Getting to Know You: Sister Mary Collins

The following article was published in the October 2012 issue of KHC’s Hometown Humanities newsletter, a publication available to KHC’s Friends of the Humanities. Become a Friend of the Humanities with a gift to KHC in honor of KHC’s fall fundraiser.

Getting to Know You

Kansas Humanities Council staff was delighted to meet founding KHC Board Member Mary Collins, OSB, during a recent visit to Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison. Collins served on the Kansas Committee for the Humanities Board of Directors from 1972 to 1975. A Professor Emerita of Theology and Religious Studies, Collins was a faculty member at Benedictine College and the University of Kansas before joining the faculty of The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Upon her return to Kansas in 1999, she served as Prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, a position she held until 2005. Today, she continues to lecture, write, and consult in the field of Religious Studies. “In the formative years of the Council, we especially needed solid academics who were also creative risk-takers,” shared Marion Cott, KHC’s founding executive director. “Sr. Mary filled the bill. In addition, she brought a good sense of humor to lively board discussions.”

Collins: In 1971, I was chair of the religious studies department at Benedictine College and I served on the five-person exploratory committee, led by Dr. D. Arthur Zook to form the Kansas Committee for the Humanities. I served on the board once the Committee was established.

Before the Kansas Committee for the Humanities there wasn’t a lot of community dialogue and the idea of adult community education was new. There were not a lot of people clamoring to get involved with this relatively unknown concept, so the Committee reached out to community organizations and invited them to apply for grants. Towns with community colleges were early applicants because they were already engaged in adult education.

I have good memories of the Committee’s early years because I was learning as I went. Marion Cott and I hit it off. Together, we traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the National Endowment for the Humanities’ inaugural Jefferson Lecture in 1972. As I recall literary critic Lionel Trilling presented “Mind in the Modern World” in an auditorium at the State Department.

My involvement with the Kansas Committee for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities permanently influenced my own research on anthropological approaches to the study of religious ritual. My experience working with grants gave me the courage to apply for a fellowship with NEH, which I received, supporting seminar work on religious ritual with anthropologist Victor W. Turner at the University of Chicago. The Committee shaped my life in other ways too — I never tire of learning and I value interdisciplinary learning. KHC developed my desire to be a lifelong learner.