The daughter of William and Helen Steblar Feeney, Mary Louise Feeney was born in Stamford, Conn., and discovered her religious vocation while a student at Sacred Heart Academy. Inspired by one of her teachers who, in her words, “radiated Christ” and by the experience of portraying Saint Bernadette in a school play, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent in 1937 and took her vows in 1939, officially becoming Sister Helen Margaret. She earned her B.A. from the Diocesan Sisters College and her M. Ed. in Reading from Boston College and also held a Sixth Year Certificate in Professional Education and Administration from the University of Connecticut.
She taught elementary, junior high, and high school students in the Hartford, Bridgeport, and Norwich Archdioceses and also served in administrative and coordination roles for both Waterbury and Hartford schools. In 1978, she became the first female assistant superintendent for the Hartford archdiocese schools. In 1986, Archbishop John F. Whealon appointed Sister Helen Margaret to be the first woman Chancellor of the Archdiocese, the highest position in the Roman Catholic Church open to women. Though the Second Vatican Council had opened the position to women twenty years before, Sister Helen Margaret was only the fifth woman in the nation to serve as Chancellor of a U.S. archdiocese.
In her eight years as Chancellor she became known as a decisive and fair supporter of both parishioners and priests. She spearheaded a complete modernization of the chancery building and offices, overseeing the introduction of computers and the construction of a new entrance designed to make visitors feel welcome. Though her primary mission was to create a true “community of faith,” Sister Helen Margaret understood the importance of attending to salaries, work schedules, and vacations so that individuals might feel appreciated and rewarded. She also established the Archdiocese’s first archives.
In addition to her work in the Archdiocese and its schools, Sister Helen Margaret also served on numerous Boards of Trustees including those of the St. Agnes Home, St. Francis Hospital, Catholic Charities, and Catholic Family Services. She also served on the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Development Council and was director of both the Archdiocesan Mission Co-Op and the Office for Religious. In 1993, Pope John Paul II awarded her the highest honor for service to the Church, the Holy Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice and the following year she received the Distinguished Catholic Woman Award. Sister Helen Margaret left the Chancellor’s position in 1994 and was appointed as the Archbishop’s delegate for special needs, a position which allowed her to continue to build collaborative relationships throughout the archdiocese.
Sister Helen Margaret died in November 2004 in West Hartford.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.