Sister Mary Martin McCormick
Rita McCormick, daughter of Michael and Mary (Martin) McCormick, was born in Waukon, Iowa, where she received her early instruction. When the family moved to Dubuque, she continued her education at St. Joseph Academy and Clarke College, both of Dubuque. Upon completion of her bachelor’s degree, Rita served as a social worker for Catholic Charities of Dubuque, before joining the Sisters of the Presentation in 1946, where she received the religious name of Sister Mary Martin.
Sister Martin taught elementary and high school, and served as a high school principal. She completed a master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate at the University of St. Louis. During Sister Helen Marie Feeney’s 10 years of community leadership, Sister Mary Martin served as vicaress and spiritual growth director before being elected herself as major superior of the congregation in 1977.
Among her talents, Sister Mary Martin could claim gifts of: astute bridge player, humorist, writer and spiritual leader, all of which prepared her for her years of leadership. She maintained a creativity that enabled her to entertain the sisters as Queen of the Madrigal dinner and offer support in personal challenges. A skilled writer, she enjoyed speaking opportunities, as well. With a refreshing style, she addressed the congregation and guests on occasions of receptions, jubilees, professions, community weekends and wakes.
Plans for the Holy Father’s visit to the United States in 1979 included a stop in Des Moines, Iowa. Sister Martin wanted the sisters to have the opportunity to attend the historical event. Cars were minimal in the Mount Loretto garage, but that didn’t deter her. “She had friends in high places.” The vice-president of First National Bank of Dubuque, upon hearing her dilemma offered a bus from the Third Presbyterian Church. The sisters returned the ecumenical gesture and positioned a sign, the length of the bus, completing the identification. It now read: “Third Presbyterian Church and Presentation Sisters.”
The post-Vatican II era offered multiple challenges to the Church in general and religious life in particular. Sister Mary Martin led the community with a strong mind, a firm grasp and determined expectations. Dialogue, as a way of life, had not yet come into vogue. In contrast, her timely letters to the sisters provided inspiration, information and gentle words of encouragement. A valiant woman of dignity, wisdom and strength, she “walked the talk.”
During this time period spiritual growth opportunities expanded, offering a new Office book, varied retreats, community prayers and spiritual growth weekends. Likewise, there were new apostolate opportunities and ministry appointments. In 1979 Presentation sisters were assigned to help staff a school of black students at St. Dorothy School, and in 1981, an Hispanic school at Our Lady of Guadalupe, both in Chicago. These offered new cultural opportunities for community members.
Vatican Council II mandated revisions of the constitutions and directories of religious communities. Sister Martin worked diligently for a number of years, rewriting these two documents, incorporating suggestions from community Chapters, along with meeting the requirements from Rome. Her work was completed in 1983 and approval received the following year.
New initiatives and foreign travel were not new to Sister Martin. She had traveled with Sister Helen Marie to South America before the opening of the first Dubuque Presentation mission in Bolivia. She participated in the bicentennial celebration of the beginning of the congregation in Ireland and the 200th anniversary of the death of Nano Nagle held in Melbourne, Australia, which was simultaneously the first international assembly of Presentation sisters.
Following her return from Australia, Sister Martin took ill and died of cancer on November 5, 1984, at age 63. Seven siblings survived her. In the history of the community, only three major superiors died while holding office: Mother Vincent Hennessy, 1880; Mother Angela Crowley, 1906; and Sister Mary Martin McCormick, 1984.
Sister Martin, a woman of intelligence and compassion, lived her life with fidelity and integrity. As a leader, she was not afraid to speak her convictions. She is, likewise, remembered for a laugh that seemed to come from her toes and rise to her twinkling eyes, a sense of humor, unflinching faith, and unyielding courage. She bequeathed to all an example of prayer and penance with boundless trust in the Lord.