Elizabeth Fitzmaurice, 87, a sister of the Holy Child Jesus who made her mark within the Catholic community as an educator and administrator, died Friday, May 25, of cardiac arrest at the Hearth at Drexel, an assisted-living facility in Bala Cynwyd.
Sister Elizabeth was a six-decade member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which is based in Rosemont. She entered the order right out of high school in 1949 and made her final vows in 1957.
Starting in 1952, Sister Elizabeth taught at St. Edward Elementary School in Philadelphia. She moved on to schools in New York, California, and Washington, D.C., before returning to the Philadelphia area in 1963. She was the principal at Holy Child Academy in Sharon Hill from 1963 to 1971.
Sister Elizabeth was well-loved and respected by her students, and many kept in touch with her throughout their lives, especially alumnae of Holy Child Academy in Sharon Hill.
"Many of the students said she was an inspiration to them and impacted their lives," said a friend and colleague, Sister Carroll Juliano.
Between 1962 and 1965, leaders in the worldwide Catholic Church convened the Second Vatican Council, the first ecumenical meeting of its kind in 100 years. In the sessions, Catholics dedicated themselves to spiritual renewal and to making religious life deeper and more relevant to Christians in the modern world.
"It was a time of change and upheaval," said Sister Carroll. "As we moved into this time of renewal, we thought, 'Is this the best way to structure ourselves as women of the church?' "
Against this backdrop in 1970, Sister Elizabeth was named to the leadership team for the Rosemont Province, or geographical division governing the religious order. Three years later, she was appointed the Rosemont Province leader.
In 1976, Sister Elizabeth made history by taking the three provinces governing the order in the United States – the Rosemont, New York, and Western provinces including Oregon and California – and forming one American Province. She had the vision to see change was needed and played a key role in the reorganization, Sister Carroll said.
The American Province is the only one covering the United States, although not all states are represented. There are about 125 sisters who are members.
"She formed it into a model that still continues today," Sister Carroll said. After the reorganization was complete, Sister Elizabeth became the first leader of the American Province.
At the first meeting Sister Elizabeth convened she issued a challenge: "Sisters, get up and move," she said. It was a call to action, said Sister Carroll, to embrace and make personal the changes of Vatican II.
Under Sister Elizabeth's tenure, social ministries such as legal counseling, feeding the poor, helping with parish administration, offering spiritual counseling, and teaching in Catholic schools were given priority, and they remain so today. She served as the American Province leader for two consecutive terms, ending in 1983. Others led the province until Sister Carroll took over the job last June.
Sister Elizabeth was born to Thomas E. and Madeline Fitzmaurice in Kenosha, Wis. At age 16, she moved to Waukegan, Ill., and graduated from Holy Child High School in 1949. She earned a bachelor of arts in history from Loyola Marymount University in 1960, and a master's degree in the same subject from Catholic University of America in 1969.
Following her leadership role in the religious society, Sister Elizabeth accepted a job as dean of student affairs at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.
In 1995, she retired from the school and moved to Concord, Mass. She returned to the Philadelphia area last year for health reasons.
Sister Elizabeth had a brother and sister who died earlier. She is survived by a niece, nephews, and a cousin.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 31, at Holy Child Chapel, 1341 Montgomery Ave., Rosemont. Burial will follow in Calvary Cemetery in Conshohocken.