Mary Xavier Kirby, SSJ, Ph.D. (Lucy Irene), the fourth president of Chestnut Hill College, passed away on January 26 at the age of 98.
Sister Mary Xavier earned her B.A. from the College of New Rochelle, her M.A. from the Catholic University and her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She enjoyed a long association with CHC, joining the faculty in 1959 as an assistant professor of English. She was named president in 1968.
Many remember Sister Mary Xavier for her good humor, wit and wisdom, as well as her easy way with all walks of people. She maintained her equilibrium, even in the face of the social turbulence of the late 1960s and early ’70s when college campuses often became a nexus for the social changes sweeping the country around civil liberties, the Vietnam War, feminism and racism. As president, she faced these challenges and led CHC into its next era where her vision laid the groundwork for strengthening the College’s academic programs.
In 1970, the curriculum underwent its first major revision with the addition of programs that have stood the test of time. Early in her tenure, a new major in Elementary Education was introduced. A program of Continuing Education also was introduced, at first for women only, but by 1972, men were admitted when an evening division was established. Saturday and summer classes were opened to lay people at this time, after years of being available only to the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Sister Mary Xavier continued to enable the College to grow by adding Music Education and Early Childhood Education in 1975; the ACT 101 program in 1972; and majors in American Studies and Classical Civilization in 1978. The Montessori program also was approved that year. A revised academic calendar allowed students to take advantage of the Christmas intersessions and study abroad and in the U.S. The Interdisciplinary Honors Program, first introduced in 1968, was strengthened to attract high schools students. And a collaborative program with Mount Saint Joseph Academy allowed honors seniors to take first-year college courses at Chestnut Hill College while still in high school.
Understanding the need to expand the College’s relationships beyond the campus borders to further its mission and outreach, Sister Mary Xavier focused on building business relationships with the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Following the decision in 1970 to allow laypersons to serve on the College Board, the board president of Chestnut Hill Hospital became the first layperson to serve. In addition, cooperative programs were established with the Chestnut Hill Hospital School of Nursing and an exchange program with LaSalle College (University).
Sister Mary Xavier’s collaborative efforts to extend the mission of the College and strengthen relationships with the business community did not go unnoticed. In 1976, she was honored as Woman of the Year by the Chestnut Hill Professional and Business Women’s Association. She served on many boards such as the American Association of University Administrators; the Chestnut Hill Community Association Educational Nominating Panel, the City of Philadelphia; the Mayor’s Nominating Committee for the Board of Education; the Executive Committee, the Delaware Valley Planning Council for the Higher Education; and Oral Examiner, the State Civil Service Commission.
After serving for 12 years as president, Sister Mary Xavier Kirby resigned in June 1980, leaving the College in a good place both financially and academically. She wrote to the Chair of the Board, Sister Dorothea Newell, “With this new decade, Chestnut Hill College enters upon an era of tremendous change and challenge, one that will demand a kind of leadership vastly different from that of the ’70s. I am convinced, therefore, that this is the appropriate time for a change in leadership of the College.”
Recognizing that a master’s program in education would be profitable as well as timely for the College, the Master of Education degree was developed by Sister Mary Xavier during her tenure as president. After stepping down, she remained at the College and served as the first Dean of the Graduate Division from 1980 to 1985. Later, with no thoughts of slowing down, she returned to her first love, and taught English from 1985 to 1989 and then transitioned to working in the Congregation’s Development Office in 1989 until her retirement.
Sister Mary Xavier Kirby said of Chestnut Hill College, “It is a story of tradition and progress, continuity and change, commitment and fulfillment.” It is most appropriate to say her life’s work at the College and with the Sisters of Saint Joseph is accurately portrayed in her observation.
This story originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Connections.