Mercyhurst Magazine Spring 2018

Remarkable woman led Mercyhurst through tumultuous ‘60s Sister Carolyn Herrmann

Young Helen Herrmann had studied with the Sisters of St. Joseph at Erie’s Sacred Heart School. But as a student at Mercyhurst Seminary, she found herself attracted to the Sisters of Mercy. “Whatever I saw in them made me want to become one of them.” She entered the order in 1933, fnishing her high school work as a postulant, then earned her college degree in 1938 when she was just 20. Since Mercyhurst’s early days, Mother Borgia Egan had been sending young sisters of to prominent graduate schools each summer to prepare them to teach at the college. So Sister Carolyn earned a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota (in 1942) and a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame 10 years after that. She studied chemistry. “Sister Fidelis was looking for an understudy for the chemistry department and I was a good student. I liked everything, and I didn’t know enough to know what I’d really like to do. In those days in religious life, you did what you were asked to do.” She also obeyed the surprise request that she move into administration. Sister Loretta remained president, but Sister Carolyn acted as the CEO, she said. When Academic Dean Sister Mary Esther fell ill and died, Sister Carolyn took over her role as well. Sister Carolyn became president in 1963, after the Sisters of Mercy changed their bylaws to separate the roles of the Mother Superior and the college president. But well before that election, she had started setting change in motion. “My term (as president) was 1963 to 1972, but I had already put in two critical years before that,” Sister Carolyn told Pintea. “When people talk about my administration, they look at coeducation as the big accomplishment. But without the other

It’s been said that Sister Carolyn Herrmann was exactly the leader Mercyhurst College needed to guide it through the 1960s, a period of signifcant change in the world and on The Hill. But even Sister Carolyn wasn’t quite sure how she got that assignment. In the early 1990s, she told oral historian Larie Pintea, “I don’t know why I was chosen rather than someone else. I don’t know at all what moved her to select me.”The “her” she referred to was Sister Loretta McHale, the history professor who automatically became Mercyhurst’s president in 1960 when she was elected Mother Superior of the Sisters of Mercy. But Sister Loretta realized she was going to need help, since the Sisters were also getting ready to build a new motherhouse and high school on the hill south of campus. So she tapped Sister Carolyn, then a chemistry professor, to become the college’s frst executive vice president. “She must have recognized potential for leadership. She never told me that. I suppose she saw strength of character, of conviction, ability to persuade, to lead other people. She knew I was well read. She knew I was not just a chemist, but also interested in sociology and psychology and philosophy and theology and everything else. I would guess that’s why she chose me, but I never did ask her.” EDITOR’S NOTE: In 1991 and 1992, Sister Carolyn Herrmann sat down for several interviews with retired Erie Morning News editor Larie Pintea. A good friend of Sister Carolyn’s (and the man who convinced her to bring rowing to Mercyhurst), Pintea was conducting an oral history project to document the development of Mercyhurst College. Her story and the quotations below are excerpts from their wide-ranging conversations.


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