From Bugs and Birds to People: S. Adele Clifford’s Legacy of Mercy
By Josh Zeller, Communications intern
The great humbleness of S. Adele Clifford was well-known; it tempered beautifully her many achievements as professor and president of Mount St. Joseph University. In his homily for her funeral Mass in 1989, Father Angelo A. della Pica highlighted her “tranquil involvement” with the institution, citing her life as one of “peace and hope, grounded in faith.” Dr. Thomas Seibert—a Mount Emeritus Professor of English—concurred, noting, “She always seemed independent of the positions she held and of the success she achieved. … She moved, rather, on the higher level of consistent loyalty to the values of the Church and of the Sisters of Charity.” But Sister’s desire to lead quietly did not make her time in office any less dynamic—during her five years as president, the Mount continued to grow as she led it through what Seibert termed “‘a time of great upset on the nation’s campuses.’”
When S. Adele was elected president pro tempore (she ascended to the full presidency a year later), she never lost sight of her teaching roots. She had begun this ministry in 1927, two years after she entered the Sisters of Charity, at St. Mary High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. She spent those early years teaching mostly at schools around the state, except for two years in Royal Oak, Michigan, as principal of Shrine of the Little Flower High School. Then, like her presidential predecessor S. Maria Corona Molloy, she was missioned back to the Motherhouse to teach mathematics at Mount St. Joseph Academy; in 1942, she moved to a different section of the building to teach biology at the College.
The Mount couldn’t have hoped for a more well-trained professor than S. Adele, who had—after obtaining her bachelor’s in mathematics at the College—worked to secure first a master’s and then a Ph.D. in biology from Fordham University (her dissertation comparatively examined the reproductive processes within five species of male salamanders). A further qualification could be found in the many years of research she conducted at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Her career as a college educator went uninterrupted for over two decades, during which time the institution moved into its own building across the street, and its enrollment and course offerings grew significantly. Then, when S. Maria Corona, president of the College since 1959, suffered a stroke in 1967, S. Adele was asked to take the helm as the school’s second president.
During that turbulent time, it was not just student unrest that made things difficult for colleges, but also drastic decreases in enrollment and retention. S. Adele took charge immediately. One of her first moves was to form an advisory council made up of administration, faculty, and students, which was not usually done in higher education at that time. With input from every part of the Mount community, she progressively proceeded to direct the college into new ways of financial management, and began letting men into the art, nursing, and theatre programs. The result of her leadership was a 72 percent retention rate by 1971 (much higher than the national average of 49 percent), and a 35 percent increase in admission between 1971 and 1972.
The academic offerings at the Mount also began to expand at this time, as the religious education and associate degree programs (in medical laboratory technology and business administration) came into being; there was also the option to learn basic programming after a “computer terminal facility” was installed. Furthermore, the college was incorporated at this time as its management was transferred to an associate board of lay trustees, with the Sisters of Charity retaining the role of sponsorship; this transition culminated in the election of Dr. Robert Wolverton in 1972, the institution’s first lay president. S. Adele left office that year with these achievements, among many others, to her name, to return to the biology department.
S. Annette Muckerheide, who herself taught biology at Mount St. Joseph University for 33 years, has fond memories of S. Adele as both a teacher and person. Entering the College of Mount St. Joseph in 1959, she decided to major in biology in the middle of her freshman year, and therefore had S. Adele often: “I loved her, I just loved her. Adele was one of the sweetest people I knew; she was so kind.” There were only four biology majors, and S. Annette remembers how, in the middle of three hours of lab work, S. Adele would have them take a break. Leading them across the hall, Sister supplied them with a breakfast that she had made herself: coffee, tea, pastries, cookies—she always brought in a little something for her students.
In the classroom, S. Adele was also a delight, where her vast knowledge and kindness combined to give S. Annette an excellent education. “She was a very loving person, but at the same time demanding,” Sister recalls. “But so gentle, you didn’t know she was being demanding.” S. Annette became a Sister of Charity in 1963 and went on to graduate school at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She found that she was “one of the most prepared in the class.”
As S. Annette was teaching in high schools and preparing to earn her Ph.D., S. Adele returned to teaching at the College. “She finished the presidency, [and was] back teaching after being away from it for five years, which in itself is difficult,” S. Annette recalls. She was 66, and looking towards a well-deserved retirement, but she stayed for the sake of S. Annette, who wanted to teach at her alma mater. “She tried to hold that job and did hold that job for me until I was ready, and then she resigned. That’s the kind of person she was,” S. Annette says, who was awarded her Ph.D. in microbiology in 1978, and began teaching that August.
The spirit of S. Adele Clifford can still be found at the institution to which she devoted so much of her life through the Sister Adele Clifford Award, which is highest honor that a faculty member can receive, and a conference room that has been named in her honor. But this kind spirit can also be found among the varied calls of the wildlife that pass through the Clifford Bird Observatory in St. Theresa Courtyard at the Motherhouse (dedicated in 2007); here, avian visitors are cared for, and given a safe place to perch. The appropriateness of the sanctuary’s designation cannot be understated—at the time of her death, S. Adele’s nieces noted that she had a great “‘zest for life … and deep interest in everything—from bugs and birds to people.’” Sister studied life, and dedicated her own to serving others.
“Chillicothe Native was President of College.” The Catholic Times [Columbus, OH]: 10 Feb. 1989. N.p. Print.
Clifford, S. Adele. “A Comparative Cytological Study of Spermatogenesis in Five Species of Salamanders.” Diss. Fordham University, 1948.
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“Mount President to Step Down; Approved Many Course Changes.” Price Hill News [Cincinnati, OH]: 27 October 1971. N.p. Print.
“Mount St. Joseph’s Former Head Dies.” Journal News [Hamilton, OH]: 30 Jan. 1989. N.p. Print.
Pica, Father Angelo A. della. Homily: S. Adele Clifford, S.C. 31 Jan. 1989. TS. Collection of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Archives, Mount St. Joseph.
Seibert, Thomas. “In Memoriam: S. Adele Clifford.” Mount News Spring 1989: 1. Print.
“Sr. Adele Clifford, College President.” Cincinnati Post: 30 Jan. 1989. N.p. Print.