Sister Eloise’s career has witnessed transformation in the church, Catholic education
by Luke Eggleston
Sun staff writer
Sister Eloise Emm, OSF, has been a member of the Sisters of St. Francis since World War II. For seven decades she has been a constant in both the Syracuse Diocese and the community of Franciscan Sisters.
As a young student at St. Mary of the Assumption School on Syracuse’s north side, she knew she wanted to emulate her teachers, the sisters.
“They were very kind to us and they were excellent teachers. I guess I just felt a real attraction to being one of them, which was the call from God I suppose,” Sister Eloise said.
Far from resisting transformation, Sister Eloise has faced and navigated through change throughout her vocation.
During the 1980s, for example, Sister Eloise successfully shepherded sex education into the diocesan school district’s curriculum. Initially, many parents and supporters of Catholic schools were opposed to the new material.
“It was very awkward and it was very difficult. Parents just did not want it. We had some terrible meetings in Utica and in Rome and in Binghamton. But we kept trying to encourage them,” said Sister Eloise, who was the director of curriculum for the Syracuse Diocesan School District at the time. “People were just so afraid that their little children didn’t know anything about sex in the fifth grade. Well, they knew a lot more than their parents thought they knew.”
Sister Eloise has also introduced significant changes into her community. Many of the older sisters were reluctant to live and minister in a manner different than they had for so many decades.
“I was the chairperson for rewriting our community constitution three times. Each time there was a difference and some of the sisters can’t accept that difference and are still back here 20, 30, 40 years,” said Sister Eloise, who was major superior when the sisters left behind their traditional habits.
With the passage of time, however, many of the sisters who were so unwilling to change have made the adjustment to the modern era.
“Now, I think most of the sisters are living in the present time, even here in the motherhouse where some of the sisters never even go outside these walls, they’re aware of the needs of the church and the needs of the country. They pray for them. They ask about things. They read. They watch television. More of the sisters, most of the sisters, have accepted the changes,” Sister Eloise said.
Sister Eloise professed her initial vows in 1939 and her final vows in 1944. Her first assignment was to Our Lady Help of Christians School in Albany where she taught second grade. In 1941, she went to Riverside, N.J., where she taught first graders at St. Peter’s School. During that same time, she began taking piano lessons.
She returned to Syracuse in 1945 and began teaching at St. Anthony Convent and Convent School, as well as learning to play the organ and the harp.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Le Moyne College, she moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue her master’s degree and doctoral diploma in music.
Upon returning to Syracuse in 1958, Sister Eloise was one of the founders of Maria Regina College, an all-girls two-year school that filled a void for those wishing to pursue their associate’s degree.
After a trip to Europe and three year stint as an educator at St. Anthony’s Elementary School and high school in Long Beach, Calif., Sister Eloise returned to her hometown once and for all in 1971.
Upon her return, Sister Eloise immediately became a dynamic force in her community and in the Syracuse Diocese.
Father James O’Brien, the pastor of St. John’s in Liverpool, was the superintendent of diocesan schools when Sister Eloise became the director of curriculum at the Catholic Schools Office, while living at Immaculate Conception Convent in Fayetteville.
“She has a great deal of wisdom and she was a genuine educator,” Father O’Brien said. “She understood education and she understood young people. She was incredibly energetic and dedicated to improving the educational system in our schools.”
Change has rarely been an easy matter for Sister Eloise, especially since 1987 when she became superior general. During that year, she presided over the closing of both Convent School and Maria Regina College. The students from Convent School were immediately welcomed into Christian Brothers Academy after the school changed its constitution to allow girls, but Maria Regina College was a difficult closure for her.
Her long-time friend and fellow Franciscan, Sister Rose Garramone, noted that Sister Eloise has always approached such situations with an innovative spirit.
“Whenever she’s closed a building, each time she’s found something else to go in that building,” Sister Rose said. “She has tremendous insight into ‘what can we do now.’”
In 1991 and then again in 2003, Sister Eloise was appointed vicar for religious. In that capacity, she acted as a liaison between the women’s religious orders and the diocesan offices, including the bishops’.
Her responsibility was to contact parishes and find opportunities for ministry and also to consult the bishop to see where the diocese needed help from religious.
The Syracuse Diocese will be faced with a difficult shift as Sister Eloise recently retired from her position as vicar for religious the same year that she celebrates her 70th jubilee.
One constant for Sister Eloise has been her love of music. She is responsible for the Franciscan community’s liturgical music and retirement will allow her to pursue that ministry full time.
“I just felt that the time had come. Here at the motherhouse I do most of the music for the liturgies and that takes a lot of time and a lot of planning and a lot of practice,” she said.
Sister Rose praised Sister Eloise’s talent, but also stressed that her discipline is crucial to her music.
“She is in two ways in terms of her music and liturgy,” Sister Rose said. “First, she’s gifted in music and liturgy and she’s practiced in both. Second, she can inspire others in her music and her leadership.”