Memories of Sister Kristen Malloy


My sister Judy Faulkner was one of Sister Kristin's many friends-one of the people she kept track of in her battered address book held together with a rubber band and bristling with scraps of paper and torn bits of envelope. Once, Kristen gave me a ride to Judy's home in Minneapolis. Judy's son was just learning to talk. He called this rosy-cheeked, smiling guest Sister Christmas. I've always thought that was a perfect name for Kristen, who turned even the most ordinary occasion into a party and who always came bearing gifts.

     Sometimes the gifts were the lavish and exotic vegetables she and her faithful helpers grew in her garden or keepsakes from Ireland-a page from the Book of Kells or a bit of green Connemara marble. Most often the gift was her smile, a story or a slightly off-color joke, and her ability to make whoever she was talking to feel like the most important person in the world.

     Kristen taught generations of students to love literature and to write what she called "sentences that sing." That impassioned teaching got her exiled from the College of St. Benedict and her community in the late 1950s. A priest and a bishop decided that Catcher in the Rye, a book Kristen had simply included on an optional reading list, was obscene. Mostly though, the priest and bishop didn't like Kristen and two other sisters because they were intelligent women who dared to think for themselves.

     Rather than crushing her spirit or turning her bitter, that experience of injustice and exile seems to have made Kristen more determined than ever to live her life to the hilt. In her sixties, she learned to drive and was a familiar if intimidating sight barreling down the road, her Irish walking cap perched on her red hair, her nose barely clearing the steering wheel. In the mid- 1980s, Kristen began to study for a PhD in Irish literature at the University of Minnesota. She lived in the dorms with the students and quickly became a grandmotherly confidante to them. To write her dissertation on Brian McMahon, she not only studied the man, she went over to Ireland and befriended him. She also had a fine artistic sense and talked Donald Jackson, the Queen's own calligrapher, into helping her perfect her calligraphy skills.

     Kristen's life wasn't easy. Her father died when she was ten, and her mother moved the family from Van Hook, North Dakota, a tiny town on the edge of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, to Washington, D.C. She battled one illness after another. But as the eulogist at her funeral liturgy said, "Of course"-one of Kristen's favorite phrases-- "was her affirmation of life and of others."