade, during an after-school visit to pray before the crucifix in her parish church that “It really struck me that I was going to be a Sister [even though] “I didn’t know what kind.” The Holy Spirit seems to have pointed the way during her high-school years at West Catholic: “The seven Sisters of Notre Dame who taught there stood out from the sisters in other communities I had known, and I wanted to be like them.” Her father suggested entering a community closer by, so she could come home to visit. Marian’s response was characteristically frank and down-to-earth: “Well, Dad, well, we go to stay, we don’t go to come home.” As graduation approached, her mother suggested working a year to “see if this is really what you want.” And Marian did, at Bell Telephone, happy to bring in some extra income. “We didn’t have very much at all,” she said; “But if anybody could make the most of what they had, it was my mother and father. She sewed, and he ran the trolley cars in Philadelphia.” Perhaps it was her parents’ ability to “make the most of what they had” that taught Marian how to do the same, all her life long.
“Adaptable” could have been her middle name. She taught at elementary, middle and secondary levels in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina. Fifth- and seventh-graders were her favorites: “They were birds,” but “we had a lot of fun.” Perhaps her empathy for “birds” in her early years of teaching stemmed from her own “bird-like” penchants in the postulate: “We had our fun. . . Pulled a lot of pranks.”
I used to have charge of Sr. Ann Richard’s cards that she pulled [our names from, to call on us] for answering . . . catechism questions . . ., and she got wise to me because she said, “I haven’t heard you.” And certainly, when mine came up, I used to put it in the back and call on the next one, you know . . . .
In the early seventies, Marian began a transition from educating the young to assisting the elderly. While teaching at St. Thomas More, Chapel Hill, she pursued a Master’s degree in gerontology at UNC and Duke. Together with a 9-month practicum in Saco, Maine, her studies became the springboard to a whole new phase of “Sister Adaptable’s” full and varied life. For five year’s she directed the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Retired Senior Volunteers Program, RSVP. Next she served two years on the staff of Catholic Social Services’ Spiritual Ministry Program, engaged in pastoral outreach to nursing-home residents and their families. Once again she was “making the most of what she had”: an M.A. in religious education, an M.S. in gerontology and her own personal experience assisting her aging and widowed mother on weekends. ““I had a lot of exposure to a lot of different things,” she said, “and I liked all of them, really . . . .”
Nevertheless, as Marian herself acknowledged, “I was restless, maybe.” So from 1980 until her accident in 1995, she returned to another stint in Philadelphia, this time in diocesan high schools - teaching religion at Hallahan and West Catholic, serving as Dean of Discipline at St. Maria Goretti (and why not, since she knew all the tricks!), and finally, moving to Baltimore to teach art and remedial math at St. Ursula. It was there, during Advent, as she was crossing Harford Road, that she was “hit and thrown 14 feet by a large van.”
When she was finally discharged from rehab a year later, she began a 14-year stint at Villa Julie Residence – again, making the most of what she had. “I was portress and gave out the mail and did things I could get around and do. . . . “ A special delight was taking care of Sr. Margaret Maria Hodge’s little dog Jakey, a genius at communicating his burning desire to get on or off the elevator, if only someone would push the button! When a fall landed her in a wheelchair, Marian accepted a short-lived mission to St. Julie Hall with the Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg (2009). And when, shortly after her arrival there, we were notified that Julie Hall would have to be closed, Marian moved to the SSNDs’ Maria Healthcare Center in Baltimore (2010), and finally, to Mount Notre Dame (2015).
Marian’s choice of readings and hymns for her Mass of Resurrection gives profound insight into the resilient faith that sustained her. Hers is a God who binds up brokenness with the “oil of gladness” (Isaiah 61: 1, 3; first reading). A God who is ever present – behind, before, encircling – and whose “right hand holds me fast” (Responsorial Psalm 139). And f(Mt 5: 3; Marian’s Gospel reading). Marian’s God is truly the God of Julie Billiart, whose Ah! Qu’Il est Bon resounded through years of disability, powerlessness, contradiction and struggle: Happy indeed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!
If we listen carefully during the entrance song at her Mass, we’ll surely hear Marian praising God with us – the God who makes the lame “run free,” embraces all their pain, and calls them to “stand up, now, walk and live!” (David Haas, You Are Mine). And during the closing song? Expect her to be dancing!
“Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance,” said he.
“I’ll lead you all wherever you may be. I will lead you all in the Dance,” said he.
Lord of the Dance, Sydney B. Carter (refrain)
Born June 14, 1928, Philadelphia, PA
Parents: John J. and Mary Agnes Mullin Holahan
Patricia Holahan Burton, Philadelphia, PA
Pre-deceased by two other sisters (Eileen & Dolores) and two brothers (Jack & Jim)
Entered Notre Dame August 10, 1947, Ilchester, MD
First Vows: February 10, 1950
Final Profession: July 30, 1955
St. Rose of Lima Parochial School, Philadelphia, PA
West Catholic High School, Philadelphia
B.S., Trinity College, Washington, DC
M.A., Religious Education, La Salle University, Philadelphia
M.S., Gerontology, University of North Carolina
Elementary, Middle & Secondary Education
Academy of Notre Dame, Villanova PA
Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia
St. Bernadette, Philadelphia (twice)
St. Joachim & Anne, Queens Village, NY
Our Lady of Victory, Baltimore, MD
St. Thomas More, Chapel Hill, NC (with graduate study in gerontology at UNC)
Hallahan Diocesan High School, Philadelphia (Religion)
St. Maria Goretti, Diocesan High School, Philadelphia (Dean of Discipline)
West Catholic Girls Diocesan High School, Philadelphia (Religion)
St. Ursula, Parkville, MD (remedial math)
Catholic Social Services, Philadelphia
Director of Retired-Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP)
Staff member, Spiritual Ministry Program (for nursing-home patients)
Villa Julie Residence, Stevenson, MD (community service)
Villa Julie Residence (1996)
Julie Hall, Emmitsburg, MD (2009)
Maria Healthcare Center, Baltimore, MD (2010)
Mount Notre Dame, Cincinnati, OH (2015)
Prepared by Mary Ann Cook, SND, using Marian’s oral history interview with Sr. Francis Ellen Ulrich, along with her biographical statements for her 60th and 70th jubilees as an SND