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Sr. Leonard helps women find theological voice

Introducing herself to her first theology class in 1977, Sr. Ellen Leonard had sensed her predominantly male students at the University of St. Michael's College were uncomfortable with having a female professor.

But as Toronto-born Leonard, a Sister of St. Joseph, found confidence in her voice as one of Canada's first feminist theologians and enlightened her students on teachings and critiques of the Bible, Christology, sacraments and religious life, she quickly gained their respect and dispelled sexist attitudes and resistance to women teaching or studying theology. Gradually, more female students took up her courses and men became more comfortable with the idea of a female professor.

"I think it's important that women find their voices," said Leonard, a professor emerita at the University of St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, and currently teaching part-time at the Toronto School of Theology.

She promotes rethinking theology through a global, interfaith, female and male view, and encourages students to take up a feminist critique of what she views as patriarchal aspects of the mainstream theological discourse that has traditionally developed without women.

"Sometimes, it takes a while to feel confident and to actually find one's own voice," she said. "So it's been good to be able to work with students and help others as they struggle along."

With her groundbreaking work for almost 30 years as a pioneer feminist theologian, Leonard, 71, is one of eight recipients of the YWCA's 25th annual Women of Distinction Awards (WOD) in the religion and education category. The annual award recognizes positive female role models who "have made extraordinary contributions to improving the lives of other women and girls." She will receive her award at the WOD fund-raising awards dinner on May 31 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

"Sr. Ellen demonstrated an outstanding lifetime of commitment to advocating for women's equality both in theology and institutions," said Amanda Dale, director of advocacy and communications at YWCA Toronto.

"She helped create a path for women studying and teaching theology," added Sr. Mary Ellen Sheehan, St. Michael's College theology professor emerita.

Leonard has also participated in numerous ecumenical and interfaith conferences, including the World Council of Churches Assembly, an ecumenical gathering of faith, in Vancouver in 1983 and in Canberra, Australia, in 1991.

With the YWCA award's theme of "women inspiring women," Leonard recalls that the Sisters who taught her at Toronto's St. Joseph's College School inspired her after high school to join the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1951 and eventually work in religious education and theology after Vatican II. She said by going to an all-girls school, she realized that women could teach any subject, from science to math. Growing up in the 1940s, she never imagined she could be a theologian and had dreamed of becoming a teacher like her mother.

As a former religion resource and Grade 1 teacher and elementary school principal, Leonard found her new vocation in theological education after Vatican II. She obtained her PhD at the University of St. Michael's College in 1978.

She said teaching young adults and older people was like empowering them to learn the renewed language of theology that would help them obtain the tools and knowledge in their vocations.

An advocate of affirming the gifts of women through teaching, writing books and articles, mentoring and support, Leonard has seen a transformation with more than half her students today being female. Her female students at the Toronto School of Theology are made up of a mix of women from their 20s to retired elderly people.

She said positive developments also include having religious and lay women who are chaplains in hospitals and in schools, female ministers of the Eucharist and altar servers, as well as women doing spiritual direction and pastoral visiting.

Despite the improvements in women's opportunities and involvement in church ministries and other facets of society, Leonard said there is still a "long way to go" for women to break through the glass ceiling. As beloved and revered as Pope John Paul II was, she hopes that the new era of Catholicism after the Pope's April 2 death will result in equal participation of women and full recognition of their gifts in the church. She said she would like to see more women, who comprise more than 50 per cent of Catholics, obtain leadership and decision-making roles in the church.

"I think that we need the gifts of everyone, women and men," she said.

By Christl Dabu
Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Register, April 24, 2005


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