Sisters of Charity Federation Archives

Wood, S. Susan, Oral History, 6/30/2017




Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 1 of 17

JK: This interview is with Sister Susan Wood. The interviewer is Jane Kenamore. We're at the
Mother House of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kansas, and the date is
June 30th, 2017.
Sister Susan, to get things started when and where were you born?
SW: I was born on May 8th, 1947 in Washington, D.C.
JK: And were you raised in Washington, D.C.? [00:00:37]
SW: Oh, not at all. My father was a student at Georgetown at the time, so it was a very
temporary stay for the family. I actually grew up in the Kansas City area from about the age of
JK: Ok. And can you tell us about your parents? What was your father doing at Georgetown?
SW: My father was going to Georgetown after World War II on the G.I. Bill. He was in the
School of Foreign Service although he never did anything in foreign service. He ended up being
a general manager for Standard Motor Products which sold ignitions and things like that for cars.
My mother was a nurse from Owatonna, Minnesota. My father was from Altoona, Pennsylvania.
They met in San Francisco and were married out there. And I was born in D.C. and grew up in
Kansas City.
JK: Ok. (Laughs) And did you attend parochial school in Kansas City? [00:01:41]
SW: I attended St. Ann's in Prairie Village—the Sisters of Charity took it over at some point
there—through the fifth grade. And then my brothers—I have two brothers—and we were in
public school for three years which for me was grades sixth, seventh and eighth. And then I went
to Miege High School, Bishop Miege High School in Shawnee, Kansas for high school.
JK: Did you have as many kids in your class as the Sisters talk about? [00:02:12]
SW: Well, in the fifth grade in St. Ann's in Prairie Village there were 52 in my classroom and 42
were fourth graders and the rest of us were fifth graders.
JK: And taught by one person, right? [00:02:29]
SW: Taught by one person. Sister Jean Carmel.
JK: And how was it from your perspective? I haven't asked anybody how it was from the
student's perspective. [00:02:40]

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 2 of 17

SW: There was a big change for me between fifth grade and sixth grade because sixth grade I
was in a public school and it was much smaller, and I had a very innovative teacher in the sixth
grade, Mr. Diemer. They ended up naming a school after him when he died, and he was the one
that taught me that I could be a student and kind of encouraged reading and creativity.
St. Ann's was very regimented. I think it had to be to have that many students in the classroom.
So, it didn't do me a lot of favors personally to be in that environment. And so it was much better
for me to go to the public school and have that sixth grade experience. I didn't care for Junior
High very much when I went there, and it was more comfortable in the Catholic high school
when we switched over to that.
JK: And the classes were smaller in the Catholic high school? [00:03:35]
SW: I don't know if they were smaller but it was a familiar environment, and it was very college
prep. And it was '61 to '65 that I was in high school. That was the Sputnik era. And so I had four
years of math and four years of science.
JK: Really.
SW: Uh-huh. So, it was a very good education at that time.
JK: Yes. And did he SCLs teach in the grade school that you attended? [00:04:09]
SW: Part of the time. When I first went to St. Ann's it was the Ursulines of Paola, Kansas, and
then at some point, and I don't know what year, the Sisters of Charity took over. And then the
Ursulines had the high school that I went to.
JK: Ok. You joined SCL right after your freshman year…
SW: Of college.
JK: …at St. Mary's. Right? [00:04:37]
SW: Yes.
JK: When did you begin thinking about entering a religious order or looking at a religious
order? [00:04:45]
SW: Probably in high school.
JK: And what attracted you to the idea of women religious? [00:04:52]

