Sisterhood Rules

Collage of archival photos of Religious of the Sacred Heart


On a brisk winter afternoon in December 1949, local dignitaries joined Bishop Charles Francis Buddy and Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill for a groundbreaking ceremony atop a wind-swept mesa overlooking the burgeoning San Diego cityscape.

Mother Hill had a special reason for wanting the campus, which would come to be known as Alcalá Park, to be unrivaled in its exquisite beauty and intricate design.

“There are three things that are significant in education: beauty, goodness and truth,” she said. Mother Hill believed that beauty would attract people on sight, and that students would find goodness when they interacted with faculty and staff, who would then lead them to the truth, which is the true purpose of the university.

The central administration of the Society of the Sacred Heart concurred with Mother Hill’s plans and agreed that she take a $4 million loan to begin construction of the San Diego College for Women.

A protégé of Mother Hill in these early years was Sister Virginia Rodee ‘57 (BA), ‘74 (MA), who occasionally still wears Mother Hill’s cross as a sign of her profession in the Society. In 2017, Sister Rodee will retire. Following are a few of the more personal stories, collected from conversations, interviews, oral histories and elsewhere, about the profound impact of the Religious of the Sacred Heart on the University of San Diego.

Love and the Heart of Christ

The core values that we have at USD today, including our academic excellence, can be traced directly back to the early days of the San Diego College for Women. The intellectual rigor, wonderful faculty and the education of the whole person were very important, as they still are here today.

Sister Virginia Rodee as a young nunThen, as now, community was important, both in how we treated individuals and how we nurtured the whole. Respect and regard for others has been a consistent value throughout the years. The Catholic social principle of treating people with dignity is still in evidence; those core values can be traced right back to the beginning. A real close and mentoring relationship with faculty is still in evidence; one of the reasons that people still come to USD is for the outstanding attention that faculty give to all students. When I think of the charism of the Sacred Heart, it’s really expressing the love and the heart of Christ, the love that God has for you. It was expected of us that we communicate that love in everything we did. The Religious certainly communicated that, not by talking about it, but by living it.

People ask me sometimes, “Don’t you regret how the university has changed?” And I answer, “Yes, it has changed, but the core values and goals are still there.” I say, “How wonderful! How great!” As our foundress, Madeleine-Sophie Barat, told all of us, “Times have changed and we must change with them.” And over the years, USD has done that so beautifully. It’s very apparent to me. It’s something we can all be very proud of! — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ


In the beginning, the sisters were living in the still-uncompleted building. They just wanted to get up here onto campus. A worker uncovered a ceiling opening and found a group of nuns all at breakfast, just sitting together having coffee. Can you imagine that man’s amazement? — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

Personal Touch

As a nun, you cared for people, because caring for people was the way that Christ taught us: to love your neighbor as yourself. When you cared that much, you helped everybody to get course material, but you also helped them with their personal lives. Because of the confidence that students had in the nuns in the classroom they would be glad to approach them and ask for their advice about more personal things. I think that was a very good thing to have such role models. — Sister Helen Lorch, RSCJ

Blades of Grass

We began the university without even a blade of grass. One day, after theology classes the girls called us all over and said, “Look Mother! There’s a blade of grass!” And they were elated. The class that came in 1952 and graduated in 1956 was our first class that completed the four years — a wonderful group of people who are still among our most loyal alumnae. During those years, several became Religious of the Sacred Heart: Virginia Rodee, Irene Cullen, Linda Hayward and Deanna Von Bargen, and there were a number of others.

Our alumnae are very strong and devoted. Bishop Buddy took a special interest in the college; he and Mother Hill were great friends. He would preside over most of the major ceremonies at the college. At Christmas time, he would have a big party and invite all the students to his residence. — Sister Agnes Murphy, RSCJ

Real. Profound.

I had a class in philosophy of education with Mother Agnes Murphy, who was a great teacher. At the end of one of her lectureMother HIll, Bishop Buddy and two of Mother Hill's sister: archival photos, she said something very profound: “I’ve been able to communicate this to you, but in a real sense, it’s not just myself who is doing the teaching. I am part of a whole body of women who are all educators with me. I stand with them and am communicating to you as one of a body of educators.”

