Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, BVM: A Pioneer in Computer Science

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Dubuque, Iowa, USA) was among the first women to receive a PhD in Computer Science. She received her degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1964 and was the first person, woman or man, to receive such a degree from that educational institution.

She first became interested in the field of computer science in the 1950s and in 1958, she was the first woman permitted to work in Dartmouth University’s Computer Center, where she assisted in the development of BASIC – the first “easy to learn” computer language.

After receiving her PhD, she was appointed Chairperson of the newly-created computer science department at Clarke College (now Clarke University), a position she would hold for almost twenty years. Sister Kenneth was among the first to recognize the future widespread importance of computers, noting in 1964 that students in such fields as education, psychology and the sciences were already finding uses for computers in their academic pursuits. She also anticipated the importance computers would have in libraries, recognizing that “Its function in information retrieval will make it the hub of tomorrow’s libraries.”Sister Mary Kenneth was a strong advocate for the involvement of women in the field of computer science, particularly given the growing demand for computer experts and “information specialists.” There were, and are, jobs to be had and she saw no reason why women would not play a significant role in advancing computer science. She was supportive of working mothers, encouraging them to bring their babies with them to class as necessary.

After her death in 1985 the computer center at Clarke was renamed the Keller
Computer Center and Information Service.

Jennifer Head
Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Labor Activist: Rev. Vincent O’Connell, SM

“He has been shot at, black listed, and quietly transferred to other parts of the country, but he has always come back for more.”

One morning when they were young boys, Vincent O’Connell and his brother “sensed that something other than coffee was brewing in the kitchen.” The boys’ father, owner of a Philadelphia hosiery mill, felt betrayed and angry that a worker he’d recently loaned money to was now leading a picket line outside his mill. O’Connell’s mother—a former hosiery worker whose own father had died on the Philadelphia docks during a labor dispute—challenged his paternalistic notion that as owner, he knew what was best for his workers.

Vincent O’Connell and Leon Schachter

This early lesson on labor-management relations informed O’Connell’s life and career.

Rev. Vincent O’Connell, S.M., (1912-1999) said he was drawn to the Society of Mary because the community “liked to go where nobody else wanted to go and do things that nobody else could or would do—just to help people.” Ordained a Marist priest in Rome in 1939, he witnessed social upheaval and the rise of fascism in Europe.

One of his first U.S. assignments was at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. In 1941, Archbishop Joseph Rummel asked him to help organize the Archdiocesan Social Action Committee as part of the Catholic Committee of the South. For more than a decade, O’Connell organized thousands of southern agricultural workers, heeding the words of Leo XII and Pius XI to “Go to the workingman, especially where he is poor.”

But in 1952, when he tried to organize Louisiana’s sugar cane workers, he attracted the ire of wealthy Catholics, who pressured the bishop to curtail his activities. When O’Connell told one Catholic plant manager that agricultural workers would be unionized, the manager responded, “Before that happens,
the bayou will run red with blood—some of it yours.”

O’Connell was transferred to Minnesota. In 1970 he returned to Louisiana to join the faculty of Immaculata Seminary, but also taught adult education classes through the Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA). The early 1970s saw the most contentious period of Father O’Connell’s service. In 1973, the bishop ordered him out of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Many believed he was again being punished for his social activism, but the bishop claimed it was a matter of jurisdiction. O’Connell had been assigned to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, but he also worked and lived—without prior approval—in the Baton Rouge Diocese.

Vincent O’Connell, undated

Beyond his tireless efforts to improve the lives of workers, O’Connell possessed a natural gift for identifying with everyone he met, regardless of status, age, or race. His friend, Rev. Msgr. George G. Higgins eulogized him: “At the root of Vince’s rollicking good cheer was his profound respect for other people regardless of their status or rank, and his down-to- earth humility…In meeting with a group of strangers he quickly came to know all of them very well and almost always left them with their feeling better about themselves.”

