July 2021 In Her Own Words: Two Women, Two Stories

Former Breen-Phillips resident assistant Cathy O’Donnell ‘75 MA and former Rector Jeanne Thomas remember their encounters with the generosity and kindness of the women of BP in this edition’s reflection on the early years of undergraduate coeducation. 

In Her Own Words: Two Women, Two Stories

By Cathy O'Donnell '75 MA 

I came to Notre Dame in 1974, anxious to get a master’s in English but naïve and underprepared for graduate school. I realized after only a few days that I would have to run a marathon, a long one. So from then on, if I was awake, I was studying. Even in cafeteria lines.

Cathy O'Donnell '75 MA in Breen-Phillips
(photo courtesy Rose Lennon '74, '77 JD)

Literary criticism was my toughest class, and near the end of the semester, I seriously worried whether I would pass it.

So, in one of the North Dining Hall lines one wickedly cold night in December, I thought more about Twain and T.S. Eliot than peas and pasta. But as I moved down the line, a loud commotion seemed to follow me. I paid no attention until the salad bar, which had become Ground Zero.

Leaning toward a guy near me, I asked why all the noise. He leaned back, incredulous: “You’re the only broad in here!” And the room whooped all over again.

No matter. I had a Lit Crit exam the next day.

That’s how it was for me as a 24-year-old grad student in the third year of ND undergraduate coeducation. The ratio between men and women was about 5-to-1, but I didn’t focus on ratios so much as my academic work.

Except for life in Breen-Phillips Hall.

I was a resident assistant on the third floor, and the women in that dorm taught me a bundle.

They all had brains matched by keen determination. Thursday nights, for example, many freshmen were out in the hallways cramming for “Emil T,” the weekly quiz in Professor Emil T. Hofman’s first-year chemistry class. Those women took the quiz very, very seriously, as many had their eyes on medical school. They were also generous, coaching each other late into the night.

I also remember coaching a good many Composition 101 students who had plenty of brains but hadn’t yet found their voices. Find them they did, however, after maybe a dozen versions of any one essay, each one birthed in single-minded effort, often with hallway feedback.

Those women helped each other, and their generosity extended to me. At the end of the year, they heard I was going to Connecticut to meet the parents of the guy I’d later marry. They threw a surprise party for me on the eve of my departure. I could not have been more astonished. And it happened in the midst of final exams.

Our rector was Jeanne Thomas. Of the women in Breen-Phillips, Thomas said, “They knew they were pioneering in an important way. They knew it, felt it, and were happy about it.”

Thomas was dealing with women – and their male friends – who were bright, often quite articulate, and very young. “They were sometimes a challenge,” she said. “Obeying the guidelines and testing limits with RAs was an issue.”

As a rector and counselor, Thomas found that if a young woman had had positive relationships with men before ND, she did well; if not, the 5-to-1 ratio could be difficult for her. “But only if she was really wounded,” Thomas said, “did she really need support.”

Jeanne Thomas, Rector of Breen-Phillips
(photo courtesy Jeanne Thomas)

Thomas had degrees from several other private Christian and public universities but she found ND the most welcoming, the most authentically Christian. 

 “My experience was so far beyond what I expected,” she said. “It became a deeply religious experience.”

Thomas studied for a master’s in psychology; all of her professors were male and mainly priests. “All were excellent,” she said. “They had a deep appreciation of the feminine psyche.” She thinks it’s related to the idea of a university dedicated to Our Lady.

As part of her graduate work, Thomas facilitated group counseling at Moreau Seminary.

The Rev. Robert Griffin, CSC, became a friend; he and Thomas often had lunch together. “He really valued me,” she said. “He was warm, caring – really valued me as a woman.”

Psychology Professor Morton Kelsey, both a faculty member and Episcopal priest, made a deep impression on Thomas as well. Kelsey specialized in Jungian psychology and Christian meditation and taught Thomas ways to understand human behavior via dreams.

It wasn’t unusual for Thomas to be the only woman in a group of ND students and teachers, but the spotlight was on work at hand. The Rev. John Dunne, CSC, would remind Thomas, “You have a lot of choices, but only one has heart and meaning.” He challenged her to focus and find it. 

In 1976, after ND, Thomas made a month-long retreat in Carmel, CA, gradually discerning that she was to practice as a therapist in the area. Thomas completed a Ph.D. and has practiced in Cupertino for 40 years. “I found this path,” Thomas explained. “This depth of work has been my calling, and it came from what John Dunne said.”

“I have learned,” Thomas said, “that God’s love in us is so important, and when you work with one person or in small groups, you can develop relationships that change people’s lives, and they grow to be whole.”

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