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 3 of 17

SW: Again, you have to put things in their historical context, and at that time if you were a
woman and wanted to work in the church that was the obvious route to take.
JK: In terms of leadership and…? [00:05:12]
SW: Yes, but you know the feminist movement hadn't quite happened at that particular point in
time. I mean what is interesting is that the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965 which was the
year I graduated from high school, and so I entered right on the cusp of the Council. And it's
interesting in terms of my history in community because I've lived through every conceivable
change in community, because I was in the long habit for nine months as a novice. I never had
the white cap that the professed Sisters wore, but by the time we made first profession we were
in shorter skirts that were made out of the old habit.
So, I went through the regime of the community which was traditional but it was changing when
I was in formation. In fact, they didn't quite know what to do with people in formation. They
didn't know what we were being formed for in a sense at that time. And so, I usually say, well,
I've been there and I've done that, and I don't want to do it again.
JK: So, how was it? Can you describe the formation period and some of the changes that were
taking place at the time? [00:06:42]
SW: One of the changes that had happened in the community shortly before I entered is that we
started saying the Liturgy of the Hours for morning and evening prayer. Before that time it had
been a prayer book full of novenas and short prayers. And so that was one of the things that
happened before I entered. And it was as a result of the Second Vatican Council because the
Council had recommended that we use that as the liturgical prayer of the Church. But I don't
think it was ever in our bones as a community in the way it was for Benedictines who had always
done that. So, that was one change.
We had two kinds of silence, ordinary silence and sacred silence. Sacred silence was at night and
between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon here at the Mother House. Ordinary silence was you
could talk to do your business but you didn't chatter. There were formal times for recreation.
That was part of it. So, in some ways it was very much on a monastic model. And actually the
reason for that is that there was a 1917 Code of Canon Law… You're getting this from a
JK: Good. That's what I was looking for. [00:08:07]
SW: There was a 1917 Code of Canon Law which tended to put all religious communities in the
same mold, and it didn't differentiate between the different charisms of the community. And so
they all looked alike, you know.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 4 of 17

Mother Xavier didn't start out wearing a veil. She wore a veil towards the end of her life because
the Sisters wanted it because they wanted to look like other Sisters. But when we took it off it
was actually returning to how we were originally, because the first Sisters wore prairie bonnets,
if you’ve seen other pictures of Sisters of Charity.
We were founded not to be monastic. St. Vincent de Paul said your cloister are the city streets
and the rosary is your breviary in a sense. So, when the Second Vatican Council told
communities to go back to the charism of their foundresses, communities like Benedictines, who
were supposed to be monastic, retrieved that and started calling their convents monasteries again,
you know like their Mother Houses. And then communities like mine said that we're not
monastic. That isn't who we are and so that prompted the change in life at that time. So, things
have changed a lot, and it's going back to whatever those original charisms were of the
community. We're still doing that today.
JK: You're still going back? [00:09:55]
SW: Going back to… So, like we've retrieved our Vincentian charism. I think I wrote in and
said… You know, I celebrated my jubilee last year and one of the comments I made in the thing
I wrote was that when I entered, yes, we were Vincentian. We kind of knew what that was, but it
wasn't at the forefront of consciousness in the same way as it is today. Whereas we're having a
big community meeting in the next couple of days and we're looking at critical needs, and those
critical needs tend to be social needs in society and looking at how we can respond to them.
That's very Vincentian in a way. So, that's what happened.
JK: You spent your early years teaching French and English in high school. How did you enjoy
that? Was there anything that you didn't love about it? [00:11:00]
SW: I was never meant to be a high school teacher, I would say. I did it for six years. The
French I still use today 'cause I use it in research, 'cause I'm a theologian today. And I have never
stopped teaching English to my students because I make them write. So, those are skills that have
never been lost. But early on I knew I was more destined to be a college teacher.
JK: So, when did you become interested in theology and how? [00:11:36]
SW: Oh, there's a story behind that.
JK: Oh, good.
SW: (Laughs) 1973 I was making my first directed retreat here at the Mother House. And
directed retreats are these things that the Jesuits did, and individually directed retreats were
rather new in 1973. And they tended to march people through the spiritual exercises over eight
days, and they were somewhat regimented.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 5 of 17

