Madeleva Wolff

Sister M. Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., (May 24, 1887 – July 25, 1964), the "lady abbess of nun poets", was the third President of Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.


Sister Madeleva was born in Cumberland, Wisconsin, in 1887, and christened Mary Evaline Wolff. Her father, August Wolff, was a Lutheran and a saddle and harness maker, who was twice mayor of Cumberland. He read poetry to Mary Evaline. Madeleva’s mother, Lucy, was a devout Catholic. Mary Evaline learned how to handle pliers, tacks and hammers. She climbed thorn apple trees, diagrammed wildflowers and in winter ice-skated from morning to night. At school, she "lived to learn, and so lived richly," she wrote in one of her books, My First Seventy Years.

Madeleva decided to become a religious sister during her first semester at Saint Mary's College. She was given the name "Madeleva" upon her acceptance into the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1908.

Sister Madeleva was known for her poetry, her eloquence and her outspokenness. She was a medieval scholar, whose literary essays won her distinction. She wrote a good deal in defense of Geoffrey Chaucer's character "The Prioress". In all, she authored more than 20 books.

She studied at numerous universities, including the University of California, Berkeley and University of Oxford. When she completed her M.A. degree in English at The University of Notre Dame, she had been one of only four Sisters to pursue graduate work there. In 1925, she earned a doctorate in English from the University of California at Berkeley. She served as a teacher and the principal of the Academy of the Sacred Heart (opened in 1878, the school closed in 1937) in Ogden, Utah, and as President of College of Saint Mary-of-the-Wasatch in Salt Lake City. She later became the head of the English department at Saint Mary's College.

The tenure of Sister Madeleva as President of Saint Mary's College began in 1934. She told leaders that "the essence of our college is not its buildings, its endowment fund, its enrollment, or even its faculty; the essence is the teaching of truth." Some of her most tangible contributions included the establishment of the School of Sacred Theology (the first and, for more than a decade, the only institution to offer graduate degrees in theology to women), the introduction of the Department of Nursing Education, and the construction of the Moreau Center for the Arts (named for Father Basil Moreau, it was one of the first all-purpose buildings for art studies—containing both galleries and theatres—in the country). In 1958, she received an honorary degree (LLD) from Indiana University. She retired from her position as president in 1961. She died in Boston in 1964.[1]

The Madeleva Society, composed of benefactors of the College, bears her name, as well as Madeleva Hall, the Madeleva Memorial Classroom Building, The Sister Madeleva Poetry Society, and the Madeleva Lecture Series, all at Saint Mary's.


  • "I like to go to Marshall Field's in Chicago just to see how many things there are in the world that I do not want."
  • "Thinking of things to be done, hopes to be realized, persons to be helped, I say laughingly that I go to a multitude of funerals daily, burying so many deceased projects, so much of what I have had to let die and must bury without regret."

Literary worksEdit

  • With Marian Anderson (?) co-written with Sister Mary Pieta
  • Horizons: Reflections on a Liberal Education (1981?)
  • A Child Asks for a Star (1964)
  • The Sister Madeleva Story (1961) co-written with Barbara C. Jencks
  • Conversations with Cassandra: Who Believes in Education? (1961)
  • My First Seventy Years (1959)
  • 25 Poemas de la Hermana Mary Madeleva : En Versión Castellana (1959)
  • The Four Last Things: Collected Poems (1959)
  • American Twelfth Night, and Other Poems (1955)
  • A Lost Language, and Other Essays on Chaucer (1951)
  • The Education of Sister Lucy: A Symposium on Teacher Education and Teacher Training (1949)
  • Collected Poems (1947)
  • Saint Mary's College: Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Indiana : A Report of the President (1947)
  • A Song of Bedlam Inn, and Other Poems (1946)
  • Selected Poems (1945)
  • Addressed to Youth (1944)
  • New Things and Old, Christmas, 1941 (1941)
  • Four Girls, and Other Poems (1941)
  • Christmas Night 1940 (1940)
  • Songs of the Rood; A Century of Verse (1940)
  • Gates, and Other Poems (1938)
  • Christmas Eve, and Other Poems (1938)
  • Bethlehem (1938)
  • A Question of Lovers, and Other Poems (1936)
  • The Happy Christmas Wind, and Other Poems (1936)
  • Penelope, and Other Poems (1927)
  • Futility, (1926) [2]
  • Chaucer's Nuns, and Other Essays (1925)
  • Pearl; A Study in Spiritual Dryness (1924)
  • Knights Errant, and Other Poems (1923)
  • A Plea for the Familiar Essay in College English (1918)

Works inspired by Sister MadelevaEdit

  • Composer Zae Munn used Sister Madeleva's poetry as the text for a piece written for a women's choir titled "Touched to Apocalypse" (2001).
  • Composer Elizabeth Poston used Sister Madeleva's poetry as text for a piece for voice and piano titled Sheepfolds. (1958)


  1. ^ "St. Mary's College Head Dies in Boston". Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. July 27, 1964. p. 8. Retrieved October 29, 2015 – via  
  2. ^ ""Futility", by Sister M. Madeleva, Commonweal, February 24, 1926, p. 435". 1926-02-24. Retrieved 2013-11-27.


  • Hau, Sister Mary Eva - An Analysis of the Prose and Poetry of Sister Mary Madeleva ...
  • Kilmer, Kenton - Contemporary Catholic Authors : Sister M. Madeleva, C.S.C., Pioneer Poet
  • Klein, Mary Ellen - Sister M. Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana : a study of presidential leadership, 1934-1961
  • Mandell, Gail Porter - Madeleva: A Biography
  • Mandell, Gail Porter - Madeleva: One Woman's Life
  • McDonnell, Mary E. - A Study of Sister Madeleva's Disquisition on the Pearl in Regard to the Method She Followed and the Methods Followed by Earlier and Subsequent Writers.
  • Oster, Ann M. - The Poetry of Sister Mary Madeleva, C.S.C. : A Spiritual Autobiography of a Modern Medievalist
  • Quinn, Sister Mary Marcelline - Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff : A Study of Her Life and Works
  • Werner, Maria Assunta - Madeleva: Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C. : A Pictorial Biography
  • Witherspoon, Marjorie Hall Walsh - Sister Madeleva: Lyric Poet
  • Life Magazine, June 10, 1957 - Close-up of Sister Mary Madeleva of Saint Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana

External linksEdit

Links to Sister Madeleva's poetryEdit