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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Sister Spotlight: Sister Elena Malits reflects on education, career at Saint Mary's

Editor’s Note: Sister Spotlight is an effort by the Saint Mary’s News Department to shed light on the shared experience of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and Saint Mary’s College students. We will be sharing the mission and stories of the sisters in an on-going series.

At the age of 85, Sister M. Elena Malits is very familiar with Saint Mary’s campus — not only because she lives and teaches at the College, but also because she’s alum from the class of ‘56.

“When I went to Saint Mary’s we had to have our lights out at 10 p.m.,” Malits said. “I would take my desk lamp and throw rug into my closet and read, everybody did that. Eventually, they lifted the lights out regulations. However Notre Dame still had the rules, so the boys used to go read in the bathroom.”

During her junior year at Saint Mary’s, Malits was one of the first students to study abroad for an entire semester. She spent her time in Vienna.

“There was a group of about 20 girls and 20 guys and it was wonderful,” Malits said. “I was the only Saint Mary’s person, however, my best friend from high school who went to a different college came with me.”

The summer after her graduation and after much contemplation, Malits decided to enter the sisterhood.

“When I was a sophomore in college I thought I was going to be engaged to a guy who was two years ahead of me at Notre Dame, and then he entered the priesthood which threw me for a loop,” Malits said. “After I finished college I became more and more convinced that God wanted me to do this, but when I was sure I locked myself in my room and threw books against the wall, I was so mad.”

After her decision, Malits taught for a year at a college and studied to get her Ph.D. in New York City. She studied at a convent across the street from Lincoln Center, and also spent time exploring the city going to Broadway plays and operas among other activities.

“When you learn the city, you could do anything you wanted,” Malits said. “You could go to museums, Broadway plays, everything and I just loved it.”

Soon after she finished her coursework in the fall of 1970, she found herself back in South Bend — at Saint Mary’s — teaching. Malits said she was extra busy during her first years of teaching because she was writing her 400-page dissertation at the same time.

Over the years she has taught many courses within the religious studies department.

“You name it I taught it,” Malits said. “I taught everything in the catalog, but as time went on I specialized in certain things. Very often I taught ‘Theology and Biography’ where we would read the auto-biography or biography of a famous person and then discuss it. Students really liked that and found that they were touched in ways they never knew.”

Malits formally retired at the end of the ‘90s, and then moved into the convent as a result of her Type 1 diabetes. However, she still wanted to teach and now teaches one discussion-based course called “Theology and Film.”

“I have found that a lot of Saint Mary’s students are better at writing than they are at talking, so if you really know something you can talk about it, so I insist that this is a discussion course,” Malits said. “What I’ve learned best about teaching I’ve learned in the film course and that the important thing is the questions you ask not the answers you give. That’s really interesting because it changes your perspective on teaching.”

Currently, in Malits’ free time she mainly stays in her room enjoying reading, her computer and watching movies and the news.

“When you teach as long as I do, you have hundreds of books and you love to read them all,” Malits said.

She also is the convent’s director of the pet therapy program. Malits brings different types of dogs around to the sisters almost every night of the week.

“I make sure that the dog is friendly and a good fit for the sisters and not afraid of wheelchairs or walkers,” Malits said. “People hear about the program and bring their dogs in, we have a good bunch of dogs that interact with the sisters.”

In addition to teaching, Malits was heavily involved in Saint Mary’s relationship with Notre Dame and instrumental changes within the University. Malits taught courses with a few Notre Dame priests and was the chair of the committee that made Notre Dame co-ed.

“I was in my room reading when I got a telephone call from the provost at Notre Dame at the time,” Malits said. “He asked me to be the chair [of the committee] and I thought ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’ because I did not want to lose any friends from Saint Mary’s or Notre Dame, but I ended up doing it because I thought I could do some good. We did in three months what it took Harvard and Yale to do in three years.”

A Monday report misspelled the surname of Sister M. Elena Malits. The Observer regrets this error.