People who knew her, knew her as a teacher, a dutiful sister of the Holy Cross who taught at Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden and Saint Mary of the Wasatch near Salt Lake City. She shopped at O.P. Skaggs, walked the foothills with her various walking canes and shyly kept to herself.
But as far as nuns can be said to have a secret life, Sister M. Madeleva Wolff C.S.C. had one. She wrote poetry. Not the way you and I write poetry, but the way Emily Dickinson wrote poetry. She was a graduate of Berkeley and studied at Oxford. Her circle of personal friends and admirers ran from Edith Wharton ("The Age of Innocence") to C.S. Lewis ("The Narnia Chronicles"). Joyce Kilmer (who wrote the poem "Trees") visited her several times in Utah, and Bernard DeVoto - perhaps Utah's most distinguished man of letters - poured his soul out to her in long, lush private letters.In the world of world literature, Sister Madeleva was a player.
"I remember one girl at school," says Sister M. Campion Kuhn, Sister Madeleva's literary archivist in Indiana. "The two of us were standing together when a sister came by. `That's Sister Madeleva!' the girl said. When I asked who she was talking about the girl ran out, got her literature textbook and showed me one of Sister Madeleva's poems."
Over the years Sister Madeleva published several collections of verse. Each year she'd put together a small sheath of verse to distribute throughout the local diocese at Christmas. Her collection of poems, "The Four Last Things" (Macmillan 1959, 175 pages, $4.95 paper, $10.95 hardback) is still available. Copies can be ordered by writing St. Mary's College, Shaheem Bookstore, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or by calling (219) 284-4719.
Yet the most delightful jewel Madeleva produced was her autobiography, "My First Seventy Years" (Macmillan 1959, 172 pages). The book is out of print today, though the Catholic Center here is trying to secure copies. One wishes them well, for the book is 35 short chapters of grace, charm, wit and insight. It begins with the words "You may find this book disappointing" and ends with "What shall I say when I see God?"
And between those sentences we get to know a remarkable woman.
Madeleva Wolff was born on May 24, 1887, in Cumberland, Wis. (Or, as she puts it, "Here, on this day, I came to town.") We learn of her childhood (she was always the smallest and youngest in her class), her school years and, finally, her vocation as a Sister of the Holy Cross:
When I went to tell Sister Rita goodbye she gave me an inscribed copy of "The Story of Fifty Years," her own history of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. All the way on the train to Madison I read it like a starved person. Afterward, Mother told me that when I got off the train, despite my huge Merry Widow hat and smart clothes, she knew that I no longer belonged to them.
After joining the order and working in the Midwest, Madeleva came to Utah. "In August 1919," she writes, "my good superiors sent me on a mission to Sacred Heart Academy, Ogden, Utah. I was elated. Mountains at last! Deserts, sagebrush, the West! Oh, pioneers!"
She quickly found her home.
"The theory on religious life submits the proverb that the happiness of a convent depends on the superior and the cooks," she writes. "Sacred Heart Academy became my happiest mission."
The history of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, "Salt of the Earth," mentions Sister Madeleva twice. In 1932, as president of St. Mary of the Wasatch, she met with civic officials on the grounds of Holy Cross hospital to accept a monument for her order (she likely responded with customary humor). Then in 1962 - just before her death - she wrote a brief memoir of her beloved academy - talking rather wryly of her "imposing college" set on such a "majestic site."
Over the years, despite her forays to California, England and other places around the world, Sister Madeleva looked to Utah as home:
Seven of the best years of my life had been invested there. We had often been cold, sometimes hungry. Coyotes had cried under our windows at night. Water shortages had left us parched and unwashed during all but unbearable months in summer. . . . Days at a time we lived literally in the clouds and above the clouds. We watched weather in the making. . . . We followed the silver path of the sun in its setting behind the mountains beyond Great Salt Lake. After its long, rose-colored afterglow, two firmaments awoke in the darkness: the stars above us and the twinkling lights of Salt Lake City and its five suburbs covering the valley below.
As a poet, Sister Madeleva's verse ranges from passionate love poems to her Savior (reminiscent of the poetry of St. Teresa of Avila) to clever, well-wrought social commentary akin to the verse of Mexico's Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.
But as a person, she was always loved for herself, not her gifts.
"I was a young girl in Boston when Sister Madeleva came for medical treatment toward the end of her life," says Sister Campion. "I could tell even then that the people who worked with her thought very highly of her."
She came to merit such reverence from those around her.
She merits it, too, from the state of Utah.
The Body Soliloquizes
Who speaks of bridal bed and nuptial splendor
Waiting the royal Bridegroom and His spouse?
These cannot match the innocent couch I tender
The King who comes to rest within my house.
O blessed nothingness, whence I am able
To furnish forth my Love this little room;
A little bed, a little chair, a table,
A candle's halo in the shining gloom.
There should be flowers where the King reposes,
With subtle fragrance to beguile His rest;
I place, for bridal lilies, bridal roses,
My white, unfolded self upon His breast.
- Sister M. Madeleva Wolff