The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur shared this beautiful tribute to Sr. Margaret Claydon, which includes excerpts from oral history interviews with her.
On the back of this black-and-white photo, Margaret Claydon wrote: “How I would like to be remembered.” We remember her now, with gratitude and love.
One is struck by the centrality of the Notre Dame cross in the photo. The artist who designed it once wrote: “”To hang the cross around the neck each morning is an act which symbolizes the directing of one’s life.” He saw the cross as “a living sign” of our Notre Dame charism.
Margaret’s remarkable achievements in the world of academia and society at large are amply recorded in the biodata following this reflection. Here, it seems appropriate to examine how she “directed her life” in the spirit of Notre Dame.
By her own account in an oral history interview on file, Notre Dame first came into her life in her undergraduate years at Trinity College. Initially, the seed fell on rocky ground. Having gone to public schools all her life, she confessed “running whenever a nun would come anywhere in my direction . . . .” But gradually, Trinity’s “very good all-college retreats,” together with her growing admiration for the SNDs as scholars and “a growing, deep appreciation for the kind of life they led” began to take root. “There was something about them that really got me thinking.”
“As I was getting deeper and deeper into senior year, I kept thinking what a wonderful way to live a life. I talked to people like Sister Columba and Sister Julia . . . . More and more, the thought kept coming back into my mind: ‘Do I want to be like these Sisters that I admire and respect?’ . . . I finally decided that God really was inviting me to become a Sister of Notre Dame. So I entered in February of 1946.”
Her long process of discernment was perhaps nourished by the prayer that she, like all Trinity students, had recited at the start of every class. She would carry it in her heart for the rest of her life:
May the power of the Father govern and protect us, the wisdom of the Son teach and enlighten us,
the love of the Holy Spirit renew and quicken us. May the blessing of the all holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with us now and forever. Amen.
Following first vows, she was missioned to St. Hubert’s High School (Philadelphia). “I taught Latin—and to my horror, French! I was a very inexperienced teacher, but I enjoyed it very much.” Next came a mission to Trinity Preparatory School (Ilchester, MD). The principal warned that her homeroom was “very vociferous,” and it would be best not to smile for six months. Actually, Margaret seems to have experienced joie de vivre in the students’ mischief: “When things would strike me funny, I would pretend I had to get something out of the closet”—a safe refuge for a good laugh!
In 1952, Margaret received a two-fold mission that would prove to be a major turning point in her life: teaching at Trinity College and pursuing graduate study at The Catholic University of America. Being back at Trinity “was like coming home in a way.” In fact, her younger sister Kathy was a senior there. And her old friend Sister Columba, Trinity’s Academic Vice President, again took Margaret under her wing. “She told me that some of the sophomores had come to complain that I was too hard and that I was trying to make them graduate students. . . . But I loved the teaching. . . . And the students that I taught in those years are still the ones I tend to know best and have so much fun with at reunions.” A constant thread of Margaret’s teaching years was the fun and joy she experienced with her students – in the classroom, on the athletic field, wherever opportunity presented itself.
Belonging to an international congregation of women religious brought Margaret two special opportunities. In the summer of 1958, she lived with our Sisters in Oxford while participating in a tutorial on 17th-century English literature at the university. From there, she went on to Glasgow for a year as Exchange Lecturer in English at Notre Dame College of Education, Dowanhill. “It was a wonderful year,” she remembered, “although at times I was very, very homesick. But I found the Scottish students just delightful.” Another benefit: “I got to know the Sisters there at Dowanhill very well, and they couldn’t have been nicer. . . My mother came over to visit . . . and they just took her in and made her feel at home.”
Margaret’s “happy-go-lucky, wonderful Dowanhill year” came to “a climactic end” with a letter from her Provincial, Sister Elizabeth Carmelita, informing her that she would be “coming home to be President of Trinity College.”
“I can remember sitting down and writing her a letter saying that I realized what obedience was, but did she really know what she was doing? I suggested other people who were better qualified. However, I did come back . . . .”
