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Kathleen Sullivan, RSCJ

Sister Kathleen Sullivan

2015 Jubilarian, Celebrating 60 Years as a Religious of the Sacred Heart

Kathleen Sullivan, RSCJ was destined to be an educator. As a child, she would come home from school, line up her dolls, and teach them everything she had learned in class that day. From her home classroom to grade schools to universities, Sister Sullivan has shared her love for learning and mathematics with countless students of all ages. 

Sister Sullivan grew up in a household where everyone worked hard to excel in their field. Her father, a gifted WWI pilot, tested early models of airplanes and never once crashed—a huge accomplishment given the nature of the new technology.  Unfortunately, he died before Sister Sullivan was born, due to scarlet fever. She, her mother and her two brothers carried on his legacy of excellence, though. To ensure that her children would have access to a quality schools, her mother moved the family to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. In addition to being close to her grandparent’s farm, the area was home to two single-sex Catholic boarding schools, Campion Jesuit High School for boys, and Saint Mary’s Notre Dame Academy for girls. All three children attended the schools on scholarship.

During her years at Saint Mary’s, the Sisters of Notre Dame inspired Sister Sullivan. With the desire to follow in their footsteps, she began considering religious life. She was first introduced to the Society of the Sacred Heart in her senior year of high school, when she read a book on life of Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat. She was immediately captivated by Sophie’s desire to “find God in all things.”  She appreciated her emphasis on finding him in joy and love, in addition to in times of suffering.  

The Society’s emphasis on education also was a perfect match for Sister Sullivan’s interest in teaching. She had developed a passion for finding ways to present mathematical material in a way that best resonated with each student. She found it fascinating to discover that some students found theory more helpful and others benefited more from examples. 

Her gift for understanding students’ unique learning styles allowed her to successfully teach at every level in grade school, and every year in high school. She returned to school to earn a PhD in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she studied alongside the nation’s best mathematicians. At the time, Wisconsin’s program was one of the highest ranked in the country, and the White House honored her dissertation director as the greatest living American-born mathematician. 

Upon completing her doctoral program, she expanded her teaching repertoire and taught at various colleges around the country including Barat College, the University of San Diego, and Manhattanville College. During this time, the Society began a period of transition, including leaving cloister. With this new freedom of movement, she asked for permission to teach at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, so that she could drive up to Wisconsin on the weekends to visit her mother, who was ill. During this time, her love for learning inspired her to return to school once again and complete a Master’s Degree in theoretical computer science from the University of Iowa.

After her mother died, she put her newest degree to use and began teaching at Seattle University in a position that required a background in both mathematics and in computer science. There, she was able to join her brother, Bill. He served as president of Seattle University after earning his doctorate from Yale.

In addition to being a beloved math instructor at Seattle University, Sister Sullivan advocated strongly for finding ways to engage young people, particularly girls, in the sciences. For more than 15 years, she led “Splash!,” a four-week summer program that invited hundreds of middle school-age girls to participate in math and science activities. The university founded an endowed professorship in mathematics in her name to be awarded to a faculty member who similarly encouraged young girls and minorities to participate in math, science, and computer science initiatives. 

After 24 years of teaching at the university level, Sister Sullivan retired from Seattle University. Although she no longer works on the campus, she occasionally returns for spiritual and intellectual renewal. On a daily basis, she continues to share her love for mathematics with students at Forest Ridge High School, where she currently serves as a math tutor.

Throughout her many years as an educator, Sister Sullivan shared God’s love with students of all ages through demonstrating an enthusiasm for learning, and displaying a genuine compassion for helping students succeed.