Sr. Mary Luke Tobin
Sister of Loretto (1908–2006)

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Sr. Mary Luke Tobin
Photo courtesy of Loretto Heritage Center.

In 1964 Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, Superior General of the Sisters of Loretto in Nerinx, Kentucky, found herself on a ship to Rome. As the newly elected president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (later known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious), she had set out to observe and learn what she could about the ongoing Vatican Council. While en route, she learned that she had been appointed as an official observer of the Council—one of only fifteen women auditors afforded this status. In receiving her credentials, she was told she was there only to listen, not to talk, but she should feel free to attend any session “of interest to women.” Naturally, she interpreted this as a mandate to attend all sessions.

As it turned out, through the intervention of theologian Bernard Häring, Tobin did have an opportunity to speak. She was invited, along with two other women, to serve on the preparatory commissions on the Church in the Modern World as well as the document on the laity. It was, as she later said, “an opening, although just a tiny crack in the door, to a recognition of the vast indifference toward women and the ignoring of their potential within the whole body of the church.”

Tobin went on to play an enormous role in the renewal of religious life in the post-Council era. A staunch advocate for the role of women in the Church, she also worked tirelessly for peace and social justice. “Go out on a limb,” she said. “That’s where the fruit is.” She died on August 24, 2006.

“If people don’t have hope, I believe, then the work of the church is not done. If we don’t have hope, then our faith is of little help or comfort.”

—Sr. Mary Luke Tobin

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.