That had a big impact on me personally. It helped me to understand the Religious of the Sacred Heart in another way. They believed they were communicating the love of the Heart of Christ through education. She almost blew me away. She didn’t know I was thinking of joining the order, but she was so real.

The interest and love expressed by the sisters was very concrete and so free. They laughed, they engaged with all, they enjoyed life. In class, though, they were very serious and our education was very rigorous, but they as a person. I found them very genuine and authentic. They were so very connected to life and to people. — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

Mother Always Knows Best

For years, my mother, in trying to persuade me to attend the San Diego College for Women, would talk about how amazing the Religious of the Sacred Heart were. She’d say, “They’re so educated, they’re so cultivated, they’re so wonderful. I just want you to have contact with them.” And I said, “I don’t need any contact with them. I want to go away to school.” I had been accepted to Mount St. Mary’s College and I had a scholarship, but she wanted me to go to school here. I finally said, “Fine. How about if I go for one year, then after that, I can go any place?” She agreed to that. As it turned out, I never brought the subject up again, because I just loved it. — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

Incredibly Special

Mother Hill’s cross is something I cherish deeply. She received it in Belgium in 1907 when she made her Final Profession. When our Religious pass away, we’re not buried with our cross, only with our rings. So, when I heard about her death, I asked the Superior if I might have her cross; I realize now how incredibly special it was to me. It’s an endearing symbol of her rich life legacy, and a timeless connection to the university she helped build. — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

It Don’t Come Easy

[What made the Religious of the Sacred Heart great leaders] is a faith these women had. It was a particular kind of faith that I think is different from men’s, in as much as women believe that with God’s help, they can do anything. And I think with that kind of philosophy, they did great things; they saw the work to be done and did it. — Sister Helen Lorch, RSCJ

Guess Who’s Not Going to Dinner?

I started off as a commuter — back then they called us “dayhops” — and then in my junior year I moved to campus and became a resident student. It was a Wednesday or Thursday and I had plans to go out to dinner, something I considered very ordinary. But when I went to check out an hour before, Mother Frances Danz told me, “There’s no going out on weeknights.” Well, I didn’t know what to do, my friend was already on his way and there were no cell phones. I asked her what could be done and she said, “I’ll have to go ask Reverend Mother Hill.” I said to myself, “Well, what would she have to do with my going out?” When she came back and said it would be OK, I thought, “Oh. What have I gotten into here?” — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

Dress Up or Don’t Show Up

You were expected to dress for dinner each night. This meant changing clothes and wearing stockings. But we felt that we had more important things to do, and who was going to see us? So, many of the girls would come in with trench coats over their school clothes. And Mother Lawrence, when she got on to it, would ask, “Oh, do you have a new dress?” She’d want to see if we’d changed, and we hadn’t. Sometimes people would reconsider even coming down. — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

Always Interested

The thing I saw the most was the nun’s complete selflessness and great interest in the lives of their students. It was not only what they taught, but they knew about life. Just because they were in the convent didn’t mean that life was easy, as perhaps it might have appeared. They were just always interested in everyone. You knew that years later, you could go back to your college or to your school and the nuns who you knew would still be around. It’s that continuity that was so great. — Sister Helen Lorch, RSCJ

We Didn’t Leave

There was a special area of the house where the nuns lived. I lived in the dorms because I was in charge of the residence floor. Those of us who were responsible for the residents lived in the dorms. We all lived on campus and didn’t leave the campus. You know, we didn’t go down to the post office to mail a letter. You waited until the postman came and got it. We just took it for granted, because when we entered the society, it was partially cloistered. We never gave it too much thought, because the things that were essential for us to our educational work — attending universities and colleges and going to educational meetings — were in tune with what was going in the educational world. Unless you were sick or in the hospital, you didn’t leave. — Sister Sally Furay, RSCJ


I remember one night, a young naval officer came in. He had to sign in the book — this young man came in and introduced himself as Patrick Henry. That was his real name. Sister McShane said, “You stay right here. We have a young woman in this institution whose name is Betsy Ross.” She got one of the girls to go up to the resident hall and find Betsy Ross. She said, “This is too good to be true.” I never forgot that. — Sister Sally Furay, RSCJ