And I remember that one day I had this very… I say I don't have religious experiences but
sometimes I have clear, discreet ideas. And I had this clear, discreet idea that I wanted to do
theology, and I wanted to do with my mouth what some people do with their lives. And so I went
into the retreat director and said, "I have this thought that I want to do theology." And he said,
"That's a distraction. Put it aside." And so I thought I don't have to talk to you about this.
But I was teaching high school in Topeka, Kansas at the time, Hayden High School, and so I
went back and decided to do what I could, so I volunteered for the religious activities committee
which planned the retreats and different liturgical functions for the high school and soon became
director of that. And the Father Thomas Santo (phonetic) was principal of the school at the time,
and he decided to go into fulltime administration and asked me if I would teach his religion
classes. So, I picked up sophomore liturgy and morality and that's when I stopped teaching
English at the time. [00:13:32]
And then the community had this thing where you filled out a piece of paper every year. And so
every year I'd put what I really want to do is teach theology. I was not released to study theology
until 1981, so for eight years I kept asking to study theology. And finally there was no one else
in the community who could have done it or would do it. And then they let me. And that was
because you had to have a foreign language ability to do a PhD in theology and I had the French.
And also at that time it meant that you were teaching at St. Mary College in Leavenworth
Kansas, and some people didn't want to do that for the rest of their lives. Well, I didn't obviously
because I taught at St. Mary for ten years. Four of those were French. Six of them were in
theology after my PhD. And then I went onto St. John's in Collegeville where I taught for 13
years for the Benedictines. And then I've been at Marquette with the Jesuits now starting my
thirteenth year.
So, it all kind of worked out in the end but it took me eight years to kind of get going with it.
JK: Why do you think it took eight years? [00:15:00]
SW: I don't think the president of the college wanted me to do that. When I walked out the door
she said you could do what you wanted to do better if you were in English. Although at the time
the plan had been that I would get a PhD in French. But I'm glad I didn't because the bottom fell
out of French studies. The last thing I did before I left St. Mary was to turn a major into a minor
and very few people are studying that even at Marquette today. So, theology was much the better
field for me to be in in the long run.
So, that was it. I don't really know.
JK: You mentioned the comment by the Jesuit in 1973. I mean although we think of the '70s as
being a time of equality for women because the Women's Movement started in '69 but obviously
that was not the case. Or do you think it was gender related? [00:16:18]

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 6 of 17

SW: I don't think it was gender related. The other odd thing about 1973 is that was probably in
June and I went off that summer to start my master's in French at Middlebury College. So, I had
this conviction that I needed to study theology and went off in this other direction for this degree
in French because at that point…
I think early on in the community we tended to think of people filling slots in a way. And Sister
Mary Vincentine was somebody in the community who had PhD in French with a master's in
theology interestingly enough. And I was supposed to replace her. That was the thinking. That
never happened but what's funny is I became the mirror image in some ways because I have a
master's in French and the PhD in theology which was just kind of a reverse of what she did.
Other than that we're very, very different.
So, I think that was part of the thinking for a while, and so, I can't really say. But people left the
community who had been earmarked to study theology. There was somebody in my novitiate
class who they thought would succeed Sister Mary Jude who was teaching theology. And that
person left the community. There were some people in Kansas City that they thought might do it
but they didn't want to teach college. They were in pastoral work or they didn't have the language
background. So, I mean I just had to stand in line.
JK: Yes. Have there been any challenges. I mean theology is or was at least a male-dominated
field, wasn't it? [00:18:29]
SW: It still is. I'm in systematic theology. Some women tend to go into spirituality or they tend
to go into pastoral theology. And if you're at a research institution like I am I would say… I
looked it up and I think about… In research institutions that don't have these pastoral degrees the
number of women tends to be about 25 percent. Now Marquette, we've been less than that for
whatever reason. But I would say it still is.
JK: Still is.
SW: Uh-huh. Some areas of theology more than others.
JK: Has that proved to be a problem for you or not? [00:19:22]
SW: No.
JK: Other than annoyances.
SW: It isn't a problem. I mean the other thing is, you know, I'm enormously involved in
ecumenical work, and I have four official appointments, two of them international. Well, three if
you count the North American Orthodox, the International Commission for Baptists and Roman
Catholics, and the International Commission for Lutherans and Roman Catholics and then the
U.S. Dialogue, Lutherans and Catholics. And the Orthodox dialogue, I'm the only woman on the

