Ellen Leonard, CSJ, Remembered for her Theological Insight and Care for Students 

Systematic theologian Sr. Ellen Leonard, CSJ, is being remembered by the St. Michael’s community as a groundbreaking theologian of “irrepressible joy” who cared deeply for the Church, her students, the role of women, and her religious community. 

Photo of Sr. Ellen Leonard taken in 2013.
Sister Ellen Leonard, CSJ

Sr. Ellen died Thursday, August 18 at the age of 88, in her 71st year of religious life. Entering the Sisters of St. Joseph at the age of 17, she taught elementary school for many years before becoming one of the first women in Canada to study theology, earning her doctorate from St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology in 1978. Having served as a lecturer during the last year of her doctoral studies, Sr. Ellen became an assistant professor in 1978, an associate professor in 1982, and a full professor in 1991. She would remain a fulltime member of the Faculty of Theology until her retirement in 1999, at which time she became an emerita professor.  

Her teaching and research focused on Roman Catholic modernism, and feminist and ecological Christologies. Her many publications include three books focusing on the modernist movement of the early 20th century: George Tyrrell and the Catholic Tradition; Unresting Transformation: The Theology and Spirituality of Maude Petre; and Creative Tension: The Spiritual Legacy of Friedrich von Hugel.  

“Sr. Ellen Leonard was a great woman in many ways–in her teaching and leadership at the Faculty of Theology, and in her advocacy for greater inclusivity of women in the Church,” says Regis-St. Michael’s Dean Jaroslav Skira. “She was also a deeply kind person and I feel very privileged to have known her.” 

Former student Mary Ellen Chown, who has written a chapter on Sr. Ellen in the work Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion, says, “I had the privilege of being a student in Ellen’s course on ‘Feminist Approaches to Systematic Theology’ in the fall of 2000. What stays with me is Ellen’s deep respect for each of her students and her enthusiasm in sharing the rich diversity of global voices in feminist theology. Ellen’s teaching methodology encouraged us to reflect on our own life experience as a source of theology while integrating an academically rigorous feminist critique into our understanding.” 

Sr. Ellen’s colleague, eco-theologian Dr. Dennis O’Hara, wrote the citation when the University of St. Michael’s College awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Sacred Letters in 2014. 

“For me, Ellen was an outstanding and compassionate educator, a skillful and kind mentor, a thoughtful and experienced colleague, and a dear and valued friend,” O’Hara recalls. “She was an extraordinary positive influence in so many lives.” 

Former University president Dr. Anne Anderson, CSJ, says it was “a pleasure and a privilege” while serving as the Faculty of Theology’s Dean to have Leonard as a member of the Faculty. 

“Ellen coupled her studies in Modernism with the teachings of Vatican Two and began to write and publish in the area of ‘Experience as a Source for Theology.’ The injunction of Vatican Two to “read the signs of the times” supported her life-long interest in the development of feminist theology as well as the scholarship of those who were writing and researching in this area,” Sr. Anne says. “Ellen also viewed ecological issues as one of the signs of the times that required careful attention.  As a colleague, Ellen was an unfailingly generous supporter of the Faculty of Theology and its mission.  Her many students received her full attention and support as well as the benefit of her continued scholarship.” 

Sr. Ellen’s efforts will continue to inspire those who knew her and her work, says Chown. 

“Ellen’s prophetic wisdom abides in her significant body of work, in her ongoing inspiration in the lives of her students and in the work of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE), which she founded in 1981, and for which she remained a lifelong mentor and supporter,” she says. “I will remember Ellen as a woman of transforming faith and grace who embodied hope for a renewing, inclusive Catholic Church, for justice in the world and for the flourishing of all creation – a woman who engaged this sacred work with integrity and an irrepressible joy.” 

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Fontbonne Ministries and you can click here for more information.