Co-foundress of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., is renowned as a Scripture scholar
By Dan McWilliams
Sister Mary Timothea Elliott, RSM, has been a professor in Rome, a retreat leader around the United States, and much more in her six decades of religious life.
“In 60 years of time, lots of things happen,” she said.
Sister Timothea celebrated her 60th anniversary of religious life Aug. 16 at the motherhouse of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich.
“It was a lovely, lovely day, celebrating with all the sisters,” she said.
She took her first vows Aug. 16, 1958.
“I started out teaching in elementary school and had no idea that within a short time I would be teaching in colleges and universities. It’s been interesting,” she said.
The RSMs of Alma were founded in 1973, with Sister Timothea as one of the co-foundresses. She began religious life in the Religious Sisters of Mercy, founded in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831 by Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley. Before entering the convent, she was a young Margaret Anne Elliott.
Also influenced by joy
“I had the sisters in high school. I went to Our Lady of Mercy High School in Detroit,” she said. “And I was really struck by the joy in the sisters. I had been with one community of sisters from grade one through four, and another Community from five through eight, and then the Mercies for high school. I found the sisters had a real strong community life, and I liked to be with them because they were so joyful and positive, and they were great teachers.”
Her vice provincial at the convent teasingly suggested naming her Draclan or Hannah instead of Timothea.
“I thought, Draclan sounds a lot like Dracula,” she said. “And then we had a great aunt Hannah in our family who was kind of a joke. Whenever somebody was sick, she would make pea soup and send it to them, and you could stand a butcher knife up in the bowl, it was so thick. That was the only connotation I had for Hannah.”
Sister Timothea’s younger brother, born when she was a freshman in high school, is the director of the diaconate for the Diocese of Knoxville.
“My brother, Tim, Deacon Tim, is my godchild,” Sister Timothea said. “I named him Timothy, and it turned out that I received the feminine form of the name when I received the habit. We’ve always been close, especially since I’m his godmother.”
Serving alongside her brother was a key component in her coming to Knoxville in 2010.
“When Bishop [Richard F.] Stika, through [chancellor] Deacon Sean [Smith] and [vicar general] Father [David] Boettner, asked if I could come to Knoxville — I was stationed in Denver, Colo., at the time — the bishop said, ‘Do you think you can work with [Deacon Elliott]?’” Sister Timothea recalled. “And he asked Tim the same question, ‘Do you think you can get along with your sister?’ because he wanted us to work together, setting up the new deacon education program. And Tim said, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t lived in the same state with her for 38 years.’ But we’ve worked well together. I’ve recruited faculty for him for the diaconate formation program.”
Sister Timothea was a professor in Rome from 1974 to 1991. She was a lecturer at the Institute of Continuing Theological Education at The North American College in Rome from 1984 to 1991, as well as a professor of Old Testament Scripture at The Pontifical Gregorian University there from 1987 to 1991, and a professor of Biblical Hebrew from 1984 to 1991 at The Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
Those years provide some of her fondest memories of religious life.
“I think my 17 years in Rome as a block of time was very special. It was during the reign of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul I, and Pope John Paul II,” she said. “I just feel like their teachings and all were part of a spiritual formation for me at the same time I was doing biblical studies and teaching, and teaching at the Biblical Institute in Rome.
“I was one of the first women ever on the faculty there. For many years I was the only woman in the classes because the entrance requirements were very high, and many women didn’t have access to them at that time.”
Sister Timothea earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and American history from Mercy College of Detroit in 1960 and her master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1965. At the Pontifical Biblical Institute, she received her licentiate in Sacred Scripture in 1979 and her doctorate in the field in 1987. At her commencements at Notre Dame and the Biblical Institute, she graduated magna cum laude.
“I focused primarily on the Old Testament when I was doing my studies and writing my doctoral dissertation. The study at the Biblical Institute is long and difficult,” she said. “To begin with, you have to master 10 languages, enough to do research and write. It’s the only university where you can get what is called an SSD degree, meaning a doctorate in sacred Scripture. It’s a very special institute, founded by Pope Pius X. All of the faculty are chosen by the Holy Father, for one thing. There’s no tenure. You are expected to keep up on your studies and publications.
“The license is a four-year program. There were 180 in the year I started. Maybe 20 would register for the doctorate after completing the license. The Institute requires an honors average before you can apply. If 20 began the doctorate, three would finish — it’s very small — because of the length of time it takes to do the studies. You have what is called a doctoral year where you fill in the background of the area in which you want to do your dissertation. Then you have a public exam at the end of that year, and you publish a paper. Then you may begin your dissertation, and that takes six to nine years. It’s rigorous.”
Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, is one of the 10 languages Sister Timothea had to learn a Biblical Institute.
