Colman O'Connell came to the College of St. Benedict for an education, but stayed for a lifetime, rising to lead the Catholic college as its 11th and last monastic president.
Over seven decades, she saw St. Ben's transform from a small women-only college to a growing school with coed classes that it still offers to this day in partnership with nearby St. John's University.
"We wouldn't be who we are today without Sister Colman," said Mary Dana Hinton, St. Ben's president. "And our calling now is to live up to the big vision she held for us."
O'Connell, 90, died Sept. 30 at St. Benedict's Monastery.
While she was most known for advancing women's education, O'Connell was also remembered for her Irish wit, outspoken and dynamic leadership, love of theater, gourmet cooking and running. A 1982 Star Tribune article featured the jogging sister finishing Grandma's Marathon in Duluth surrounded by cheering nuns.
"She lived her best life, her best self and achieved many great things," said Sister Colleen Quinlivan, who met O'Connell as a student in 1986.
Born Dolores O'Connell in 1927 in Roberts, Wis., she followed her sister in 1945 to St. Ben's in St. Joseph, Minn. A year later, she enrolled in the monastery, where she received the name Colman, after being drawn to "their life of prayer and work," she said in the newspaper article. She would live the rest of her life at the monastery.
After graduating from St. Ben's, she briefly taught high school before getting a master's degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She returned to St. Ben's to teach theater and dance and head the theater department when a joint department with St. John's was established.
In her 70 years at St. Ben's, much changed. The college, started by the Benedictine sisters, separated from the monastery in 1961, but many sisters continued to work there. In the 1960s, St. Ben's started coed classes with St. John's and by the 1970s, it had tripled its enrollment and increased the number of lay faculty.
After O'Connell got a doctorate from the University of Michigan, she returned to St. Ben's, rising through leadership roles before being selected in 1986 as its president.
During her decade in the top job, St. Ben's continued to evolve and grow, adding five new buildings. Its annual fund topped $1 million for the first time. And O'Connell and late St. John's President Brother Dietrich Reinhart established a joint core curriculum and joint academic departments — "a bold step" to create the model St. Ben's and St. John's has today, she told its alumnae magazine when she retired in 1996 at 68.
She was also a force for public service statewide and pushed to boost access for disadvantaged students, said David Laird, past president of the Minnesota Private College Council, where O'Connell was a board chairwoman.
"She was a thoughtful, forceful, unequivocal leader," Hinton added. "It's hard for anyone to think of St. Ben's without Colman."
While being a nun meant not having children or grandchildren, O'Connell told the Star Tribune in 1982 it also allowed her to pursue her ambitions. "By the time I was 50, I had a whole career and I could look around for something new and challenging."
She never stopped working for St. Ben's, trekking across Minnesota to raise funds until her death.
"If we could approach most tasks like we approach a dance — in order to savor the event as we are experiencing it — we'd find life infinitely richer," she said in a 1996 Star Tribune article. "It's silly to do a dance to get it done."
Services have been held.