No Regrets

When I walked onto the College for Women campus with my parents for the first time and met Mother Bremner and Mother Danz, I knew it was the place for me, and my father agreed. I have never regretted my choice; I loved my time in college. It was my first experience with all-women classes. I went to coed Catholic schools from K-12 and had always had classes with boys. At first I thought there was a certain something missing: the male point oArchival photo of San Diego College for Women students with a Sister of the Sacred Heartf view. But in high school, I was the vice president of everything. In college, I was president. I was given the opportunity to be a leader, and to subsequently give back to the community. The nuns always emphasized that we were fortunate and privileged, and that we had an obligation to give back. — Maureen King ’64 (BA)

To Catch a Glimpse

When I joined the order, we were semi-cloistered. We didn’t go home to our families, we didn’t attend weddings or funerals. When my brother was married at St. Mary Magdalene Church, I didn’t go, but I got a glimpse of him and his bride as they left the church from my perch at the college tennis courts. In those days, brides would usually come back to the college because they knew the nuns couldn’t go out. They would come to the French Parlor in Founders Hall where we would all gather and could greet them and their new husbands. Sometimes they would leave their bouquet for Mary in Founders Chapel but then they would leave for the reception. — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

World Turning

Things started to change by 1965, after the Vatican II Council, when all religious orders were asked to return to their original charism. Cloister was lifted and there was more freedom. There was also experimentation with the religious habit, which was modified. We were informed about current events; we knew what was going on. In fact, some of our nuns walked with Dr. Martin Luther King, and that was before cloister was even lifted. They had gotten special permission to go and be a part of that. — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

Rising to the Top

When I came in as president in 1966, the College for Women was in a good position. The books were in the black, there was a good esprit d’ corps, the college had been accredited right away. Of course, Mother Hill had brought bright women from colleges across the country out to California. All the nuns had doctorates from Cal, Stanford or other universities.

From the beginning, I could see how strong we could be. I looked into the future, with the two colleges joining hands, and saw that we would rise to the top. It wasn’t easy; it took four years to lay the groundwork for the merger. Sally Furay, who was provost, was in charge of all of the academics. With her help, we founded a genuine lay board of trustees from scratch. I was excused from my role in 1972 when Art Hughes came in as president; that was when the merger with the College for Men was finalized. He really put USD on the map, and had a vision for how the university should go forward. — Sister Nancy Morris, RSCJ, President Emerita

Like a Dream

I always wanted to be a missionary, and I just loved the Far East. It was announced here on campus at a meeting in February of 1968 that I would be going to Korea. I was so stunned. To this day, I remember the spot on the patio where I embraced the provincial, Mother Beth Nothomb, and twirled her around. I was so excited! I was so naïve and so eager and so off I went. I was in Korea for 22 years. I loved it, but I love being back at USD. I love being with the students and also the faculty and staff. — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

A Real Sense of Continuity

Sister Pat Shaffer was my teacher; we go way back to when I was a freshman in her class, Science for Elementary School Teachers. She was also a very dear friend to my sons, and was very dear to me as well. When my son got a scholarship to USD, I was thrilled that we had that connection. In fact, my father got his degree from USD too; he graduated in 1971. We are three generations of alumni.

All the nuns instilled in me a sense of continuity over time. They were there for me when I was a student; it was as if they were our mothers at school. And when the merger happened, the influence of the Religious of the Sacred Heart stayed. They are one of the main reasons I’ve been involved over the years. The nuns were our anchors. — Sandra Chew Phillips ’68 (BA)

Ahead of Her Time

I think Mother Hill would be so very pleased with the campus today and the advances since the merger. It’s a bigger and a better university. She was really a woman ahead of her time. She didn’t have a doctorate herself, but she ensured that all those teaching in the college did. Even with cloister, she sent the Religious for doctoral degrees. She was very insistent that higher studies were essential, and invested a lot to make sure that happened. — Sister Virginia Rodee, RSCJ

A wealth of content about the legacy of the Religious of the Sacred Heart was compiled in the course of putting together this article, far more than can fit in our pages. Please visit our new website that includes articles and historical photos from throughout the years, as well as videos and much more.

While you’re there, w
e invite you to add your story to this evolving collection.

Photo collage art by Barbara Ferguson

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