Molly and Mary

Molly and Mary

A dynamic duo, already dubbed M&M, is leading the initiative to shine a spotlight on the work of women religious, beginning with National Catholic Sisters Week
By Christina Capecchi

MOLLY HAZELTON IS CLUTCHING HER GREEN TEA, LAUGHING at a 1910 photo on Mount Holyoke College’s Twitter account for its Archives and Special Collections. It shows students in long dresses and black stockings doing calisthenics, “I’m a Little Teapot”–style. 

“It’s ridiculous and it’s awesome,” says Hazelton, a Mount Holyoke alumna who is equal parts modern and vintage, a member of both Pinterest and “By using social media, you can take a century-old photograph that was hidden in a box and broadcast it to a whole new audience.” 

She pauses and turns serious. “It’s the same thing with the work of Catholic sisters. Their endeavors and accomplishments have been hidden away for years.” 

But all of that is changing. A three-year, $3.3 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation will enable St. Catherine to help shine a national spotlight on the authentic, useful lives of Catholic sisters and demonstrate their relevance to young women today. Specifically, the initiative aims to foster bonds among sisters and young women in the hope that some of those teens and 20-somethings will consider religious life. 

Now an adjunct professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University, Hazelton, a 33-year-old Catholic, is co-leading the ambitious initiative with Mary Soher, OP. Sister Mary, a Laura Linney lookalike, recently earned a doctorate in organizational development. She previously coordinated vocational outreach for her religious community, the Adrian Dominican Sisters from Adrian, Michigan. 

At 48, the San Francisco native has been a fully professed member for nearly a decade and describes faith as central to her life. “It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and lets me leave the cares of the world in God’s hands at night,” Sister Mary says. 

St. Catherine President Andrea Lee, IHM had a tall order as she sought a leader to implement the Hilton grant to design a visibility campaign for Catholic sisters and incorporate that work into National Women’s History Month. As she reviewed résumés from a number of highly qualified candidates, two stood out: one from a young Catholic laywoman with significant experience in digital archival work and project management, and another from a woman religious with substantial vocation work and experience in the world of technology and media.

Together, their talents seemed unbeatable. Budgets were revised, and last fall the co-executive directors stepped into the job — and the challenge — of their lives. 

For their part, Sister Mary and Molly couldn’t be more engaged and excited, especially as the scope of their work sets in. The initiative will put forth oral histories, Catholic-school curricula, an interactive website and social media about women religious. A cornerstone of the initiative is National Catholic Sisters Week, which will be held the second week of March as a new addition to National Women’s History Month. 

The Hilton Foundation approached Molly Murphy MacGregor, cofounder and executive director of the National Women’s History Project, about the prospect of creating a dedicated week to celebrate Catholic sisters. MacGregor and her colleagues embraced the idea and even incorporated Catholic sisters in their 2014 theme, “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment.”

The week will kick off on Saturday, March 8, when 50 pairs of women — a sister partnered with a young woman in college — will descend on campus for a special weekend gathering. All St. Kate’s alumnae are invited to a storytelling event in which sisters will describe how they answered and live out the call of religious life.

Character, courage and commitment

Sister Mary and Molly are stationed in a former lounge in the library, a bright room with stained-glass windows. When they moved in last November, the co-directors surveyed the space and decided to push their desks together, facing each other. The arrangement symbolizes their close collaboration.

“It works,” says Molly, who pulls away from her computer monitor and leans over whenever Sister Mary wants to bounce something off her.

“We’re on the same wavelength about a lot of things while also being independent thinkers,” adds Sister Mary. “There’s a real ease and flow working with Molly.”

Their natural partnership stems from a shared foundation: a robust sense of self, an affinity for college-aged women, an appreciation for history, a love of technology — and an equally strong belief in its power to reach young people. Both are quick thinkers, voracious readers and lifelong learners. Beyond that, their differences boost their capacity.

Molly is an introvert, and Sister Mary is an extrovert. Molly scours fashion blogs and shops at J.Crew; Sister Mary is dressed in the professional, simple garb that most sisters favor nowadays. Molly hones in on details; Sister Mary aims big. Molly thinks planning, while Sister Mary thinks people, tapping into her significant connections throughout the Church.

In their early weeks on the job, the wide-ranging duo hired a full-time digital strategist named Garrett Tiedemann, a handful of undergraduate work-study students and several graduate assistants, who will focus on creating curricula. Along with Sister Andrea, they traveled to California to consult with the leadership team of the Catholic Sisters Initiative for the Hilton Foundation, including program director Rosemarie Nassif, SSND.

Sister Mary and Molly are also branding their new initiative, with help from social media consultant Amy Jauman, owner of the consulting firm Remotely Smart. To come up with the perfect name for the project the team turned to crowdsourcing, inviting members of to brainstorm during a 10-day contest with a $100 prize. It generated 678 ideas.

From there Sister Mary and Molly conducted a focus group of St. Kate’s students, determined to learn what does (and doesn’t) resonate with them. The students were frank. “When I hear ‘wisdom,’” a sophomore said, “I think of old women. I think of a nursing home. Gray hair.”