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 7 of 17

Catholic side. There are two women appointed on the Orthodox side and there are at least 20
people sitting around the table. So, that shows that. And in terms of the U.S. Lutheran Catholic
Dialogue, I'm the only woman appointment on the Catholic team. On the international dialogue
there are two of us on the Catholic team.
The Catholic Church tends to be gender-blind in terms of when they make these appointments
they're not trying to balance anything. You know you're balanced for your expertise. Lutherans
on the other hand have a quota system and the quota system is both gender and also region of the
world that they come from or represent. And so, you know, on that side it's different.
I have two brothers. They're twins to each other, two years younger than myself, and I say that
they prepared me for the rest of my life. [00:21:03]
JK: (Laughs)
SW: When I left St. Mary College, I left St. Mary College, because I wanted to be a theologian.
I wanted to write and publishing was not an emphasis here nor did we have the library to support
it. And so that was making waves at the time because people didn't really… It was unusual to get
a job outside of our own institutions. But I went and asked if I could look for another job and
Sister Kathleen Stefani, who was community director at the time, said yes. I didn't want to
discuss it. She didn't for some magic reason. And so I was in this job search for two years and St.
John's moved very quickly and I went there. And that was a male environment because it was a
school run by a male community of Benedictines who were walking around in these habits, and I
thought oh, my gosh. What is this going to be like?
But it ended up to an enormously nurturing environment for me and I loved it. And I didn't leave
it because I didn't love it when I went to Marquette 13 years later. But it worked out really well.
So, I do think there are issues with women in the church very definitely and also in academia and
I think sometimes we have to be better in order to compete. But I've managed to do it, I guess,
and hold my own.
JK: Congratulations on that. It's very good. Can you tell us about St. John's and how are they
nurturing? [00:23:15]
SW: When I went I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know. Things weren't
working out here and somebody had said, well, just get off dead center and try something. And
so, here's the story.
So, I was the new kid on the block and I had an eight o'clock class, because of course those are
the last to fill up. And I would arrive at school about 7:15 in order to teach an eight o'clock class
because you can't walk into a classroom cold. And Columba Stewart, one of the monks who was

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 8 of 17

in my department finally, figured that out or figured out that I was coming then. And he said if
you're going to come at 7:15 why don't you come at 7:00 and pray with us? [00:24:16]
I had never been in a choir stall in my entire life up to that point because we're not monastic. And
so they had a guest section in the choir so I started coming to Morning Prayer. For several
months I had this most amazing experience of, I think you'd call it, fight, flight and attraction. I
was like a moth attracted to a flame and I wanted to come closer, and at the same time I wanted
to run away as fast as I could. And this went on from October until January the 8th, no, December
the 8th of that year.
Well, December the 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. And I was in the choir stall
and I was up on the last rung and the monks are amazing because they really do feast days up
really good. And so for this feast day they had hung votive candle lights from the ceiling or
something and it was beautiful. But I remember looking over the choir stalls at everybody who
was assembled, 'cause it was not unusual for guests to pray with us 'cause we had a school of
theology there and so a lot of the students would come. And I remember just thinking to myself
you don't know it yet but I belong here. And that sense, all that flight, attraction tension totally
And I ended up taking to it like a duck to water. I mean it was just the most amazing experience,
and I loved it. And for the rest of my 13 years there I prayed Morning Prayer with them Monday
through Friday at 7:00. And so they became a community and I was kind of an insider/outsider. I
was an outsider because I was a woman. I was an outsider because I was a Sister of Charity of
Leavenworth. I was apostolic and they were monastic. [00:26:52]
Some of the Benedictines do marvelous things. Like there was a women's community about five
or six miles down the road that we were in a partnership with as a school. And their prioresses
would officiate at the funerals for their Sisters. Then I would come home here to Leavenworth
and I'd start saying wouldn't it be a good idea if… and I would get just to the "if," not even the
idea and somebody… the immediate response was but we're not monastic. In other words, they
didn't even want to hear it, whatever it was.
And so, here I was a Vincentian, an apostolic religious, a Sister of Charity that took to this
Benedictine environment like you wouldn't believe and yet I never really wanted to be a
Benedictine. I mean I could not do with my life today what I'm doing if I were a Benedictine
because I would have a vow of stability and I'd have a different relationship to community life
than I have now. But I was so attracted to their spirituality.
And, in fact, for the first three years I was there—I was trying to figure it out—what does it
mean for a Sister of Charity to be in this Benedictine environment? And there's a Benedictine up
the road here in Acheson, Sister Irene Knoll, who would come and adjunct occasionally, and I
was talking to her about this one day. And she clarified it in a way. She said the charisms of
different religious communities, they're attracted to different parts of the Scriptures and that

