Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill, theologian, dies at 75

Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill died of lymphoma Dec. 14 at Mercy Medical Center. She was 75.
Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill died of lymphoma Dec. 14 at Mercy Medical Center. She was 75.(Handout photo)

Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill, who co-founded the Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women in Mount Washington as a place for inclusive discussions about faith, died of lymphoma Dec. 14 at Mercy Medical Center. She was 75.

Friends and fellow theologians remembered her as a charismatic and creative teacher who sought to help women and others without a strong voice to explore their place in the church and in the world. She was a professor at what is now Loyola University Maryland before founding the center, and also taught at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and other institutions around the country and the world.


"She was very important, I think, in the spiritual lives of a lot of people," said Sister Augusta Reilly, who met Sister Mary Aquin when both were students at Mount Saint Agnes College.

In an essay published in 1988, Sister Mary Aquin urged the church "to bring forth a community in which no one is excluded, each is valued, otherness is respected and taken delight in, and all points of view have a way to be heard."

Born Mary Ann O'Neill on Feb. 24, 1941, she was the eldest of the five children of James R. and Mary Patricia Lannon O'Neill. She was raised in Augusta, Ga., where she admired the nuns who educated her at Sacred Heart parish and Aquinas High School. She applied to become a Sister of Mercy right after graduating at age 17.

She came to Baltimore in 1958 to attend Mount Saint Agnes, a Catholic women's college in Mount Washington. She was given the name Aquin, in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas. Out of respect for the 13th-century theologian, she never considered returning to her baptismal name as many other sisters opted to do in the late 1960s, Sister Augusta said.

Sister Mary Aquin quickly proved adept at learning languages during her postulancy, and in 1964 she began her ministry teaching French and Spanish at Convent of Mercy High School in Mobile, Ala.

She also showed a passion for deeper questions of theology, and went on to study in that field at the University of San Francisco and then Vanderbilt University, where she earned master's and doctoral degrees in theology in 1974 and 1981 respectively.

That year, she made her first return to Baltimore to serve as an assistant professor of theology at Loyola.

She co-founded a task force on women within the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which prompted changes including non-sexist language in liturgy and adding the names of nuns to the Catholic directory, which had previously only named priests, said Peggy Mohler Strahan, a longtime friend.


"Sister Aquin was a trailblazer for women in the Catholic church," Strahan said.

In 1983, she moved on to teach at Salve Regina College in Rhode Island, and in 1987 began a four-year stint teaching at Notre Dame in Indiana.

She became involved in national discussions about issues like gender differences in the church, the nature of salvation and the interpretation of Scripture. For many years in the 1980s, she took part in an ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic and Southern Baptist theologians, said the Rev. John R. Donahue.

"She was a very important contributor to those discussions," he said. "It was a very fruitful and good dialogue."

Sister Mary Aquin returned to Baltimore for good in 1992, when the Sisters of Mercy called on its members to serve women seeking a more active, equal role in the church and in society. She joined with scholar Diane Caplin to found the Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women.

At the center, Sister Mary Aquin would invite guest speakers or would give lectures herself in classes and seminars about women developing their own self-understanding in the church and about Mary, mother of Jesus, for example. Sister Mary Aquin was known for inviting students to what she called "the table of the Word," which involved both "being fed from the Scriptures and theology and being fed from the kitchen," and for using art and poetry in her lessons, said Sister Patricia Smith.


"It was a place where no question was too trivial," Sister Patricia said. "It was kind of a safe place to explore ideas without constrictions of, 'Should I say this? Should I ask this?'"

In the 1990s, she fought the center's eviction from Provincial House, a Victorian structure on what is now the campus of the Johns Hopkins at Mount Washington conference center. Sister Mary Aquin was the last nun to leave the historic building in 1998.

"When I walk out that door, it will be the last Sister of Mercy on this land," she told The Baltimore Sun as movers packed a truck outside the building. The Sisters of Mercy once owned the building and the campus but sold it to insurance giant USF&G for $2.5 million in 1982 to raise money for the nuns' retirement.

The center moved to a stable and carriage house on Poplar Hill Road in North Baltimore. It closed amid funding issues in 2014.

Up until her death, Sister Mary Aquin was working on a book about Mary. Her friends hope to eventually finish and publish it.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday at Mercy Villa, 6806 Bellona Ave.

Sister Mary Aquin is survived by a sister, Kathy Toney, and a brother, Terry O'Neill, both of Billings, Mont., and several nieces and nephews.