Together, Sister Mary and Molly have created an inviting space and a compelling invitation for young adults. An open house last December drew a range of students, from an atheist to a daily Mass goer. Some of these students will be active participants as oral historians, producers and social media strategists.

Colleen Hansen MLIS’13, one of Molly’s former grad students, praises her professor’s drive and ability to relate to students. “She has her finger on the pulse of the future archival trends and is actually doing work toward that advancement,” says Hansen. Meanwhile, Dusty Farnan, OP emphasizes Sister Mary’s “light and lively” spirit. “She is totally in love with the vocation of being a sister — and this is the whole point of the project: How do you let people know the beauty of this life?”

Demystifying religious life is only half the challenge. Connecting with young adults who connect and network through social media is the other priority, Sister Mary says. “A lot of people are wondering, ‘Who are our 20-somethings? Why aren’t they interested in religious life?’ Well, how easy have we made it for them to find us? Why aren’t we going to where they are? That’s what this grant allows us to do, to go to the young people where they are hanging out.

“If this is what you are called to do,” she adds with a smile, “it is such an incredible life!” 

Christina Capecchi writes the nationally syndicated column "Twenty Something" and contributes to The New York Times. She also is lead writer and media advisor for the HIlton Foundation-funded project on Catholic sisters.

'Nuns' network' helped launch National Women's History Month

Molly Murphy MacGregorWHEN MOLLY MURPHY MACGREGOR DISCOVERED she was earning 25 percent less than a male co-worker in the same position, the 18-year-old Bank of America clerk confronted the bank manager.

He informed MacGregor that her male colleague was in the training program for high-level positions. When she asked to join the program, his response stunned her: “Do you think people want to walk into a bank and see women in positions of authority?”

Nearly 50 years later, MacGregor vividly recalls her reaction to the bank manager’s disdain. “My first thought was of Sister Mary Beatrice, who had been the principal at Our Lady of Lourdes [MacGregor’s Catholic grade school], and Sister Mary Carla and Sister Mary Grace Michelle, who began teaching at age 18 while taking night and weekend classes. I thought, ‘This man’s just stupid!’”

The youngest of nine from an Irish Catholic family in southern California, the spirited teen quit her job and began college. Later, when she taught high school and earned a master’s in history, MacGregor discovered a dearth of information on women’s contributions to U.S. history.

Providing this education became her driving force. She launched the first Women’s History Week in Sonoma County in 1978 and took the concept to a conference at Sarah Lawrence College the following year, lobbying to make the week nationwide.

One of the first successes came from a Catholic sister. “Again, it goes back to a nun,” MacGregor says. “Sister Maureen McCormick from Colorado had the whole state organized within two to three weeks. It went out so quickly — the nuns’ network!”

President Jimmy Carter made National Women’s History Week official, through a presidential proclamation, in early 1980. It evolved into National Women’s History Month in 1987.

MacGregor still serves as executive director of the National Women’s History Project, based in Santa Rosa, California. “To see the reach of the idea,” she says, “it’s been beyond our wildest plans!” 

Learn more about National Women's History Project.

Molly Hazelton and Mary Soher, OP

Molly Hazelton and Mary Soher, OP

Impressive Résumés

Here's a peek at their professional backgrounds:

Molly Hazelton:

  • ​Digitized more than 12 million documents at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.
  • Conducted archival projects for Sarah Lawrence College, the American College of Greece and the American Jewish Archives.
  • Holds a master's in library science from Simmons College.

Mary Soher, OP:

  • Earned a doctorate in organizational development and change from Colorado Technical University.
  • Serves on the boards of the Dominican Young Adults USA and Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan.
  • Prior to becoming a Dominican, worked in production at the CBS news affiliate in San Antonio, Texas.

Co-Leadership: The President's View

“Deciding to hire both Molly and Mary seemed the right and wise thing to do, especially when considering their extensive and highly complementary skills,” says St. Catherine President Andrea Lee, IHM, reflecting on her decision to select both Molly Hazelton and Mary Soher, OP as directors for the University’s Catholic sisters initiative. 

Co-leadership also makes sense because of “the collaborative nature of work that is so pervasive at St. Kate’s and the sheer energy needed to pull off a large and complex project like this.” 

“Before hiring them,” says Sister Andrea, “I brought Molly and Sister Mary to campus to get to know each other and their respective work styles. I wanted them to think reflectively about what a co-leadership model might mean and what it could enable; and to meet with me, both individually and together, to talk through their thoughts and questions about how to make this work. 

“Once it was clear that everyone was on board,” she continues, “a new and dynamic team hit the ground running. We are so fortunate to enjoy Sister Mary and Molly’s very significant talents in pursuit of this project’s aspirant goals.” 

At a Glance

Last fall the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation awarded a three-year, $3.3 million grant to St. Catherine University to broaden awareness of the lives and contributions of Catholic sisters.

The resulting initiative includes:

  • the launch of National Catholic Sisters Week held March 8-14 as part of Women's History Month, with a kick-off weekend on the St. Paul campus,
  • the creation of oral histories about sisters captured by college women through one-on-one interviews,
  • the development of curricula about women religious to be offered to Catholic schools (middle school through college) nationwide and
  • the design and maintenance of a dynamic website and accompanying social media.

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