Former College President Brother Mel Eulogizes Sister Clare Wagstaffe


On Jan. 17, 2007, a Memorial Mass was celebrated in the College Chapel for Sister Clare Wagstaffe, whose devotion to Saint Mary's led her to being named an honorary Christian Brother. Brother Mel Anderson eulogized Sister Clare, who died on Jan. 1 at the age of 85.

"How are you feeling, Clare?" I said. "Just fine, I"m doing just fine." "Are you able to walk?" "No," she responded, "but I'm treated very well and I feel well." "How was your Thanksgiving?" "Very pleasant." "Any visitors?" "No, but I did just fine!"

Her charming smile and the twinkle in her eye prevailed from start to finish.

When Sister Clare came to Saint Mary's in 1980, her imagination and radiant personality made us all aware how important the presence of a wise, experienced, compassionate and smiling woman was to the ambient vitality of Saint Mary's.

The signs posted around campus read, "Saint Mary's Alive!" but what they meant was hidden, something to be revealed, a surprise! Her clever wit drew our attention, and at the moment of disclosure, it became a delightful celebration, a religious celebration of vocations to the ministry of the Church, a counter-cultural adventure at a time when such an idea was, to some, a bit quirky. But large groups of students participated and enjoyed hearing the speakers and securing material on listening to God's call.

After receiving her baccalaureate from Stanford, Miss Clare Wagstaffe secured her teaching credential from the University of California in Berkeley. Interested in teaching, she responded to God's invitation and "entered the convent," as we were wont to say in 1942. She was clothed in the habit of the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, an order dedicated to teaching that conducted Dominican College of San Rafael, a distinctive women's college at that time. She assumed the religious name of Sister Mary Joseph.

After teaching several years in a Dominican high school her obvious talents, and they were abundant, were put to the test at the Catholic University of America where she received both her MA in 1949 and then her Doctorate in Philosophy in 1951. Astutely trained she then taught at Dominican College and in 1961 was appointed Dean of Students, a post she filled until 1972. As Dean she had an opportunity to meet many Saint Mary's men at the dances or "mixers" as they were coyly called, designed to bring men and women from our respective single-sex institutions together. At the conclusion of her assignment as Dean she spent five years at the Catholic Campus Ministry Center at the University of Washington followed by three years as an administrator for the Diocese of Denver. Alumnus Father Patrick La Belle, who worked with Clare in Washington, suggested that Clare come to Saint Mary's as there was an opening in Campus Ministry. She applied and was welcomed into the Saint Mary's community.

From the moment of her arrival on the Saint Mary's campus she was intensely interested in student welfare, and made special efforts to serve the growing female population on the formerly all-male campus. While I would not say that she was an ingrained, single-minded feminist, she did find singing the hymn, Rise Up O Men of God, a serious obstacle to a prayerful liturgy. Clare was also interested in the inclusive language movement for the liturgy, for, she said, God is genderless. When religious were allowed to revert to their baptismal names, Sister Mary Joseph became Sister Clare, preferring her own female name to that of a man's, even one who was a member of the Holy Family.

After serving a year in Campus Ministry, Clare's background and gifts were tapped to serve in a similar, but wider role as Associate Dean of Students and a few years later as Dean of Student Development. She transformed and invigorated the Career Counseling Center, collaborated in the creation of a highly successful and continuing program then called S. O. S., or Student Orientation Service, conducted by seasoned students to assist new students adjust to collegiate life away from home. She also collaborated on initiating a Parent Orientation program and was the first moderator of the newly founded "Saint Mary's Honor Society" an organization that had faded out of existence during the egalitarianism of the 60's and early '70's. One of her endearing and enduring creations was her plowing new ground in initiating a Parents Association in 1992, much to the delight of parents who then had a central source of information as well as a gracious someone who could expedite action on numerous requests and concerns. Actively engaged in the student recruitment program, she was part of a team with Dean Walter and others that traveled to the homes of alumni in various locations on the West Coast, to greet and speak to prospective students and students who would enter with honors. There was no doubt that parents felt secure in sending students to Saint Mary's because of Sister Clare. Father La Belle symbolizes Clare in her telling smile, "She said everything that a student needed to hear and demonstrated everything that a student needed to see with that wide, loving, energetic and beautiful smile." To be fully immersed in the spirit of Saint Mary's College, Clare attended the three year summer program on the life, writings and spirit of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers.

