Sister Mary Daniel Turner, 84

Sister Mary Daniel Turner, 84, dies; led American nuns

Sister Mary Daniel Turner pushed for women's equality and was a leader of Catholic religious women in the United States.
Sister Mary Daniel Turner pushed for women's equality and was a leader of Catholic religious women in the United States. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

Sister Mary Daniel Turner, 84, the former superior general of the international Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and a national leader among Catholic religious women, died Jan. 27 at Holy Cross Sanctuary in Burtonsville. She had breast cancer that metastasized into bone cancer.

Sister Turner co-wrote an influential 1992 book, "The Transformation of American Catholic Sisters," and was "a driving force for justice and church renewal before and after the Second Vatican Council," which modernized the Catholic Church worldwide in the 1960s, the National Catholic Reporter said in its story about her death. In an interview last August with the paper's editor, "the gentle but frequently provocative Turner lamented that Vatican clerics cannot accept women religious as moral agents."

"I think the issues are wider than women religious," she said. "It's really a difference in values between the church of Rome and the U.S. church."

Sister Turner appears in a video at the exhibit of "Women in Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America," which opened Jan. 15 at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center. Too sick to attend, she learned from another nun that the Vatican's emissary to investigate American nuns had come to the opening ceremony. Sister Turner "simply suggested that her presence at the Smithsonian might be another opportunity for bridge building," Sister Camille D'Arienzo wrote in an online memorial. "For decades, she had put her intellectual and spiritual gifts at the service of numerous religious communities. She was a visionary rooted in reality."

She had ventured boldly into controversy before. In 1985, she was among religious leaders who, when asked their advice, urged a committee of bishops not to write a pastoral letter on women in church and society. The all-male, celibate hierarchy should not write about women without more extensive study, she and others said, noting that the bishops wrote a pastoral on economic justice, not poor people, and about racism, not black people.

While Sister Turner worked for female equality, she also "championed human dignity and justice for all; she was a strong advocate for those living in poverty," the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur said in a news release.

Margaret Turner was born Nov. 21, 1925, in Baltimore and moved to Washington as a child. She attended Catholic elementary school and graduated from the now-closed Academy of Notre Dame, operated by the order she joined in 1943. She took her final vows in 1951 and graduated from what is now Trinity University in 1959. She also received a master's degree in philosophy from Catholic University in 1962 and a master's degree in theology from the University of Toronto in 1972.

She taught elementary school and was principal of St. James School in Mount Rainier in the 1950s, then was put in charge of newly professed nuns who were in college. In 1962, she became provincial superior of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a province which at the time reached from New York to Georgia. Ten years later, she was made executive director of what is now called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group of about 1,500 top-level nuns who represent most of the 68,000 Catholic women religious.

Sister Turner was elected in 1978 to a six-year term as superior general in the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international group with provinces in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

After she completed her term, she worked with Lora Ann QuiƱonez to write "The Transformation of American Catholic Sisters," which reviewers described as "an important work that will enlighten and challenge."

A prolific writer and lecturer, she gave commencement addresses in 1981 and 1989 at the Washington Theological Union. When Trinity gave her an honorary doctorate in 1984, it was because "in her unflinching search for truth she has empowered women to believe in the possibility of a transformed world that is inclusive, collaborative and pluralistic."

In the 1990s, she was the administrator for Joseph's House, a home for chronically ill homeless men. After her retirement in 1994, Sister Turner lived in a multi-generational, multiracial household where poor children who had attended the order's schools came to live or to call a second home. She continued to consult with religious organizations until her death.

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