Michael O’Brien: Nun who studied under J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis found acclaim with her Utah-inspired poetry

Sister Madeleva presided over Catholic schools in Ogden and Salt Lake City — and graced the state’s natural wonders with her lyrical verse.

One of the most acclaimed poets of the 20th century, Catholic Holy Cross nun Madeleva Wolff, drew lyrical inspiration from her time in Ogden and Salt Lake City.

Born in Wisconsin in 1887, Mary Evaline Wolff fell in love with poetry and the Holy Cross sisters while attending Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She joined the religious order in the early 1900s.

According to a biographer, Wolff said that when she first discovered poetry, she would “lie awake at nights trying to fashion every lovely thing that I knew into verse.” Her religious name, Madeleva, was itself a poetic combination of Mary, Magdalene and Eve.

After earning her master’s degree in English at the University of Notre Dame, but before becoming president of her alma mater Saint Mary’s College in 1934, Holy Cross sent her to Utah.

Sister Madeleva taught at and led the Sacred Heart Academy in Ogden and the College of St. Mary of the Wasatch in the Salt Lake City foothills. She described her seven years in Utah as her “happiest mission.”

From the beginning, the Beehive State served as a muse for Sister Madeleva’s poetry. In her autobiography, “My First Seventy Years,” she described her 1919 arrival in Ogden.

“I was elated,” she wrote. “Mountains at last! Deserts, Sagebrush, and the West! Oh, Pioneers!”

Immersing herself in nature

(Courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City) This is the former College of St. Mary of the Wasatch, where Catholic Holy Cross nun-poet Madeleva Wolff worked as president.

Ogden news reports indicate she wrote, taught poetry and directed programs for the girls at Sacred Heart Academy. She left in 1922 but came back in 1926 after earning a doctorate in English from the University of California at Berkeley.

Later that year, the Holy Cross sisters appointed her president of St. Mary of the Wasatch, and Sister Madeleva moved to the east-bench college overlooking Utah’s capital. As she had done in Ogden, she immersed herself in her natural surroundings.

In 1939, Ogden’s Standard-Examiner published an excerpt from Sister Madeleva’s 1932 letter to an Ogden friend describing her love of Utah’s outdoors:

“I cannot bring myself to go on the least walk or ride without a bird — and a flower — book. Of course I never pick wildflowers and I always talk to the birds and I can never be quite reconciled to their fright of me who love[s] them so well. Not all of them misunderstand, but I am [a] real Franciscan in my desire to brother and sister them all. … Now you know that I am personally in love with the world of growing, beautiful things. My best recreations are hikes but not on beaten trails. I love ‘The road that leads to God knows where.’ My hiking stick…bears upon his stout thorny body records of many miles by mountain and river.”

(Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society) This is the former College of St. Mary of the Wasatch, where Catholic Holy Cross nun-poet Madeleva Wolff worked as president.

In between hikes, Sister Madeleva wrote several acclaimed books of poetry and published poems in many other prominent periodicals. In 1926, the Standard-Examiner called her “one of the leading writers and scholars of the West.” A 1939 reviewer said she ranked with “the major poets of the world.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard DeVoto was a fan. Sister Madeleva did postdoctoral work at Oxford under literary luminaries like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. In 1951, she sent Lewis a copy of her work, which he described as “wholly delightful.”

A tribute to Utah snow

Her delightful writing often was about Utah. In a 1926 letter, she happily told a Berkeley professor about an incident in a garden she planted here. She explained, “A meadowlark found himself a pulpit in an apple tree…and I immediately became his congregation.”

In another letter, Sister Madeleva told her Berkeley friend about Utah snow: “More soothing and restful than a long and dreamless sleep. It is falling now, profound white peace, deliberate and encompassing as eternity, as you participate vicariously in the benedictions of such tranquility.”

She also wrote poems about Utah’s mountains and deserts. My favorite is from a 1947 book of her collected works, reprinted in a paper for the Holy Cross History Association:

In Desert Places

God has a way of making flowers grow.

He is both daring and direct about it.

If you know half the flowers that I know,

You do not doubt it.

He chooses some gray rock, austere and high,

For garden-plot, traffics with sun and weather;

Then lifts an Indian paintbrush to the sky,

Half flame, half feather.

In desert places it is quite the same;

He delves at petal-pans, divinely, surely

Until a bud too shy to have a name

Blossoms demurely.

He dares to sow the waste, to plow the rock.

Though Eden knew His beauty and His power.

He could not plant in it a yucca stalk,

A cactus flower.

Advocate for women’s education

(Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society) This is the former College of St. Mary of the Wasatch, where Catholic Holy Cross nun-poet Madeleva Wolff worked as president.

She also often watched Salt Lake City from the edge of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, once penning this wonderful description of her view:

“We had often been cold, sometimes hungry. Coyotes had cried under our windows at night. Water shortages had left us parched and unwashed during all but unbearable months in summer. … Days at a time we lived literally in the clouds and above the clouds. We watched weather in the making. …We followed the silver path of the sun in its setting behind the mountains beyond Great Salt Lake. After its long, rose-colored afterglow, two firmaments awoke in the darkness: the stars above us and the twinkling lights of Salt Lake City and its five suburbs covering the valley below.”

Sister Madeleva returned to see those twinkling lights again in October 1940. The Salt Lake Tribune reported how the strong and progressive advocate for female education visited classrooms and addressed a large group of St. Mary of the Wasatch college students.

She defined herself for the assembled young women: “There is no greater honor or compliment you can pay to yourself than to think.” She also defined the craft for which she was so well known: “Poetry is the discovery of what God means in the things of sense, in the world of sense.”

Sister Madeleva, who died in 1964 at age 77 in Boston, had a keen sense of Utah. She also had a lovely way of helping the rest of the world make sense of it, too.

(Courtesy photo) Writer and attorney Michael Patrick O'Brien.

Michael Patrick O’Brien is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at an old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press and chosen by the League of Utah Writers as the best nonfiction book of 2022.