The Benedictine community at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s lost one of its all-time greats Sept. 30 with the passing of Sister Colman O’Connell.
Sister Colman was a spirited nun, a creative theater professor and a sensational college president. An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune summed up her life and legacy as follows: “O’Connell was remembered for her Irish wit, outspoken and dynamic leadership, love of theater, gourmet cooking, and running.”
Underreported in many of the tributes is that Sister Colman was an extraordinarily gifted fund raiser. The key to her success was simple: She knew everyone… everyone knew her… and everybody loved her.
Not to be over looked, of course, is that no one could possibly say no to this charming, persuasive, no-nonsense Irish nun.
In the mid-1990s, I travelled to New York City with Fr. Eric Hollas and during out time in the Big Apple we visited Chick Hayden ’58. Chick’s son, Michael, an accomplished actor of stage and screen, was a theater major at CSB/SJU under the tutelage of Sister Colman.
Upon greeting us, Chick said: “Sister Colman stopped by to see me this morning, and she put the screws to me that would make a used car salesman proud!”
Another one of Sister Colman’s accomplishments was the advancement of the partnership between Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s. She and Br. Dietrich Reinhart were co-architects of the coordinate relationship, and she was a champion of it to the very end.
During a particularly challenging moment in the coordinate relationship, Sister Colman pulled me aside and shared some sage advice:
“Rob, this too shall pass.”
One time Sister Colman overhead two people engaged in a hypothetical conversation about a potential merger between Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s. They were debating what the combined school should be called post-merger.
“That’s an easy question,” Sister Colman said, “and it’s a simple answer. We’ll take one word from each school. From the College of Saint Benedict we’ll select “Benedict” and from Saint John’s University we’ll take “Saint.”
Colman was also known for her practicality and sensibility. Following the publication of the book “Sense of Place” about Saint John’s, Sister Colman observed: “Saint John’s has a sense of place, and Saint Ben’s is a place of sense.”
Each year for 10 years Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s hosted a Saint Patrick’s Day party in Naples, Florida. Colman would bring down the house with her rendition of the famous Irish blessing – May the road rise up to meet you – with the following alternative ending: And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of Her hand. Only Sister Colman could get a mostly conservative audience to applaud inclusive language.
I am incredibly fortunate to have known Sister Colman. In a German Benedictine community, it was an unexpected blessing to work with a fellow Irish American. I like to think that we were Celtic cousins. We were not only great friends, we were kindred spirits.
That being said, I wasn’t naive enough to think I was the only man in her life. Sister Colman had more boyfriends than any nun I ever met!
I’m simply grateful to have been one of the them.