Friday, April 10, 2015

Sister Columkille Colbert, CCVI

Margaret Colbert left her hometown of Cappoquin, Ireland in the early 20th century at age 16 to come to San Antonio to join the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.  Here she received the name Columkille, a remarkable Irish saint and a man gifted with incredible talents. The name was a sign of things to come.

In short order she became a scholar-teacher of classical languages and became the first religious woman to earn a Ph.D. in Texas. The road was not easy for anyone less determined.  At that time The Catholic University of America was still for men although some women were admitted.  However, Sister was not allowed in the classroom with the men; she had to attend classes sitting in the hallway. 

After a two-month term as president of Incarnate Word College (IWC) by Rev. Mariano Simon Garcia, a former resident at the CCVI orphanage, Sister assumed the post of President and then Chairman of the Board for the next 40 years.  A woman of vision and drive, she moved Incarnate Word forward as a premier women’s college.  And she never heard the word “no”.  She assumed it meant “maybe”.

She focused that vision and drive on expanding the physical campus, and making sure the Sisters on the faculty earned the highest degrees possible.  Recognition and accreditation in the academic community guaranteed the value of degrees granted and she had her targets in sight like a sharpshooter with bottles on the wall.  And she was the religious equivalent of Annie Oakley.  Sister could be tough when needed, but she also had a gentler, giving side.

Accessibility for students meant everything to her, “no student will ever be turned away from Incarnate Word College because of her parent’s  inability to pay the costs of tuition," she insisted,  and throughout the 1930s,  she dismissed many unpaid bills.  Some parents living on farms or ranches outside the city paid the costs of tuition in fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat.  The supplies were always welcome and used to feed hungry students.  And that philosophy included all races and creeds.  She had financial aid and work-study long before Congress.  The contributed services of the Sisters kept the operating budget reasonable, but if she needed cash flows she knew how to do that, too.

In 1950, when Incarnate Word High School opened a new campus she had a dream for an  evening degree program for working adults.  Once again a "not now" was only a future "maybe".  In the 1960’s she opened the campus up to the wider community and revealed the value of her past friendships with the then young Dr. Raymond Roehl, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Jose Vives-Atsara.  Even before coeducation she allowed young men to finish a degree if we alone had their major. She just needed to change the pronoun her to him.

When she left the campus in 1969 for retirement, the record of her life was entered into the Congressional Record.  A medal of honor in print.

-Dick McCracken

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