The Faithful Departed: Mary Luke Tobin, SL (1908-2006)

The Only American Woman Invited to Participate at Vatican II

On August 24, in the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto, in Nerinx, Kentucky, one of the towering leaders of the Catholic church died. She was 98. Though Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., led a life described by superlatives, she may best be remembered as one of only 15 women, and the only American woman, to be invited to participate in the Second Vatican Council.

In article published in the Nov. 1, 1986 issue of America, the Catholic weekly, Sister Tobin noted that at the close of the second session of Vatican II, Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens of Belgium pointedly asked his fellow bishops this question: “Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half the church is not even represented here?”

That query, as well as further insights that if women were invited as official auditors (or “listeners”) they should play a role in the committees formulating the documents, led to Sister Tobin’s historic work. At the time head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organizing group of American sisters, she contributed to the commission that drafted the revolutionary documents Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium. Only two other women would serve on such commissions.

The rest of her life was full, varied and exciting. She led the way to update religious life, advocated for peace and justice, and worked tirelessly in the world of ecumenism. Her autobiography, published in 1981, was aptly titled: Hope is an Open Door.

Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., passed through church doors previously closed to women and helped to open them for those who followed—women and men alike, both halves of the church.