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 9 of 17

becomes kind of emblematic for who they are. And for apostolic religious it tends to be the
Gospel. So, for us it's Matthew 25, you know, "Whatever you do for the least of these you do to
me." For Benedictines it's the Wisdom Literature. [00:29:00]
And so I was involved with the St. John's Bible project from its inception at St. John's. I was on
the Committee for Illumination and Text for years until we finished it which meant we wrote the
theological briefs for the artist, Donald, who was the scribe. And early on we were talking about
which passages would be illuminated and with what weight. And I was saying there's this
passage in Sirach you have to illuminate because you pray this text for Morning Prayer on the
Feast of St. Benedict. And they said, we do? You know they didn't even recognize it. I mean they
recognized it but they… It was just so much a part of their life, you know.
So, what it meant to be an outsider was in a way to reflect some things back to them that maybe
they weren't able to see. And there were a few times I was able to speak to the community about
sharing their charism. And I have good friends there, so they mean a lot to me.
JK: Friends from when you were at St. John's? [00:30:20]
SW: When I taught there.
JK: Oh, interesting.
SW: In fact, I'm going back August 2nd to the 8th this summer.
JK: Oh, really. Just for a visit.
SW: To visit.
JK: How was your first experience as head of the Theology Department at Marquette?
SW: I was the first woman to ever be the chair of the department. I'm still the only woman who
has been chair of that department. So, I don't think of myself as a pioneer, but I guess in some
ways I have been. It's a challenge. When I was chair the first time around we had 32 members in
the department, so it's a big department.
JK: And are priests most of the other members of the department? [00:31:28]
SW: No, no. They're a minority.
JK: Oh, ok.
SW: It's mostly lay people.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 10 of 17

JK: Ok.
SW: Mostly men.
JK: (Laughs)
SW: It just is. Being chair is really hard. The personnel issues are the hardest. I think the higher
you go up the academic ladder the bigger the egos become, so you're dealing with a lot of big
egos. And so I think personnel issues are probably the hardest.
JK: What types of personnel issues? [00:32:09]
SW: I don't think I want to go into it.
JK: Oh, ok. Yes, right. You mentioned in your bio as this (inaudible) asking you about
everything you've written that your writings focus on the issues of ministry, sacramental
theology, ecclesiology, and ecumenism. So, how did you become interested in these four topics
first of all? [00:32:43]
SW: Ministry was another one of these clear, discreet ideas that I sometimes have. I don't have a
lot of them, but the ones I've had have been life changing or formative. And that one was one
evening at 10:00 P.M. in 1988. I can't remember the date. I was in St. Louis at the time, and my
dean who was Carol Hines here at St. Mary College at the time…
People should watch me when I'm ready for a sabbatical 'cause I tend to jump ship at those
junctures. But I had missed a sabbatical when I went off for PhD studies, so she said that she
would fund a summer of research if I came up with a project. So, St. Louis is actually, probably
the closest major theological library to Leavenworth at St. Louis University. So, I was in a
residence there. And I had a project which I actually never, ever did. But I had to do two things
that summer. One was to write a response to the Decree on Ecumenism for its 25th anniversary
after Vatican II. And then the other thing was to do this other project, but we were having a big
community meeting, and I had to come back to Leavenworth in the middle of it for that.
So, at ten o'clock on this particular night I was putting the period on the first piece which was the
Response to the Decree on Ecumenism, and it sounds strange but I had a clear, discreet idea of
what a bishop was. And it was the concept that he represented the Church in the
Communion of Churches and there was a parallel between the College of Bishops and the
Communion of Churches which right now is a commonplace idea. But at that moment it was
original for me and to me.
So, then I went off to Leavenworth for a week and played around and went to a wedding and
came back to St. Louis. And I was faced with a decision and that was do I keep my original

