Sister Mary Olivette (Charlotte) Whalen, C.S.C. (1907-2001)
She was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas to John and Ellen (Hogan) Whalen, one of five children. After moving to Missouri, she attended grade school and high school, and for three years took classes at Fontbonne College, Missouri University and the St. Louis School of the Fine Arts. Upon reading through a copy of the Bengalese, a Holy Cross publication on the missions in India, she decided to enter Holy Cross and work in India. She entered the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1933 and her wish to serve in India was granted in 1937 when she was sent to Mount Carmel School of Nursing to prepare for mission health care work.
In the fall of 1941, Sisters Olivette and Caecilius (Roth), along with Brothers Rex Hennel and Theodore Kapes and Fathers Robert McKeen and James Lawyer, sailed from San Francisco for India. Her nursing was put to use not in India but in the Philippines because the 20 CSC religious on the ship were captured by the Japanese and interred in a prisoner of war camp in Manila. They were not liberated until February 23, 1945 and were back in the States on May 3. Sister Olivette told her story to Pauline Peyton who then wrote an extensive account “Round Trip to the Philippines.” After recuperation from the privations of prison camp life, she finally got to India in October of 1945 with her superior general for the visit. She stayed but a month, never to return.
Back in the States, she earned an MA in Sacred Studies from Saint Mary’s College. Along with another Holy Cross Sister, she worked unsuccessfully to establish the Federation of Holy Cross Women. She was sent to Brazil in 1947 to work in health education, but found a greater need for elementary and secondary schools. She loved her work in Brazil, but in 1961 she was called back to Saint Mary’s to serve on the general council as missionary procurator and director of vocations. While serving on the council, she personally opened the first Sisters’ school in Uganda, and in 1967 she was elected superior general. One sister commented: “So the Sister elected to lead the community in serious renewal had experience as teacher, nurse, graduate student, administrator and foreign missionary.” She was neither a “rabid liberal” nor a “foot-dragging conservative,” yet there were members of the Congregation who saw her as one or the other. Another of her sisters commented: “She seemed to be the perfect choice for those years of renewal. In retrospect we realize that not even Christ himself would have been considered the perfect choice. He suffered contradictions and so did she.”
In 1973, Sister Olivette was liberated from the generalship. She then spent eleven years in the Holy Land along the Sea of Galilee where she was instrumental in opening a center for ongoing formation for African and Asian religious. These were the highlight of her days as a Sister of the Holy Cross. Failing health brought her back to the States in 1985. Once recuperated, she travelled to the Far East ending up in Brazil for the golden jubilee of that mission. While she spent several months in Brazil, she assisted in the organization of an archive. Her final years were spent assisting in the Congregational archives at Saint Mary’s until she no longer had the strength nor eyesight for the job. She died on May 16, 2001 and is buried in Our Lady of Peace Cemetery, Saint Mary’s. (Shortened from a biography written by Sister Campion Kuhn, C.S.C. May 18, 2001.)