'A woman ahead of her time'

Former St. Xavier president saw school through changes

By Laura Bollin

Sister Mary Irenaeus Chekouras, a former president of Saint Xavier University, died May 22 at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park. She was 90.

Sister Mary’s longtime friend Sister Marion Johnson, said Chekouras decided when she was about 19 years old that she wanted to be a nun.

“We shared an apartment for 40 years,” Sister Marion said. “She was a public school person, and didn’t have any Catholic education except through her parish. She met a group of sisters during a retreat in Janesville, Wisc. — near Beloit, where she grew up — and she loved the way they treated each other. She decided that’s what she wanted to do. I think the Lord led her into that.”

Sister Mary joined the Sisters of Mercy, the religious order that founded Saint Xavier, in 1943 when she was 21 years old. She went on to teach in Catholic schools in Chicago.

“We both taught at schools in Chicago,” Sister Marion said. “She taught grammar school for eight years at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and when she left there, I started teaching there. Her legacy was left behind. When I went to teach at Saint Xavier University, she was already teaching there.”

Sister Mary graduated from Saint Xavier in 1955 with a degree in education, and earned a master’s degree from Catholic University in 1956 and doctorate of philosophy of education from the University of Chicago in 1964. She also attended International College in Denmark from 1969 to 1970.

Sister Mary served as president of Saint Xavier from 1972 to 1982, during a time the university went through many changes including going from an all-women’s college to a co-ed institution, Sister Marion said.

“Everybody knew she was the one person that could do the job,” she added. “She was a teacher, a dean, and the director of the graduate education program. She knew how to manage things, and she was a very smart person.”

Sister Mary also established a strong athletic program at the school, Sister Marion said.

“She wanted to give students something other than academics to do,” she said. “The team built their own field when the football program started in the late 1970s, and this year, the team won the national title.”

Sister Mary also established a weekend college for women who had families that wanted to come back to school. Women could take classes in nursing, criminal justice or business on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sunday mornings.

Saint Xavier President Christine Wiseman said she first met Sister Mary at the nun’s invitation.

“She had me come over to the house she shared with Sister Marion, and we ate homemade angel food cake and talked about the reality of educating people in this economy,” Wiseman said. “She was a woman before her time. She revised the curriculum at the Graham School of Management, and started a business curriculum that helped the transition from an all-women’s school to a co-ed school. She had a stately grace about her, and an informed, decisive style.”

Sister Mary often give her advice, Wiseman said.

“She never stopped mentoring,” Wiseman said. “Whether it was her students, her family, or me, she loved mentoring. Sometimes when I would walk into a room, she would grab my arm and say, ‘It’s okay to be strong,’ which was really important for me to hear.”

Sister Mary’s brother, John Chekouras, remembered growing up with his sister in Beloit, where she was known as Anjoinette Chekouras.

“She was the product of immigrant parents, my father was from Greece and my mother was from Czechoslovakia,” Chekouras said. “She had four brothers and they picked on her, and a lot of people say that’s the reason she went into the convent — to get away from her brothers.”

Before she joined the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary worked in an office for a manufacturing company in Beloit, where she became the head of the U.S. Navy replacements department for Fairbanks, Morris, and Company, which made diesel engines, Chekouras recalled. She would spend her weekends visiting different religious orders, he added. On her 21st birthday, she got a letter inviting her to join the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago.

“Every Christmas, she and Sister Marion Johnson would come and spend two or three days with us,” Chekouras said. “It was our tradition, and that’s what I will miss the most.”

After retiring as university president, Sister Mary taught part-time in the school of education for 17 years. She began a philosophy course at the Renaissance Academy, a lifelong learning program at St. Xavier University, in 2011. She also served on the boards of Loyola University- Chicago, the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minn. She also served as the mistress of postulants for the Sisters of Mercy from 1957 to 1960.

“She had a real passion for the poor and the light of women and children,” Sister Marion said.

Sister Mary and Sister Margaret Traxler started a center for homeless women and children, called the Maria Shelter of the Institute for Women Today, in Chicago.

“We would hold an open house at our apartment every Christmas, and instead of bringing us something, she would say, ‘Bring a check for the homeless,’” Sister Marion said. “We would collect almost $5,000 for the shelter. She just wanted to do something for these people.”

Visitation was held May 24 at Mercy Hall in Chicago. A funeral Mass was held May 25 at Mercy Hall Chapel. Interment was at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Hillside.

Sister Mary Irenaeus Chekouras is survived by her brother, John Chekouras.

Donations in Sister Mary Irenaeus’ honor can be made to the Sisters of Mercy, 10024 S. Central Park Ave., Chicago, IL 60655; St. Xavier University, 3700 W. 103rd St., Chicago, IL 60655; or the Institute of Women Today, 7315 S. Yale Avenue, Chicago, IL 60621.