Faculty Tribute: Sister Claire Wagstaff, Jan.19,1921-Jan.1,2007
By Father Patrick LaBelle '61
Illustration by Dustin Boudreau
Good evening Gentlemen. It would be a wonderful gesture of your sense of community if you could help us restore this room to its normal purpose as a dining room." This, coming as it did, from a tall, very elegant Sister in classic white habit and black veil, was one of those moments that left nothing to the imagination. We had had a wonderful "mixer" with the women from Dominican College in San Rafael, and now it was time for that little bit of chivalry that identified the Saint Mary's Gentleman. Each of our sister schools had much the same experience to offer at the end of the evening, but there was something special about the invitation at Dominican. The woman inviting us to work was the dean of students, and she was nothing short of spectacular. In those days all one could see of the Sister was a brilliant face, an engaging smile and confidence. She moved with elegance, spoke with energy and purpose and helped us understand in a nice way that what we heard was a directive much more than it was an invitation. This woman was Sister Joseph, known to us eventually as Sister Clare. Her closer friends and the multitude that loved her also called her "Sister Have a Chat."
Sister Clare was a Stanford graduate, and followed her Stanford degree with multiple master's degrees and eventually a doctorate from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She was a philosopher, a splendid teacher and well-respected dean. Sister Joseph taught, administered and lived in the residence halls of Dominican College for more than 20 years. When the changes came after the Second Vatican Council and many women religious returned to their given names, Sister Joseph became Sister Clare Wagstaffe.
Shortly after I was sent to Seattle to work at the University of Washington, I was able to convince Sister Clare to come north to work with me. She moved from direct ministry to administration and eventually went to Denver to direct the Office of Ministry to Young Adults and Campus Ministry. As fate would have it, she and I had lunch one afternoon some years after she went to Denver, and she indicated that she was ready to return to direct ministry. She asked if I had any suggestions, and the great love of my life came to mind. I told her she would be perfect for Saint Mary's College. In 1980, she began a career at the College that included being the dean of women, associate dean of students, residence hall director, seminar teacher and eventually the architect of the Orientation Program. She lived at the College for 24 years, leaving in 2004 only when her failing health demanded the move.
Two very important things happened to Sister Clare while at the College. Sister transferred her vows from San Rafael to the Sisters of the Holy Spirit, and she received from the Christian Brothers the great honor of being formally affiliated with the Institute. She is one of the very few "affiliated members" who is a woman. She became, in a very real way, Brother Sister Clare, FSC, and she was unreservedly proud of this singular honor. To illustrate her love for the Institute, the College and the Brothers, she asked that she be buried with the Brothers at their cemetery at Mont La Salle in Napa. She is the only woman buried among the Brothers there.
I believe that few, if any, would correct me when I say that no student or member of the College community whose lives intersected with Sister Clare ever forgot the experience. The warm, loving welcome, the words of encouragement, the hope and confidence in her eyes, became synonymous with Saint Mary's. The students she taught and counseled, the faculty who were her colleagues, the parents who entrusted their sons and daughters to Sister Clare and to the College all walked away from her knowing that life is good and hope would make things even better. Whether we knew her by the loving name given her by nephews and nieces, "the white queen," or just plain Clare, she was a person who spoke the teaching of Jesus and the traditions of the academy in a way that was a credit to her faith, her love of people and our loving God, or the master teacher La Salle. Sister Clare Wagstaffe is yet another brick in the history and heritage of Saint Mary's. It is the strength of such people that will embody and speak the treasured prayers: Saint John Baptist de La Salle, Pray for Us and Live Jesus in Our Hearts – Forever!