Mary Perkins Ryan
April 10, 1912 – October 12, 1993
April 10, 1912 – October 12, 1993
Mary Perkins Ryan, editor, writer, religious educator, was born in Boston, April 10, 1912, the daughter of Charles Perkins and Elizabeth Ward Perkins. Charles was an architect; Elizabeth's interests and abilities were in art and music. In addition, she had a keen concern for liturgical matters. Mary was raised with three other siblings. Anna, Eleanor, and Francis, in a thoroughly Catholic home.
Mary's elementary and secondary education took place in Boston and Connecticut. Early in life her academic accomplishments were unusual. She graduated from high school at the age of fourteen and thence continued her education with the unique opportunity of study in Europe. Her college years were spent in New York City at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. The Religious of the Sacred Heart who owned and staffed the college were very clear on their mission with young women: to train them to take an active role in church and society. Mary would not fail them.
In 1933 Mary left Manhattanville with a B.A. degree and was employed as a secretary at Sheed and Ward which had recently opened an office in New York. This first employment which Mary identifies as a mistake, pointed out clearly to her that secretarial work was not her forte. At the end of this unsuccessful employment Mary returned to Cambridge, having left evidence, however, of her editorial skills. These skills opened the door in subsequent years for placement in the editorial department of the publishing company.
While at home Mary intended to spend time in writing short stories but instead spent four months in a sanitarium and several more months resting at home in recovery from tuberculosis. It was after this unexpected hiatus in her writing that Mary encountered Fr. Leonard Feeney whom she had previously met at Sheed and Ward. He encouraged her to write and when asked "About what?" He defined a need among Catholics for better understanding some of the routine Catholic practices and the reasons for them. Out of this conversation grew Mary's first book, “At Your Ease in the Catholic Church” (1938).
Mary eventually returned to Sheed and Ward and was given different responsibilities more fitting to her natural charism, editing and writing. It was while on assignment with the publishing company in 1940 at St. Mary Abbey in Newark, New Jersey that she met Father Michael Ducey. In the course of conversation the priest asked Mary if she had ever prayed the breviary, at that time usually prayed only by priests and religious. Mary's positive response prompted a public position in the first Liturgical Week Conference in Chicago in 1940. Her role was to lead the discussion following a presentation by Dr. Jerome Kerwin (1941), "Lay participation in the divine office". Here also was her initial step into the liturgical realm. The proceedings of almost every subsequent National Liturgical Conference thereafter note Mary's attendance either as a presenter or a respondent in the recorded discussions. She appears among such giants in the liturgical field of the time as Hillenbrand, Diekmann, Mathis, and Fred McManus.
John Julian Ryan, a 1921 Harvard graduate and teacher at Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts, was introduced to Mary by mutual friends. They were married in 1942 and made their home in Cambridge. While assuming her new role of spouse and eventually mother, Mary never lost her interest in liturgy. In fact, she seems to have communicated this same interest to her husband. Both she and John attended the National Liturgical Conference for a number of years. He was actively involved in the recorded discussions as is noted in the proceedings from 1946-1950. In 1953 John and Mary were both Members of the Board of Directors of the Liturgical Conference. Mary continued in this position until 1963.
Five sons were born to Mary and John: John Jr., Peter, Tom, Michael and David. The responsibilities of motherhood and childcare did not deter Mary from her interest in church matters. She addressed the National Liturgical Conference on the subject of Liturgy and the Family Arts (1947); in the decade of the 40's she wrote Mind the Baby (1949) and edited The Sacramental Way (1948). A theme that was to penetrate most of her writing was her search for the integrity of the Christian life and the sacramentality of everyday experience. She had hoped to be a bridge between the church and its meaning for the ordinary person. In 1948 John and Mary addressed the Liturgical Conference together and later co-authored two books. In addition Mary was a major contributor to Catholic Women's World, Commonweal, Worship and Catholic Home Journal.
In 1953 John Julian Ryan accepted a position at St. Mary College in Notre Dame, Indiana; the family relocated to Granger, Indiana. During their time there interesting liturgical developments drew Mary more deeply into the liturgical world of the Catholic Church. In 1947 Fr. Michael Mathis, CSC, had founded the Liturgical Institute at Notre Dame University, a time when the word of liturgical renewal ignited controversy and resistance. Liturgists from throughout the world would visit the campus and share their expertise with the Notre Dame community. Mary's involvement as a staff member with the Institute heightened her interest in the liturgical movement and she began searching for the causes of controversy and resistance. Through this searching Mary concluded that the lack of understanding and poor catechesis were in large part responsible for the resistance. "Religious education was the missing factor in the whole picture of renewal," she once noted to Mary Charles Bryce. How to resolve the situation proved a daunting task and one, which Mary undertook for a lifetime. The fortunate timing of her interest and the presence of Johannes Hofinger, Europe's celebrated leader of the catechetical movement, on the Notre Dame campus afforded Mary informal priceless learning opportunities and insights into the catechetical movement. There was a mutual exchange of gifts and skills. Hofinger was working on his classic piece, The Art of Teaching Christian Doctrine (1957) and Mary offered him the assistance of her editorial skills. She in turn, availed herself of access to one of the great leaders in catechesis. Mary began to articulate the close connection which she saw between liturgy and catechesis, as was evidenced in issues of the liturgical journal, Orate Fratres (later Worship). It was during this period also that she completed “Beginning At Home” (1955).
In September of 1956 Mary had an unusual privilege of attending a Liturgical Congress at Assisi, Italy. Attendance was by invitation only. At this gathering of 1400 priests and some 50 laypersons Mary was the only married woman present.
Mary will be remembered for her abundant writings and her editorial skills which she exercised earnestly as the founding executive editor of the Living Light, a, catechetical journal published in the spirit of Vatican II and as editor of Professional Approaches for Christian Educators (PACE), the first catechetical journal to address both the profession and practical aspects of religious education. In addition to her professional life, Mary was mother, wife, mentor, and good friend to many.
Tribute prepared by Mary Lou Putrow, Tablot School of Theology.