“There you’re required to take five ancient languages for your research and five modern languages for both research and for classes, because whatever language the class was offered in, you take it. When I was there, there were students from 87 different countries speaking 43 languages.”
Sister Timothea knows the ancient languages of Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Hebrew and the modern languages of English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish.
What led her to become a Scripture scholar?
“Two things. I had some outstanding professors of Scripture when I was doing my masters of theology. I just fell in love with the Word of God at that time. It was powerful,” she said. “Then in 1973 we were established as a new community of Sisters of Mercy. I was asked because I had the degree in theology to go to Rome to work with the canonists and write our constitutions, our rule of life for the Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich.”
From her early days in elementary education to her time in Rome, Sister Timothea has been a teacher. That includes time as the chair of the Department of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., from 1991 to 1999, as chair of the Department of Sacred Scripture and Biblical Languages at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver from 1999 to 2004, and as full professor of the same department at the Vianney Seminary from 2004 to 2010.
“I have been teaching for about 50 years,” Sister Timothea said. “I’ve been available to give conferences and retreats. I’ve taught deacons in Colorado and here in Knoxville. I love seeing the young men in the seminaries move toward ordination, the maturity that comes. When I was in Denver, I taught seminarians for 11 years. In New York, I did it for eight years. And my classes in Rome were at the pontifical universities, where seminarians were sent.”
Today Sister Timothea is the censor librorum for the Diocese of Knoxville after spending her first seven years in East Tennessee as the diocese’s director of Christian Formation.
She explained her current title.
“When Catholics are publishing anything that deals with faith and morals, if they want the testimony of the bishop that there’s no theological error in what they have written, the bishop gives me the manuscript, and I read it and make corrections if there are any and give an evaluation that goes to the bishop and to the author,” she said.
Sister Timothea has another title in Knoxville, too.
“Secondly, it says on my door I’m theological consultant to the bishop. When he has questions about different things he’ll let me know,” she said. “I also teach the deacons in the permanent deacon formation program. I give them classes on the Liturgy of the Hours and then intensive work on the Psalms.
“I would say that since I’ve come back to the States, I’ve done a lot of work concentrated on the Psalms.”
Accounting for change
There have been countless changes in the Church since she has been a sister.
“One area would be liturgy,” Sister Timothea said. “When I entered the convent in 1955, the Mass was always in Latin. Slowly things began to change. We could introduce something besides Gregorian chant in the Mass. It changed to English after Vatican II. That’s where I felt it very strongly.
“When I entered the convent we wore a habit that was very confining. We couldn’t drive because you couldn’t see out of the side — lateral vision was not possible. It was also a little cumbersome; you’d get your skirt all wrapped around your feet and that sort of thing. We could never go anywhere without another sister with us as a companion. We had a very rigorous horarium, or daily schedule, that everybody kept.”
That community life, she said, “was very formal [before Vatican II]. Right at the end of Vatican II, I did my masters in theology during that time, and the various constitutions from Vatican II came hot off the press, and we studied them in the classes. It was a very exciting time to study. Then I was put in charge of formation for our province of Detroit.”
The numbers of future sisters were a lot higher when Sister Timothea was in the convent than they are now.
“The years that I was director of formation, we had 34 postulants, 42 novices, and 75 in temporary vows,” she said. “The numbers were tremendous. Then things kind of took a spin, if you will. The external structures changed radically. And that was when experimentation was going on, with the encouragement of the Church. A group of us decided to experiment in terms of the essentials of religious life, and we were asked to put that into the formation program for our sisters. That led to our foundation of a new community of Sisters of Mercy.”
A famous generation of young people came along about 50 years ago.
“I remember in the late ’60s when I was in charge of formation, we had people entering who were in the hippie generation, and they had lived in communes and all kinds of situations,” Sister Timothea said. “They were looking for community. They would drive me to the wall with their questions. ‘Why do we do this?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if we did it this way?’
“It was a very difficult time to be in charge of formation, because all kinds of wild things were going on all around them, and they could see them. To try to get them to look at what is essential to the Church and how the Church treasures religious life — that was a challenge.
“Some survived, and they stayed,” Sister Timothea continued. “It was a time when there was a crisis in the priesthood. Priests were leaving their commitment, and many of them counseled sisters to do the same. So much attention had been put on the externals that the heart and the mystery of what religious life was all about was neglected. And they didn’t have that. It was a time when the middle-aged group, who should have been the stability of the whole community — they left. That was really hard, because then you had the young, who had no experience in religious life, and the elderly, and you had this big gap in between.”
The RSMs of Alma still wear their habits.
“Perfectae caritatis and every document that has come out of Rome on religious life since Vatican II has stressed the importance of religious habit,” Sister Timothea said.
Sister Timothea has two titles: “Mother” and “Sister.”
“Within the community I’m ‘Mother,’ because I’m one of the foundresses of the community. But in general it’s ‘Sister.’”