Remembering our deceased Mother Maria Pacis Dougherty and her March 20th Birthday…

Looking through another’s eyes: Treasured memories and wisdom-filled insights that we may not have known…

                        by Kathleen Shaw Wetzel

She survived an explosion at age seventeen that killed more than one hundred people. She spent two decades in Peru and received that country’s highest honor. She led the Immaculate Heart of Mary order of Sisters and left a lasting legacy.

Mother Maria Pacis, IHM, nee Elizabeth Dougherty, was a born leader. With no formal training in management, finance, or construction and, at a time when leadership roles for women were limited, she was a dynamic visionary who initiated and led numerous significant projects from inception to completion.

I was blessed to know Pacis (pronounced PAH-chis), as my family affectionately referred to her; she and my grandmother essentially grew up as sisters. Here is her story.

The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 and entered World War I.  Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth and many other young women accepted jobs at the Eddystone Ammunition facility near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Only four days after the U.S. entered the war, a terrible explosion killed one hundred thirty-two of her fellow workers.

Elizabeth’s only memory of the tragedy was that, after a few hours of work that morning, she had been thirsty and gone for a drink of water. That action saved her life.  The next thing she knew, she had run the three miles home, with the water glass still in her hand.

In early 1918, as international negotiations were underway to end the war, Elizabeth joined the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) and was given the name Sister Maria Pacis, meaning Peace.

The IHMs were highly regarded as educators of students from kindergarten through college. After earning her teaching certificate at Immaculata College in Malvern, Pennsylvania, Sister Maria Pacis was assigned to teach at schools in Pennsylvania and New York.

One day, Pacis confided to a friend that she was afraid that the Mother General would assign her to teach Music, which she did not feel she could do well. Even though she had never ventured outside of the United States, she was relieved to learn that Mother General had plans to send her to South America, instead.

On St. Valentine’s Day, 1930, Sister Maria Pacis bravely traveled from New York City to Callao, Peru on an ocean liner. The voyage lasted eighteen days, traversing three thousand, six hundred miles and passing through the Panama Canal.

She remained in South America for twenty years, teaching students English and the sacraments, building schools, and helping to improve lives. She learned Spanish, adjusted to the tropical climate, and endured earthquakes, political upheavals, and times when the Sisters did not have enough food to eat or water to drink.

During these hardships, Sister Maria Pacis relied on her courageous trust in God and in the good people of Peru, who referred to her affectionately as Madre Muy Simpatica, a kind and caring mother. In recognition of her work in Peru and her contributions to Inter-American cultural relations, the government of Peru in 1951 awarded Sister Maria Pacis its highest civilian honor, El Orden del Sol de Peru.

Six years after returning to the United States, she was elected as Mother General of the IHM order in 1957, providing leadership to over two thousand Sisters in both North and South America. True to form, Mother Maria Pacis got right to work, identifying needs and proposing solutions.

Traveling by ship, plane, and automobile to, from, and within the continents, she oversaw the financing and construction of Catholic schools in Peru and a school and convent in Chile. Under her leadership, schools in the U.S. were expanded in the South, the Mid-Atlantic region, and in California.  And two large facilities (an academic/residential campus for Sisters-in-training and Camilla Hall, a nursing home for senior Sisters) were built in Pennsylvania. She humbly called the latter a “monument to unexcelled community cooperation”.

George W. Bur, S.J., Superior of the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, recalls assisting with the Sisters’ move to Camilla Hall when he was a seminarian at the Novitiate of Saint Isaac Jogues. In a letter dated June 2, 1960, he shared his impressions with his parents: “I really expected to see some small convent type building! The shock was almost too much. A real tribute to the whole order”.

In every country, Mother Maria Pacis’ routine included visits to the construction sites, not minding the dirt and dust. She studied blueprints, consulted with contractors, and greeted the laborers by name, asking about their families and thanking them for their hard work.

She also visited IHM Sisters at the schools in which they taught. My siblings and I would occasionally be startled to hear, “Will the Shaw children please report to the office?”, as the principal’s voice reverberated through the classroom loudspeakers of our suburban Philadelphia elementary school. When we nervously made our way to the office, we were thrilled (and relieved) to find Mother Maria Pacis there. We looked up, literally and figuratively, to Pacis and always enjoyed seeing her twinkling eyes and warm smile, and hearing her favorite phrase: “Isn’t God good!”.

As Mother General, Pacis realized that she couldn’t possibly know everything that she needed to know.  She encouraged Sisters to continue their educations, to learn skills and earn advanced degrees. She surrounded herself with Sisters who knew finance, law, and all of the details needed to successfully operate a global organization.

She was a mentor to many Sisters-in-training. She helped them to identify, develop, and value their God-given talents and skills. She listened to their hopes and doubts, and recognized their strengths, often before they did. In turn, they keenly observed Mother Pacis’s interactions with architects, bankers, bricklayers, and Cardinals, taking note of how she treated them and how they responded.

Among Pacis’s protégées is a former Sister who began her career in banking as a secretary and worked her way up to become President of a $45.2 Billion company and the highest-ranking woman in commercial banking at the time. Like her mentor, Rosemarie Greco was widely admired for her intelligence, hard work, and compassion. Rosemarie authored a 1992 Harvard Business Review article in which she credited Mother Maria Pacis, whose role she equated to that of “CEO and chairman of a major corporation”, with having taught her many valuable lessons, including “the art of management”.

After sixty-eight years of service, Mother Maria Pacis retired to Camilla Hall, the sanctuary for Sisters who spent their lives serving others. I fondly recall visiting her at that special place, which is still thriving. On a few occasions, I had the privilege of accompanying Pacis as she visited Sisters in their rooms, sharing a loving smile, a piece of candy, and a prayer. Even today, the faces of Sisters who remember Pacis light up at the mention of her name.

In her eighty-sixth year, Mother Maria Pacis Dougherty, IHM died, in peace. Over those years, she touched the lives of many people, on two continents and from all walks of life, treating them with respect and encouraging them to fully use and share their talents. May we do likewise.