Once again, she was blessed with solid SND mentoring by “two key people” – Trinity’s Dean of Students, Sr. Ann Francis, together with Sr. Columba, Academic Vice President. “They knew their job, they knew the college, they knew me; and they were just determined that I would know what to do.”
“I had known what it was to be a student; I had known what it was to be a faculty member. And they were determined that I was going to learn all the administrative aspects. . . . As I went out to my first educational meetings, both Sr. Columba and Sr. Ann Francis would introduce me to everyone. They just paved the way . . . . And It’s a great tribute because after all, they had had years and years of experience and they could have rightfully resented someone so young – someone who had been their student being put in that job – but there was none of that. It was totally for Trinity and for Notre Dame.”
Margaret served in that same spirit – totally for Trinity and for Notre Dame – throughout her presidency and beyond. Above all, she was committed to maintaining Trinity’s “tradition of excellence.” She took special pride in Trinity’s securing its own chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and in the number of Woodrow Wilson Scholarships and Thomas Watson Fellowships awarded to Trinity students. Her presidency also saw new initiatives, including the opening of a Master of Arts in Teaching program to meet “the need we saw in the inner city, and an Upward Bound Program. She promoted new Continuing Education programs that extended Trinity’s mission by “reaching out to women of other age groups.” Traditional-age undergraduates were encouraged to engage in the city of Washington as a laboratory for learning and an opportunity for service.
True to our co-foundresses’ insistence on Notre Dame’s ecclesial character, Margaret’s leadership built on major emphases of the Second Vatican Council. Trinity’s Notre Dame Chapel became a gathering point for people eager to taste the first fruits of liturgical renewal. Liturgist and composer Lucien Deiss spent one summer teaching and directing his new, biblically grounded hymnody in the packed chapel. Along with B’Nai B’rith, Trinity sponsored a groundbreaking dialog: “The Vatican Decree and the Jews – The New Climate for Understanding in an Ecumenical Age.” Trinity’s Board of Trustees was re-structured to enlarge the roles and responsibilities of the laity in governance and admit student representatives. Faculty explored how conciliar documents like The Church in the Modern World and the Declaration on Religious Liberty related to academic freedom.
Vatican II had also called religious congregations to thorough renewal, based on their distinctive charisms and responsive to contemporary needs. Margaret contributed mightily to our SND response, through her work on Maryland’s Provincial Council and at General Chapters of the congregation in Rome. She also served on the Sister Formation Conference’s Board of Directors and chaired the College Council of the Sister Formation Graduate Study and Research Foundation.
“It was an exciting time to be President,” she concluded. The first half of her 16-year presidency had been a time of immense growth and development. In the later years, her task was to negotiate innovative responses to major challenges in academia, the Church and society as a whole – changes in keeping with Trinity’s mission. And that she did, with vision, creativity and energy.
Margaret rounded off her remarkable presidency in 1975. After a year as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Department at Yale, she happily returned to full-time teaching at Trinity. “Sometimes when I first came back,” she admitted, “I used to miss the exciting contacts, dealing with the Board of Trustees and all of that – those used to be fun things for me . . . But I loved getting back to teaching.” She also loved having more time with the Trinity SND community. This “wonderful way to live a life” had attracted her to Notre Dame in the first place. Now she had more time to enjoy it.
Though she retired from teaching in 2004, Margaret continued to be a vital part of the college. Leaving Trinity in 2015 was a great sacrifice for her. Her send-off to Mount Notre Dame Health Center in November 2015 was memorable. When she left the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital by ambulance for her flight to Cincinnati, the driver agreed to circle through Trinity’s campus. President Pat McGuire spread the word, and “a cast of thousands” assembled at the front entrance: SNDs, students, faculty, administrators, security guards, maintenance workers, food service staff. The driver opened both doors of the ambulance. One by one, Margaret’s Trinity Sisters, colleagues and friends reached in to say a word, grab her hand, thank her, and wish her well.
