Sister Mary Aquinas, OSF

Notre Dame celebrates 40 years of coeducation this fall.  While the undergraduate women who arrived in 1972 were the first class to matriculate in the regular academic year, women had been earning bachelors’, masters’, and doctorate degrees since 1917 through the Summer School Program.  One of those women gained a bit of fame during World War II because she was an unlikely aviatrix and aeronautical expert.

Sister Mary Aquinas Kinskey, OSF, earned a bachelor’s degree from Catholic University in 1926.  She became a teacher and her interest in aviation stemmed from the enthusiasm for the subject from her students.  In order to best teach her students, she wished to learn as much about the subject as possible.  In 1942, she earned a Master of Science in Physics cum laude from the University of Notre Dame.  Her dissertation was entitled “Electron Projection Study of the Deposition of Thorium on Tantalum.”  Wanting hands-on aviation experience, Sister Mary Aquinas learned to fly in 1943.
“Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas, ‘flying nun,’ applying a little glue to the model P-38 which hangs from the ceiling of her classroom at Catholic University. A veteran of fifteen years’ teaching experience, the Sister is giving a summer Civil Aeronautics Authority course for instruction,” June 1943.
Source: Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

That summer, she taught aviation at Catholic University and was involved in training through the Civil Aeronautics Authority.  Below is an announcement regarding Sister Mary Aquinas’ activities published in Scholastic, October 1, 1943:

One of Notre Dame’s religious alumnae who is doing her part in the War effort is Sister Mary Aquinas, the “flying nun.” Sister Mary Aquinas, who received her master’s degree in physics from the University, is an educational adviser to the C.A.A. in Washington. Her aeronautics course at the Catholic University of America is one of the first, if not the first, sequence of such courses for Teacher Training in universities during the summer sessions. The Sister, who believes in practicing what she teaches, is a flier. She often takes her classes on inspection and demonstration tours through aircraft factories and airports. Her group of black-hooded nuns are a familiar sight in these places.

“Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas, ‘flying nun,’ exchanging trade secrets with an engineer at the Washington National Airport,” June 1943.
Source: Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

In 1957, “the Air Force Association gave her a citation for her ‘outstanding contributions’ to the nation’s security and world peace” [“No Glamor Girl”].  As part of the honor, Sister Mary Aquinas had the opportunity to fly in a T-33 jet trainer and take the control for much of the flight, making her the first nun to fly a jet.

“Washington, D.C. Sister Aquinas teaching a lesson in practical radio operations to the Sisters attending her Civil Aeronautics Authority course for instructors at Catholic University,” June 1943.
The women with heart necklaces are Sisters of the Holy Cross.
Source: Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

Sister Mary Aquinas was the subject of a 1956 television program The Pilot Her moniker as “The Flying Nun” leads many to believe she was the inspiration of the 1967-1970 television show starring Sally Field.  Furthering the thought there might be a connection, the television show was based on a The Fifteenth Pelican, a book by Tere Rios Versace, who also researched the life of Sister Mary Aquinas for an unpublished biography.  Versace’s papers can be found at the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.



“The Fighting Irish at the Fronts,” By Jim Schaeffer, Scholastic, October 1, 1943, page 9

September 3, 1942 Commencement Program [PNDP 1300]

Sister Mary Aquinas, ‘The Flying Nun,’ Says Air-Minded Child Is a Happy Child,” by Margaret Kernodle, AP Features Writer, Lewiston Morning Tribune, Lewiston, Idaho, August 8, 1943

Navy Invites Nun to Pilot Jet,” Lodi News-Sentinel, Lodi, California, July 25, 1958

“‘No Glamor Girl,’ Flying Nun Says,” by Bob Considine, The Milwaukee Sentinel, September 8, 1957

Three Sisters, Three Stories, Touching Lives,” Silver Lake College New Directions, Fall/Winter 2008-2009

Sister Mary Aquinas Is Dead; Pilot Inspired TV ‘Flying Nun,'” The New York Times, October 23, 1985

The Wisconsin Historical Society

Photos of Sr. Mary Aquinas from the Library of Congress are in the public domain


When It’s Time to Change, You’ve Got to Rearrange

The building now known as Crowley Hall originally housed the Institute of Technology, which comprised of the following departments:  Theoretical and Experimental Engineering, Practical Mechanics, and Machine Drawing and Design.  The University Architect’s Building Inventory lists Fr. John Zahm, CSC, and Brother Charles Harding, CSC, as principle architects.  It is one of many examples of buildings on campus that have held a number of different functions over the years.

Institute of Technology Exterior, c1890s

The 1892-1893 prospectus bulletin stated that “[t]his building has been erected on the most approved plans, after a study of the best institutions of the kind at home and abroad.”  The 1893-1894 bulletin boasted that it was “a large and commodious building, devoted to the use of the students of civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering.  It is fully equipped with all the appliances for wood and metal working, and is supplied with the most approved forms of forges and cupolas for blacksmithing and foundry work.  The rooms for mechanical drawing, and the laboratories for special experimental work in mechanical engineering are used, and are complete in all their appointments.”

In 1907, the Chemistry department settled into this building, which would then be dubbed “Chemistry Hall.”  The Pharmacy Department had laboratories on the second floor.

Pharmacy laboratory in the Institute of Technology, c1910s
1913 Pharmacy Class, including Knute Rockne (second from left) and “Cupid” Gross

On September 13, 1916, fire broke out in the phosphorus collection on the third floor, injuring a number of firemen, students, and spectators.  With all the different chemicals and potential reactions in the building, the firemen had to use a different approach than water, which was only making matters worse.  They used wet sand to extinguish the phosphorus fire and the South Bend firefighters left the scene eight hours later, saving the lower two floors.