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 11 of 17

research project or do I go off in this new direction, which was totally different. And so I gave
myself three days to snoop around the library and I basically tried to see what was out there. And
so I made the decision to change the topic of my research and I decided to do the research on
bishops. So, my studies on ministry didn't start with priesthood. It started with the episcopacy
and worked down from there. And I wrote for four weeks. I mean I did this in four weeks, and I
eventually published that article in Theological Studies which is one of our top journals.
And so that basic concept about the representative function of a bishop I worked data for the next
ten years in various ways. So it became programmatic for the work I was doing, the research I
was doing while I was at St. John's.
JK: So, what were your conclusions? [00:36:40]
SW: That the bishop represents the Church and the Communion of Bishops and the Communion
of Churches. And so what's different about a priest and a bishop isn't about power, but it's about
this symbolic, representational function. And then, eventually, I wrote on the priesthood. I was
going to do the diaconate and then I became chair of the department and I never kind of got
there. So I've never done that study. I've gone off in other directions since. But that was how I
got into ministry.
Now ecumenism is basically that if a door opens I walk through it. And so, two things. I went to
St. John's in Collegeville in 1992 and on my desk was a letter from Carl Braaten, who's a
Lutheran, inviting me to a dogmatics colloquium that he was having in Northfield, Minnesota.
And he and Robert Jenson, who's another kind of famous Lutheran theologian…
Robert Jenson was teaching at St. Olaf's College in Northfield at that time. It was a group of
younger scholars, many of whom had graduated from Yale. Many of whom were not Catholic,
and we would meet in his basement and they'd put a table cloth over the ping pong table. That
was our conference table. And we would sit there and we would write papers and have these
theological discussions. [00:38:34]
And there's something about Yale. They come out speaking their own language. And it was a
foreign language to me. And again I was frequently one of very few women. Mostly these were
guys. And the hot air would just go across that table like you wouldn't believe. And I would sit
there thinking, Susan, you're smart. You should know what they're saying. And I knew what each
individual word was and I had no idea why they were saying what they were saying or what they
were saying. I mean you know it was just a lot of verbiage. But I stuck it out and eventually coedited a Festschrift for Carl Braaten and became good friends with him and Robert Jenson.
But that was my first… My theological education in school had been almost exclusively
Catholic. I'd read maybe Moltmann or some other authors. But it was pretty Catholic and my
background was really Catholic and so this was an introduction to other thought.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 12 of 17

And then at the same time Jeff Gros was a Christian Brother who was on the staff of the
Secretariat for Ecumenical and Religious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
And he was looking for ecclesiologist to staff dialogues. So, the first thing was I was invited to a
meeting in West Palm Beach, Florida. And ecumenism at that time was kind of at a turning point
because the dialogues had gone over most of the major issues, and they really didn't know what
do we do next. And at that meeting I remember getting very excited by and very convinced by
the notion of what's called Communion Ecclesiology and became vocally supportive of it.
Then I was appointed to a two-year commission of Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and we were
just called the Joint Commission. And we were given two tasks. One was to review the Joint
Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification for our churches. And the other one was to come up
with a topic for the next U.S. Lutheran Catholic Round.
I was the one who developed the topic and it was on communion ecclesiology and the structures
and ministries of the Church seen through that lens. And it became round ten of that dialogue.
And then, of course, if that's going to happen, then I was appointed to the dialogue to carry it out
because it was basically my idea. And so I've been involved in Lutheran-Catholic conversations
since 1994 which is when that commission began. [00:41:56]
And then in 2005 Brian Daley who was the co-secretary of the North American Orthodox
Dialogue invited me to be on that dialogue. And then about 2008, I think, I was appointed to the
International Lutheran Dialogue because our topic is baptism and growth in communion and one
of my books is Baptism and the Ecumenical Implications of the Doctrine of Baptism. I mean it's
called One Baptism, the Ecumenical Implications of the Doctrine of Baptism. So, I'm sure that
had to do with why I was appointed there.
And so I've kind of been a major ecumenical figure…
JK: Sounds like it.
SW: … through all this. But, again, they invite you and you say yes.
JK: And then you take the lead. Yes, yes. Interesting. [00:43:00]
SW: It gets kind of technical, so I hope I'm not getting too technical here.
JK: It does but thanks. Those are simple explanations. I appreciate it. So, we talked a bit about
Vatican II—how did the changes brought on by Vatican II change your religious life? [00:43:26]
SW: Yes, we did.
JK: Ok. So, you've been distant from SCL geographically for some time.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 13 of 17

