Frances Gussenhoven, R.S.H.M., Reflects on Retirement
Frances Gussenhoven, R.S.H.M., ’52, M.A. ’61
Published: July 9, 2011
Frances Gussenhoven, R.S.H.M., ’52, M.A. ’61, spent 35 years as an English professor, first at Marymount College and then at Loyola Marymount University. She retired in 2002 and in 2003 took a job as an assistant director with the Center for Ignatian Spirituality. This coming August, Sister Frances will retire again. We spoke with her about her career, the future of religious life and her thoughts about LMU’s future. She was interviewed by Fred Puza.
When you first came to LMU, there were about 35 Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and Congregation of St. Joseph nuns. There are R.S.H.M. nuns who live in the community and are part of university life, but you are the last working on staff. What role do you see the R.S.H.M. sisters playing at LMU in the future?
I think we will continue to pray every day in Leavey Chapel at Mass as we presently do. We’ll be praying for the university, of course. Mary Genino, R.S.H.M., is a trustee of the university, and we’ll always have a representative on the Board of Trustees. Sister Mary is also involved in campus activities and meetings, particularly in the Bellarmine Forum coming in the fall semester, so I don’t think we’ll be entirely gone. And, of course, the name persists. That is in the bylaws.
You were only one of three women in the English department when you first started teaching at LMU, now there are 15. Did you feel then that you were breaking down the gender barrier? And do gender barriers still exist?
I wasn’t thinking of gender barriers when I came to LMU, and I wasn’t so aware that there were only three women. As far as gender barriers existing today, yes, I think they do. There are reservations about putting women in top administrative positions and in hiring and promoting women. There are gender differences in paying women, and there is a tendency to pay men more than women.
[But women] are working on it. They are becoming department chairs, and as chairs they are the heads of search committees. They can appoint the members of those search committees, and the search committees can choose [the female] candidates they want. This is ant effective way to achieve equality.
You “retired” from teaching English many years ago but later took a position as an assistant director in the Center for Ignatian Spirituality. Are you going to really going to retire this time or do you plan to take another job?
That is such a funny question! Yes, I intend to retire, and probably I will end up doing something useful around campus on a less formal basis. I don’t have any formal plans.
You taught Chaucer and other writers who wrote several centuries ago. What lessons can be learned from writers so far removed from the present?
All literature can teach us. Chaucer has a certain earthy humor, a love of people and their foibles. When we read Chaucer — even though the setting is so distant in time — we can recognize ourselves and our own foolishness sometimes. Shakespeare is immortal because he has a profound knowledge of human nature. And he has an unmatchable talent for expressing himself poetically yet clearly in language that is beautiful. Anything we read in Shakespeare is going to move us and change us.
At the Center for Ignatian Spirituality, you help guide participants through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. One of the key components to the exercises is discernment. How can alumni incorporate discernment in their busy lives today?
In some parishes, there are prayer groups and groups focused on common concerns, even for people who may not belong to that parish. There are weekend retreats offered in various retreat houses and weeklong silent retreats, as well as spiritual directors who can be found on the internet. They might be in your own neighborhood. But the important thing is to set aside time every day for silence and reflection, half an hour at least. One has to give it to oneself. The idea is to show up. It’s like having a date with God and yourself: To have a good date, you have to show up.
Who are your role models?
Mother Teresa is one. She wanted to work with the very, very poor who had nothing. Her major work was to care for the dying, which is something no one else would do. She was working with hopeless cases. She wasn’t trying to change the social order, and she wasn’t political. Some people think the best way to help the poor is to change all the social structures that make people poor. But she was just interested in serving the poor.
I also admire Mary for her beautiful acceptance of God’s will when the angel told her she would become the mother of God. She didn’t know how that would happen. I admire her for her trust, her faith, her acceptance and her willingness to put herself in this difficult position when she wasn’t even married. She would have to explain this to everybody. I admire her for the way she brought Jesus up to become the person he was. She also had to see him being tortured and die on the cross. She’s my model in suffering and having your heart broken.
LMU is celebrating 100 years of education and service this year. What are your hopes for the university during the next 100 years?
I hope LMU will become more essentially Catholic — that’s catholic both with a lower case “c” and a capital “c.” To be Catholic with a small “c” means that LMU embraces all. But also, Catholic with a capital "C," in the sense that the university is proud of its religious heritage and is true to that heritage. I hope that LMU will be alive and dynamic and that it will attract people from far and near. I hope the university attracts wonderful scholars who want nothing more than to work at LMU not because of its location in Southern California near the ocean, but because of its intellectual and spiritual endeavors.