The Institute of Technology on fire, September 1916

A week later, however, some of the remaining phosphorous again ignited and continued to ravage the building, sending dangerous sparks as far away as St. Edward’s Hall.  This occurred when class was being held in the already charred building.  The building and its contents were pretty much destroyed, except for a small addition on the northeast corner, which remained untouched by the fire.

World War I Athletic Regiment, April 1917.
Chemistry Hall, destroyed by fire, is in the background

The cornerstone for new Chemistry Hall was laid at the 1917 commencement extercises and is now the Riley Hall of Art and Design.  Nieuwland Hall was built in 1952 as a new facility for the Chemistry Department.  Chemistry also has space in Stepan Chemistry Hall, which was completed in 1982 with an addition in 2002.

But the story of this 1893 building does not end with the fire.  Notre Dame restored the building, which became Hoynes Hall, the home of the Law School until the Law School Building was completed in 1931.  Later it housed the Architecture Department and Psychology Department, and it has been the home of the Music Department since 1976.  It was named for Patrick F. Crowley, who founded the Christian Family Movement (CFM) with his wife Patricia.  They were named Laetare Medalists in 1966.  Crowley’s brother-in-law John Caron made the gift to the University in Crowley’s name.  The Architecture Department moved to Lemonnier Library (now Bond Hall) when the Hesburgh Library opened in 1963.  The Psychology Department moved to Haggar Hall in 1974.

After the fire as Hoynes Hall, c1920s

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PNDP 30-Bu-02:  1892-1894 Bulletins
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Let There Be Light

“Sophocles by the electric light seems an anachronism”
As part of the 1882 Commencement exercises, Washington Hall was formally dedicated with a theatrical performance of Œdipus Tyrannus, completely in Greek, under electrical lights.  This is one of the earliest references to the use of electrical lighting at Notre Dame. [Scholastic, 07/01/1882, page 641]

An electrical engineering class in Science Hall (now LaFortune), c1880s-1890s

By 1885, Notre Dame had made much progress in electrifying buildings on campus, well ahead of other institutions and municipalities.  The South Bend Weekly Tribune praised Notre Dame for its advancements:  “It will be remembered by our South Bend people that Notre Dame University was considerably ahead of South Bend in adopting a system of lighting by electricity.  There is nothing too progressive for Notre Dame.  She is abreast of the times in all that goes toward making her one of the finest equipped institutions in this country.”  [South Bend Weekly Tribune, 11/21/1885, from PNDP 10-Zz-15]

In 1887, Professor Michael O’Dea wrote a brief history and the current of the use of incandescent lights at Notre Dame for the New York Electrical Review.  O’Dea refuted Bowdoin College’s claim to be “the first college in America to be lighted by electricity,” showing that Notre Dame had already been using electrical lights for six years.  Below is the reprint from Scholastic, 03/26/1887, pages 460-461:

Electric lights on campus were not only used to facilitate late-night studying, they were also used to adorn the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Main Building Dome with a crown of twelve stars above her head and a crescent moon at her feet.

Workers on the Main Building Dome, perhaps regilding the Dome or maintaining the electrical lights, c1922

The lights were installed between 1884 and 1885, a few years after the Dome itself was completed.  The crown was first illuminated on October 23, 1884, but repairs and updates occurred in 1885.  Luigi Gregori designed the crescent beneath the statue, which was completed in November 1885.  When all the electric lights were fully illuminated for the first time, a South Bend Weekly Tribune reporter submitted the following account:

“As seen from the city, the light on the dome appears to be a solid blaze, having the appearance of an elongated moon.  The light can be seen for miles from Notre Dame, and as last night was the first time it was fully lighted up, a great many people were filled with wonderment as to what it was.” [South Bend Weekly Tribune, 11/21/1885, from PNDP 10-Zz-15]

Main Quad at night, early 1920s

The crown and crescent electric lights on the Dome were removed some time in the late 1920s or early 1930s, but the Dome itself is still illuminated every night.  Electrical lighting is now a given, but for the students and faculty living at Notre Dame in the late 1800s, incandescent lighting was cutting-edge technology and a sharp difference from gas lighting.

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Wireless Transmission at Notre Dame

In April 1899, Professor Jerome Green and his assistants were experimenting with wireless telegraphy.  Green is thought to be the first to send wireless transmissions in America and the first to use homemade apparatuses, as opposed to using foreign-made equipment.  The experiments started by transmitting signals from the physics laboratory in Science Hall (now called LaFortune Hall) to other rooms in the building.  They succeeded in sending signals from Science Hall to Sorin Hall, then from the flag pole to the Novitiate (which was located near present-day Holy Cross House).  “They found that everything worked perfectly well here, and so they set about their last and greatest trial.  This was to send a message from Notre Dame to St. Mary’s Academy which is more than a mile away from the University [, using the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for the transmission wire]. … This is the farthest distance a message has been sent in this country as far as we know and the boys in the scientific department feel highly elated over their success.” [Scholastic, 04/22/1899, page 494].

News traveled quickly of Green’s success, which “led the Chicago Tribune to invite Professor Green to Chicago to test the conditions that obtain in a large city.” [Scholastic, 05/06/1899].  The obstacles were great, but after experimenting sending signals to and from various buildings, Green was finally successful in sending messages for half an hour between the Tribune and Marquette buildings.  He was “able, after six hours of trial, to prove the Marconi system practical.” [Sunday Times Herald Chicago, 04/23/1899].

Sources:  Scholastic Magazine, 1899
Jerome J. Green Clippings (CZDD and PNDP 01-Gr-3)