SW: Twenty-five years.
JK: Yes, a long time. How has the community helped you nonetheless? Or has it? [00:43:52]
SW: Sounds strange. They give me the rope to do what I need to do. They're very supportive. In
some ways I think that if I would have had to have stayed here I wouldn't have been in the
community today, 'cause I wouldn't have thrived.
So, things are a little different now. I'm on the governance committee which is this new
committee. We just had a General Chapter last summer. So, I'm on the governance committee
and the committee appointed me as its chair. So, I absolutely love Sister Connie Phelps who's
our community director. I'm so happy that we have her. But she's pulled me in from the margins.
SW: She taught at the college. She taught sociology at the college for years, and she's just very
important to me. And for a long time… I mean I never considered myself a fair-haired child of
the community. I never considered myself one of the popular people for whatever reason. I just
always seemed a little different in some ways. What I do is not the norm. We're not academics.
We’re teachers. We don't write books. We don't write articles. I have 70 articles and five books.
We don't do that. And so I'm sure that's part of the reason I have felt marginalized and I've been
able to be part of the community because I'm at a distance in some ways. I mean it's kind of
I have friends in community. I have good friends, but they're all over the country. My friends
don't tend to be geographically close to me. I have ecumenical friends that are everywhere and
my good friends in the community they're here or they're in Montana. But when Connie became
community director I said, "Let me know if I can help you." And she said, "Don't worry. I'm
going to call on you." And so she put me on this committee, and we're in charge of this event in
two days. And so, I don't need another thing to do. I mean I have a job and a half, 'cause all the
ecumenical work is in addition to my day job. So, she's pulling me in from the margins.
But the other thing that is really strange is that when I… I celebrated my 50th Jubilee last
summer. And when I talk about these years with you I mean they seem like yesterday, you know.
But when I entered we were just under a thousand Sisters, and now we're slightly over 200, 200
and, I don't 'know what we are, 15 maybe. Somewhere in there.
And so we're downstairs. Just before I came in here we were moving tables for the meeting and
114 Sisters are going to be active participants of this meeting and then we have some observers.
And the committee, we had a meeting at 1:30 today and we said next year when we do this there
will not be 114 because of where the demographics are.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 14 of 17

So, in my lifetime we were at a point where we were wondering whether we should divide into
provinces because we were so big, but they could never figure out how to cut up the pie and keep
the schools and the hospitals in some kind of cohesive unity. And it's good that we never divided
into provinces because we'd be combining them today.
JK: That's right. [00:48:24]
SW: But it is kind of scary to think about the diminishment. We do have some fabulous younger
Sisters. And some communities haven't had anybody enter in 20 years. I mean we have
wonderful, talented, younger Sisters. But the future's not going to be where it is today.
JK: What is the future? I mean would you ever consider admitting men for example or bringing
associates closer to the community. I don't know. Are there other ways of looking at the future of
SCL? [00:49:15]
SW: Men, no.
JK: (Laughs)
SW: Sorry.
JK: (Laughs)
SW: Associates, I think, they're very different. It's a very different model. Whether you would
have some people who have more temporary commitments versus a lifetime commitment, I don't
know. If you look at the history of religious life I think of Thomas Merton The Seven Storey
Mountain. Thomas Merton entered his community… He became a Trappist in 1947, 1948,
somewhere along in there, I think. I hope that's right.
Anyway, after World War II there was a huge influx into religious communities. And I think the
kind of despair that war leads to sometimes causes people to look at religion in a way they
haven't before. But the sociologists tell us that that was a blip on the historical screen and that the
norm has been smaller communities. And religious Sisters are really responsible for the
healthcare system in this country. But that's being taken over, such as it's surviving these days,
by secular entities and the same thing with school systems.
So, we're moving away from those institutions, but I still think there's a care for serving those
who are in need. And so that will look different. I think communities will be smaller. I think in
the near future collaboration with other communities. I certainly hope we don't have to meld with
another community anytime soon. I personally am not looking forward to that and certainly in
terms of joining them and their works and working together.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 15 of 17

