Sr. Ellen Leonard

Sr. Ellen Leonard saw new ways of Catholic understanding

  • September 9, 2022

Sr. Ellen Leonard was never satisfied doing the easy stuff. She was one of the first women to do a PhD in systematic theology, one of the first to teach theology to graduate students and she never shied away from controversies over feminist and ecological issues in the Church.

After years living with Parkinson’s at the Toronto Sisters of St. Joseph motherhouse, Sr. Ellen Leonard died on August 18 at 88 and in her 71st year of religious life.

Leonard entered religious life at17, before the Second Vatican Council. She began her novitiate with the Congregation of St. Joseph in 1952. Known then as Sr. Loyola, she spent 18 years, from 1955 to 1973, as an elementary school teacher, principal, and religious resource teacher in the Niagara region and metropolitan Toronto.

With the great Council came encouragement for religious sisters around the world to pursue serious studies beyond mere accreditation for their ministries – as Leonard had done in the 1950s, when she qualified as an elementary school teacher at the Toronto Normal School. In 1967, while still working full time, Leonard earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.

From there Leonard went on to a Master of Arts in Religious studies from Manhattan College, then a PhD in systematic theology from the University of St. Michael’s College. Her career as a professor of systematic theology began in 1978 and continued past her 1999 retirement as an emeritus professor.

Leonard’s legacy lives on with the Sisters of St. Joseph’s endowed chair in theological studies and its focus on encouraging women theologians, Regis-St. Michael’s faculty of theology dean Jaroslav Skira told The Catholic Register.

“Almost half the current student body in the Regis-St. Michael’s federation are women preparing for various ministries in the Church or for careers in post-secondary and higher education,” Skira wrote in an email. “And many, many more of our graduates, both men and women who were taught by Sr. Ellen, have made lasting contributions in their ministries or academic scholarship.”

Skira called Leonard a “prophetic voice for greater inclusivity of women in the Church and academy.” Leonard began her academic career as a leading expert in Catholic modernism, finding in the oft-condemned movement of early 20th century theology the seeds of the Second Vatican Council. But as she deepened her studies over the years she saw implications in the insights of Vatican II for women. Leonard was a founder of the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality. She was an early advocate of eco-theology. She served on the Roman Catholic-United Church National Dialogue on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She served a term as president of the Canadian Theological Society. She was on the steering committee of the Roman Catholic modernism group of the American Academy of Religion.

She received the Ann O’Hara Graff Award from the Women’s Seminar in Constructive Theology of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

In Toronto, she was deeply involved in the Sisters of St. Joseph’s efforts to support newcomers to Canada through the Becoming Neighbours program.

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