Mother Mary John Flynn: A forward-looking leader
By Sister Denise Schonhardt, OSB
Sister Mary John (Regina) Flynn, came from a truly Catholic family who had a deep appreciation for the Church and a love for God.
Regina attended Saint Joseph’s Academy and Holy Ghost School in Dubuque, Iowa. After graduating from Dubuque High School, she attended Clarke College in Dubuque and received a bachelor’s degree. Regina learned that a position teaching math was open at Mount Saint Benedict. She applied for it and was hired.
The example of the Benedictine sisters; the simple, home-like atmosphere of the Mount and the magnetism of Mother Eustacia helped convince her of her own religious calling. On Feb. 10, 1932, she entered the community, and in July she received the habit and the name Sister Mary John. She made her first monastic profession August 22, 1933.
In the years that followed she served as teacher and principal at Mount Saint Benedict Academy, Cathedral School in Crookston, and Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks.
In 1955, Sister Mary John was elected the fourth prioress of the Sisters of Saint Benedict. Though her background was in education and had little experience in healthcare, she was thrust abruptly into it a few days after her election. She went to Browerville to attend the cornerstone ceremony for the new community hospital to be staffed by Benedictine Sisters. Within five years, Mother Mary John facilitated the staffing and opening of Saint John’s Hospital in Browerville, the closing of Saint Anthony’s Hospital in Mahnomen and the planning, financing and opening of a large new wing for Saint Mary’s Hospital in Detroit Lakes.
Closer to home, Mount Saint Benedict Academy was overcrowded with four to five girls in rooms built for two. On July 16, 1961, construction began on a new classroom building, a gymnasium and Marian Hall Residence. Sisters skimped and saved on personal expenses, worked 12-hour shifts in hospitals, and taught large classes in crowded classrooms to pay off the debt from both the hospitals and the academy.
Recognizing the need to educate the younger sisters, the community started Corbett College, a two-year college affiliated with Catholic University. From 1957 to 1971, Corbett College made two years of college education possible for the younger sisters and others.
Mother Mary John’s priority was the spiritual formation of the sisters. She made the effort to send Sister Aquina Woehle, novice directress, to take part in a Benedictine studies program which she imparted to future novices. Following the Second Vatican Council’s mandate to renew religious life, the sisters studied the documents of the Council. The spirit of renewal began to permeate the Benedictine Sisters of Crookston.
Pope John XXIII asked the religious congregations of North America to send 10 percent of their members to Latin America. On January 16, 1962, Mother Mary John informed the community that Mount Saint Benedict would send two sisters to help staff the grade school at Colegio San Carlos in Bogotá, Colombia. July 4, 1962, Mother Mary John announced that she had selected Sister Edwin McDunn and Sister Mary Martin Bias to go to Bogotá. This ministry continued for almost 30 years.
In Mother Mary John’s 12 years as prioress, 78 new members professed temporary vows. For a brief time in 1965, the community reached an all-time high of nearly 300 members.
The new members came from the rapidly changing world of the 1950s and the 1960s, but life in religious communities was clearly rooted in monastic practices of medieval Europe. The world had changed during Mother Mary John’s term, and the task fell to her to lead the sisters in the post-Vatican Council Church.
One of the changes the community undertook was the modification of the traditional garb which, with only minor variations, Benedictine nuns had worn for centuries. Most sisters opted for a more comfortable street-length dress with a collar and short veil.
In the spring of 1967, as her second term as prioress ended and on June 10, 1967, the sisters chose Sister Victorine Fenton as prioress.
Sister Mary John moved to East Grand Forks where she taught algebra and physical science at Sacred Heart High School until 1980, when she became the high school secretary. In the summer of 1984, she returned to the Mount where she served in a variety of positions.