JK: I see. Can you talk a little bit about the new structure that's exemplified by the meeting on
Sunday and Monday? [00:51:49]
SW: Ok. At our last Chapter we voted in a new governance structure. It doesn't change anything
in our constitutions. It doesn't change anything in terms of the General Council and the
community director. But we had been experimenting with something called Leaven Groups. Of
course it's a play on Leavenworth.
JK: (Laughs)
SW: We get our money's worth where we are. I sometimes think of that game where you say it's
smaller than a house and larger than a breadbox. A Leaven Group is larger than a local
community and smaller than a region. And most of them are six to eight people. And it's to get
kind of a sense of community because more Sisters are living alone and in very small groups. It's
kind of a grassroots kind of structure where it's supposed to be participatory. We do
contemplative dialogue. We start with faith sharing, so it has that kind of a basis. But it's a place
for issues to be raised at the grassroots level and then kind of trickle up rather than everything be
down. And then there's supposed to be continuity between Leaven Groups and the Annual
Assembly. Now that we're as small as we are it's feasible for us to come back once a year and
have this assembly. So, this is the first one of that. So, there's supposed to be an interchange
between those Leaven Groups and the assembly. [00:53:33]
I'm affiliated with a Leaven Group in Helena, Montana. So, we meet twice a year. We meet from
9:00 in the morning 'til 3:00 in the afternoon. When I see that the Kansas City and the
Leavenworth groups meet for an hour twice a year, you know, I shake my head and say how can
they possibly do that?
Even in Montana they have to travel from Missoula or Hamilton to Helena, and I'm flying in
from Milwaukee. We're going to make that quality time in a way that local people don't. And
maybe we have a bigger need for that. So, we have a fabulous group out there. And I enjoy it
immensely. And it's my primary community really.
JK: So, what are some of the issues that you will be discussing if you can talk about that?
SW: Ok. One of the things that the Leaven Groups did in their two previous meetings was to
surface critical needs and so there are five critical needs that we've identified. One is
immigration, refugees. One is limited access to healthcare. One is human trafficking. One is care
for creation and the environment. And one is spiritual hunger. And so those are the five areas
that we're going to be looking at. But, as I said to the group you can't start just meeting needs.
You have to assess the needs. You have to assess your resources. You have to assess in a local
situation what needs to be done.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 16 of 17

So, we're having two panels as part of this day, these two days. The first panel will be people
who've been involved in assessing needs. We'll talk about that process. So, Sister Vickie Perkins
is going to be talking about Welcome Central which is an organization here in Leavenworth that
they worked together with the leaders of various churches to see what the needs of the City of
Leavenworth are and they've come up with this Welcome Central. [00:55:57]
Our Peruvian Sisters are going to talk about their assessment in Piura, Peru which led to the St.
Vincent Pastoral Center there. And then we have a layman, Casey Dunning, who's related to our
Sister Marie Carmel Dunning—she's 98 years old—who's coming here to talk about the
Interfaith Cooperative in Missoula, Montana. So, they'll be talking about this process of
assessment. And then we'll have a panel in the afternoon where we have Sisters who are actually
working with immigration, care of creation and so forth. And then we have doctor who's the
head of the clinic in Topeka. So, they will be examples of people who are already involved in
those critical areas. And then the Sisters will see what bubbles up and to see if there is some kind
of response that we feel called to beyond those individuals. So, that's where we're going.
At the Chapter we also developed a directional statement. So the mandate for the Leaven
Assemblies and the Leaven Groups is to unpack that statement. And one of the statements in that
directional statement was to address critical needs and their systemic causes. So, that's what
we're doing.
JK: Oh that really sounds interesting. Well, thank you very much.
SW: You're welcome.
JK: Do you have anything else you'd like to add? [00:57:39]
SW: I don't know. It's just that I feel a vocation to be a theologian and that's become clear and
this is the context in which I do that. It's amazing. It does not seem like 51 years now.
JK: You've got a huge amount of work as chair of the department, teaching, research and then
your spare time SCL stuff. [00:58:20]
SW: It's full.
JK: It's very full, but I can tell that you love it. [58:27]
SW: I do.
JK: Yes, yes. So, thank you again.
SW: Oh, you're welcome.

Sisters of Charity, Leavenworth, Kansas
Transcription of Sister Susan Wood
Interviewed by Jane Kenamore, June 30, 2017
Transcribed by Jessie Lehman, October 1, 2017

Page 17 of 17


Dublin Core


Wood, S. Susan, Oral History, 6/30/2017


Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth; Teaching; Theology; Vatican II; Charism


Susan begins with what it was like coming to the Community just post-Vatican II. She discusses the changes of Vatican II from a personal as well as a theologian's point of view. She talks about beginning her missions in the Community as a teacher but not finding she was strong at it. She then speaks of having her epiphany that she wanted to work in theology and her path to get there. She also talks about feeling connections to charisms from other Communities as she works and finding deeper meaning in the Community through that.


Wood, S. Susan; Kenamore, Jane


Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth






All rights belong to the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth






Oral History


Wood, S. Susan; Kenamore, Jane



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Kenamore, Jane


Wood, S. Susan


Digital Sisters Files

Original Format





Wood, S. Susan; Kenamore, Jane, “Wood, S. Susan, Oral History, 6/30/2017,” Sisters of Charity Federation Archives, accessed July 14, 2024,


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