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Mother Mary Leo Gallagher: A Believer in Women’s Education

Mother Mary Leo Gallagher: A Believer in Women’s Education

Monday, October 23, 2023

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on College of Saint Mary's history during its first century. CSM is marking its 100th anniversary in a yearlong celebration through August 2024.

Mother Mary Leo Gallagher is a name long associated with College of Saint Mary. She helped found the institution and opened its doors to women in addition to the Sisters of Mercy in 1923.

But who was Mother Gallagher?

Hannah Gallagher was born to Irish immigrant parents in Wisconsin before moving to LeMars, Iowa, where she was raised. Prior to becoming a Sister of Mercy, Gallagher earned her teaching certificate and a master’s degree from the Iowa State Teachers’ College, now known as the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls.

“Mother Leo was easily the best educated Omaha Sister of Mercy in her day,” Sr. Kay O’Brien, RSM, wrote in her book “Journeys: A Pre-Amalgamation History of the Sisters of Mercy Omaha Province."

At age 24, Gallagher entered the Sisters of Mercy community in 1885. Six years later, she was appointed Reverend Mother by Bishop Scannell. She served seven terms in that office. In 1929, she was named the first Mother Provincial for the Province of Omaha.

“In her religious life, Mother Leo was simple, obedient and submissive. The smallest part of her rule was kept with exactitude. Simplicity and charity were her greatest characteristics. She loved the Lord and His Blessed Mother,” Our Sunday Visitor wrote in a July 9, 1937, article following her death. “Every action of her life was founded on this great love and her shining example always spread this devotion.”

When Mother Gallagher was 54, she received her bachelor’s degree from Creighton University. Three years later, she earned a master’s degree.

While the Sisters of Mercy had been educating their own to be teachers for many years, the state required all Sisters to have certificates on par with public school teachers in 1919. But Mother Gallagher was ready. In 1923, she founded College of Saint Mary with approval from the state “so that more efficient means might be at hand for preparing young women, especially for teaching, and that a more convenient place might be established for her own Sisters to pursue their work,” Our Sunday Visitor wrote.

“It was her foresight and her strong belief in education that brought about the college,” O’Brien wrote. “She is remembered as a woman of grace and dignity who was also a kind and understanding listener. These traits blended in her personality into one who could command respect in a quiet way. As a teacher, she relied on having her students memorize facts rather than reasoning to conclusions but as a person she was almost universally revered and loved.”

Mother Gallagher died in June 1937 at St. Catherine’s Hospital, surrounded by Sisters of Mercy. After College of Saint Mary moved to its current location, a residence hall was named for her in 1960.


By Leeanna Ellis