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Sister Kathleen Tomlonovic

January 23, 1939 - March 2, 2019   |   Passed On

Tribute for Sister Kathleen Tomlonovic, CHM - written by Sr. Mary Rehmann

Many of us here got ashes on Wednesday as we marked the beginning of Lent.  We heard the familiar, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  For us this period of prayer, fasting and alms giving will end with the commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus, followed by the night watch of the Vigil, and the glorious celebration of Easter.  Sr. Kathleen Tomlonovic beat us to it.  Having just celebrated her 80th birthday in January, it is as if she said, “I’ve passed that milestone, no need to delay.  Besides, I don’t know what to do because I can’t talk!”

Kathleen Marie Tomlonovic was born on January 23, 1939, to Vincent and Margaret Ann Markey Tomlonovic, Des Moines, Iowa. She was the third of 11 children, nine girls and two boys. In addition to her parents, her sisters Patty and Betty are deceased. She is survived by her six sisters – Sharon, Grace, Susan, Nancy, Jodi and Judy, brothers Vincent and James, and many nieces and nephews.

Kathleen had attended Ottumwa Heights College for a year before entering the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in Ottumwa on September 8, 1958. This was when the sisters, novices, postulants and college students were in temporary housing at the former Naval Air Base outside Ottumwa. The building occupied by the Motherhouse, junior college and residential academy had been totally destroyed by fire in October 1957. That following summer she received the habit and her name in religion, Sister Marie Celeste. She made vows in 1961, the first group to do so in the new Ottumwa Heights Chapel. Sister Mary Ann Vogel is her surviving classmate. They celebrated their 60th anniversary in the community last summer. 

Sr. Kathleen received an associate degree from Ottumwa Heights College in 1961. She received a BA in English from Marycrest College in 1962. She taught at St. Henry School in Marshalltown from 1962 to 1966. That year she made final vows; her class was the first to have five (5) years of temporary vows. She joined Sr. Teresa Gomez at the House of Studies in Davenport as Assistant Director. The former Holy Family School was the residence for the sisters with temporary vows who studied at Marycrest College. At the same time, she was on the staff of the Department of Religious Education for the Diocese of Davenport.

Sr. Kathleen attended Fordham University in the Bronx where she received an MA in Religious Studies in 1969. These were exciting times when the documents of Vatican II were influencing the study of theology and Scripture. The Sisters of Humility were also beginning their own renewal in accordance with the document on the renewal of religious life. She returned to Davenport where she joined the faculty of Marycrest College, teaching in the religion department. For a time, she was a member of the Formation team at the Novitiate House.

In 1974 she began her work in Asian studies, studying Chinese at Fu Jen University in Taipei, Taiwan, where she was also an instructor. She received an MA in Asian Language and Literature from the University of Iowa in 1977. From there she started doctoral studies at the University of Washington in Seattle receiving her PhD also in Asian language and literature in 1989. From 1983-85 she was a fellow of the Committee for Scholarly Exchange with the People’s Republic of China at Peking University and Sichuan University. She did her doctoral research on the Song-dynasty scholar-official, Su Shi, who died in 1101. 

Sr. Kathleen joined the faculty at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, where she became the Director of the Center for East Asian Studies. Her study on Western language scholarship on Su Shi was published in Chinese in Su Shi yanjiu shi (The History of Research on Su Shi), edited by Zeng Zaoshuang, in 2001 when the 900th anniversary of his death was celebrated. Her paper presented at the conference held at his birthplace that year was also published in those conference proceedings. She directed students who studied abroad as well as having major responsibility for the university’s hosting of the annual conference of “Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast”. 

One student rated her, “One of my favorite all-time profs.Took entire Mandarin series with her…studied in China and was involved in Chinese Club…If you aren't serious, or don't work, you won't like her. Inspired me to do better, which I appreciated."

During all this time she was an important part of the Chinese Catholic community in Seattle, teaching religion and doing sacramental preparation. CHM and other visitors met members of that community at Sunday Eucharistic celebrations followed by meals that included multiple Chinese dishes at favorite Seattle restaurants. She continued to stay in touch with the community after returning to Davenport in 2011. In 2014, Msgr. John Chi, founder and pastor of the Seattle Chinese Catholic community,  expressed his gratitude for her 30  years of ministry with him by giving her a retirement gift, namely, a trip to the Holy Land, accompanied by the entire Chinese Catholic Community.

Kathleen was active in the government of the congregation and was a member of the Representative Assembly. She served on the Cabinet from 2004 to 2012. She was on the planning committee for the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of CHMs in the United States in 2014. She arranged for the video interviews of many CHMs at that time.  

Kathleen also shared her gifts with the worshipping community at Humility of Mary Center. As a member of the Liturgy Committee she helped organist, Sister Maggie Bennett, select music for the Sunday and Feast Day liturgies and produced colorful worship aids. She expressed her creativity in planning prayer services for special feast days. On Pentecost Sunday sisters fluent in various languages proclaimed the first reading and offered the prayers of the faithful in as many languages as there were speakers. We will miss hearing Kathleen deliver a petition in what can be described as “crisp, clearly-articulated Mandarin”.

Sr. Kathleen gave herself wholeheartedly to everything she did. She supported Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat by serving on the Advisory Committee for seven years and as a member and secretary of the Executive Committee. She was in charge of volunteers at the Spirit of the Prairie Fundraiser, a huge responsibility by itself.

Hospitality ranked high on her value scale. She witnessed that virtue at Humility of Mary Center, not only by inviting friends and other guests, but by assembling the welcome baskets of snacks in visitors’ rooms.

Family members were keeping watch with Sr. Kathleen on Thursday, February 28, when the shocking word came that their sister, Betty, had died in Alaska. We share that loss, too, but hope that the family members find some solace in knowing their two sisters now share heaven’s joys together.


Photo: Chinese image of Mother Mary Theotokua