"It is no mystery to me that Clare was called to religious life," former student Karin McClelland remarks, "What man would have known what to do with such a woman. She was strong, vibrant, well educated, creative and independent!" And she further reflects, "I remember her warmth more than anything, but I have always known she could hold her own in any setting-even the world of higher education."

Attorney Janine Ogando observes, "Though all students respected her, to me she was much more than a dorm mother or professor; she was a wonderful friend."

Sister Clare was indeed, an inspiring teacher and a talker. Ron Turner recalls driving from San Diego after one of the recruitment sessions with Sister Clare as his passenger. She began talking at the outset, and continued to talk for hours. Ron asked if she were tired and wanted to take a nap, but she declined and continued the conversation. That was when Ron realized what students meant when they called Clare, "Sister have-a-chat," a moniker Clare found particularly amusing.

Clare taught the Philosophy of Psychology to both graduate and undergraduate students, and seminars in the Great Books for the older adult programs. Her acute mind and gracious demeanor was the formula for success as attested by older and younger students alike.

When it came time to celebrate the milestones in her life, she planned parties for family and friends that earned her the name "party animal" from the late Mike Ferrigno, Director and then Vice President for Advancement. Seventieth, seventy-fifth and eightieth birthdays were memorable celebrations. Janine Ogando recalls, "She shared her famous gin fizzes and Irish Coffees with all. She loved a party." The greatest party, Clare personally stated to me, was when she was officially affiliated with the Christian Brothers and her name was inscribed as an Affiliated Member at the Brothers mother house in Rome.. The Affiliation, its ceremony and celebration, she said, "was the "greatest thing that ever happened to me."

"Saint Mary's is my life," Clare would say, "I have nothing and know no other community that has given me so much."

Perhaps it was this conviction and her penchant for independent thinking and acting that distanced her from the Dominican Sisters, many of whom remained her dear friends. She became a member of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit in 1993, because, she said, "this particular order had a more contemporary view of religious life."

Sister Clare was a Resident Director in Freitas Hall and if one had the occasion of visiting her suite in that hall, the experience was astonishing. While it was clean, it had the appearance of a Goodwill Thrift Shop, with bric-a-brac, clothes, furniture and other materials from wall to wall. The interior of her car was often a replication of her room, filled with bargains galore! Clare had a taste for quality, dressed becomingly, but was both a judicious and, shall we say, almost compulsive, bargain hunter. Hal H

Karin McClelland said so much in this short reflection: "There is another strong, vibrant, smart and independent Clare in my life these days. She is only 2 ½ years old, but I am beginning to believe there may be some connection to name selection and personality. I can only hope that my Clare is as bold, faithful, loving and zealous as Sister Clare!!!"

At last an indomitable Sister Clare had to retire. Letters of gratitude for her life and work came to her from students, faculty, administrators, Brothers and others It was not too long before cancer drained her vitality and she became bedridden in an assisted care facility in Redwood City. Those who visited her from time to time could see life ebbing away. But her positive spirit, gracious smile and evident joy stayed with her to the end.

We bid a lingering au revoir, ‘till we meet again, in the heavenly mansion prepared for those who have loved and served God with their whole mind and heart and soul. May the angels carry her vibrant spirit to the destiny she has sought all of her life. May you, Sister Clare Wagstaffe, of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit and Affiliated member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, (AFSC), live fully in the love and wonder of God. And though this encomium has not canonized you, you can still pray for us as we pray for you.