Indeed, she did make out “well” in her new home at Mount Notre Dame Health Center, resuming old friendships and finding new ones as she moved around the house on her red electric scooter. She was delighted by encounters with SNDs from all parts of the Notre Dame world who were “just passing through.” She relished phone calls and visits from family, local alumnae, and Trinity colleagues. She cherished having daily Mass, prayer, and faith-sharing with her Sisters. She benefitted more and more from excellent nursing care and, as death drew near, the supportive, prayerful presence of her Sisters. As she had hoped during her undergraduate years: “What a wonderful way to live a life!”
Biography: Sr. Margaret Claydon, SNDdeN
Born: Susan Margaret Claydon, New Rochelle, NY, July 19, 1923
Parents: George T. and Susan (Murray) Claydon
Siblings: Three brothers (deceased) – George T. Claydon, Jr; Peter Claydon; Thomas Murray Claydon
Two sisters – Ann Claydon Keefe (deceased); Katherine Claydon Lightfoot
Entered Notre Dame: February 2, 1946, Ilchester, MD
First profession: July 30, 1948
Final vows: July 1953
Roosevelt Elementary School, New Rochelle, NY
Albert Leonard Middle School, New Rochelle, NY
New Rochelle High School
A.B., Trinity College, Washington, DC (1945, English and Latin)
M.A. The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC (1953, English and Latin Philology)
Ph.D., The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC (1960, English Literature)
Doctor of Humane Letters (LHD), Georgetown University, Washington, DC (1967)
LHD, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC (1975)
Oxford University, Summer Tutorial in 17th-Century English Literature (1958)
Harvard Institute for College Presidents (Summer, 1960)
Postdoctoral Honorary Fellow, English Department, Yale University (1975-76)
Resident Guest Fellow, Timothy Dwight College, Yale University (1975-76)
Dante Institute, Dartmouth College (NEH Grant; 1986)
St. Hubert High School, Philadelphia, PA (1948-51; Latin and French)
Trinity Preparatory School, Ilchester, MD (1951-52 (Latin and Religion)
Post-Secondary Teaching and Administration
Instructor and Assistant Professor of English, Trinity College, Washington, DC (1952-59)
Exchange Lecturer in English, Notre Dame College of Education, Dowanhill, Glasgow, Scotland (1958-59)
President, Trinity College (1959-75)
Professor of English, Trinity College (1976-95 full time; 1995 – 2004 part time)
President Emerita (1994)
Association of Independent College and University Presidents
National Catholic Educational Association (President, College & University Department, 1968-70)
Middle States Association of Colleges and University Schools (Board of Trustees, 1965)
Emmanuel College Board of Trustees (1972)
National Council of Independent Colleges and Universities (Board of Directors, 1971-1975; Chair, Committee on Colleges, 1972-75)
Association of American Colleges (Commissions on Liberal Arts, 1968-71; Institutional Affairs, 1971-75)
White House Conference on Youth (Estes Park, 1971)
To the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Church
Sister Formation Conference (Member, Board of Directors)
Sister Formation Graduate Study and Research Foundation, Inc. (Chair, College Council)
With B’Nai B’rith, co-sponsored The Vatican Decree and the Jews – The New Climate for Understanding in an Ecumenical Age (1966)
Delegate to General Chapters of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (1967-68; 1969; 1978)
Member, SND Provincial Council of the former Maryland Province (several terms)
Member, U.S. Delegation to the Vatican Congregation for Christian Education (1972)
To the Civic Community
Northeast Area Coordinating Council (Community Planning in Washington, DC)
DC Commission on Academic Facilities (1969-75)
Board of Trustees, Greater Washington Educational Television Association (1970-73)
Board of Trustees, Washington Opportunities for Women (1972-75)
DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (1974-75)
Vice Chair, DC Commission on Postsecondary Education (1974-75)
Board of Directors, United World Federalists
Board of Directors, Greater Washington Committee on the Plight of Soviet Jewry
Prepared by Mary Ann Cook, SND, drawing heavily on Sr. Mary Reilly’s oral history interview and a comprehensive CV prepared by Sr. Mary Hayes, Trinity’s Archivist.