Susan J. Illis, Archivist, Archives of the Society of Mary, US Province

CYO Homes and the Viatorians

Viatorians have a rich legacy of reaching out to those accounted of little importance in society. Below is just one example from an earlier time in the province. In the late 30s and early 40s, Viatorian brothers staffed Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) homes in Chicago at the invitation of Archbishop Bernard J. Sheil, co-founder of the CYO, who saw a need to reach out to homeless and troubled youth. Usually, two or three brothers were assigned to the homes which were located along South Michigan Avenue. At first, they were established for homeless and transient youth who were unemployed. The residents were provided with food, clothing, medical/dental care, discipline as well as spiritual direction. Some were given part-time jobs.

After a few years, the homes had the “unique position of being the only institution in the U.S. to devote itself to the exclusive problem of rehabilitation, sponsorship and employment of parolees between 18- 26 years of age.” The brothers assigned to the homes were to “endeavor at all times to display kindness and charity.” (1940 Annuaire)

Brother Raymond Wilken, CSV, is just one of the many Viatorians brothers who worked at the homes. His 1958 obituary stated that “in 1940, he was assigned to work among paroled convicts … This was difficult work and often discouraging. Brother Wilken tried to bring the young men a knowledge of God, a horror for crime and a desire for virtue … Although his kindness was often met with no response, nevertheless, it was a persevering kindness, and his hopes for the reformation of the young men never dropped.”

Fr. Francis White, CSV, also served at the homes when he was a young brother. He spent two summers supervising the residents, parolees from Joliet State Penitentiary, as they worked at thehome. He found them respectful and easy to engage in conversation. Many of the men who lived at the CYO homes benefitted from the kindness of our earlier confreres.

Published in the Viatorian in-house newsletter, April 2009 and written by Br. Dan Lydon, CSV, Director of Association, at the time



Submitted by Joan Sweeney, Viatorian Community Archivist, United States Province

Alexian Brothers

1987 Br Felix Bettendorf -Provincial and Br Frank Souza – Director in front of Bonaventure House.

The Alexian Brothers, working closely with the Archdiocese of Chicago, responded to the problem of support for men and women with AIDS or ARC with a residential facility called “Bonaventure House” after the founder of the American province, Brother Bonaventure Thelen, C.F.A. The facility was not a hospital or hospice; rather, it provided room and board, pastoral and psychosocial counseling, and support groups. The facility was dedicated on April 6, 1989 by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin and officially opened.

Donna Carl Dahl
Alexian Brothers Provincial Archives

Sister St. Francis Sullivan, CSJ

Sister St. Francis Sullivan devoted her career as a Sister of St. Joseph to the education of young women. By 1931, she had earned a doctorate in French. After teaching high she began her forty-year career in the French Department at Regis College as faculty and chair, in addition to fulfilling other collegiate duties, as well as directing the Extension School for the education of young Sisters. During her academic career, she did research and published articles and book reviews, as well as editing, and was active in a number of professional organizations.

In addition to her collegiate duties, she became a member of a group of nine Sisters of St. Joseph engaged in translating from French the Maxims of the Congregation, which had been written in the seventeenth century.

In 1952, the French government bestowed on her its highest academic award, Les Palmes Académiques, with the added distinction of Officier de l’Académie. Due to a glitch in communication, Sister St. Francis was studying in France when the French consul-general in Boston conferred the award at an Academic Convocation at Regis College.

Mary Rita Grady, CSJ, Archivist
Boston CSJ Archives

Medardo Brualla, CMF

Medardo Brualla
Medardo Brualla, CFM. Courtesy of Claretian Archives USA-Canada.

Father Medardo Brualla, a Claretian Priest serving the Mexican Community at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles, California became the point person working with public heath personnel during the 1924 bubonic plague in this Mexican enclave. A quarantined area was established to prevent outsiders who wanted to profit from the community’s abandoned property. Father Medardo protected the Mexican community from disaster and lost his life in the process. Only fifty Mexicans died due his heroic efforts. Professor Jeffrey Copeland’s forthcoming book documents this final bubonic plague in the United States.

Malachy McCarthy, Province Archivist
Claretian Missionaries Archives USA-Canada