Living our Catholic Identity News

An unusual path, a lifelong mission

By Mount Mary University

Posted on December 8, 2022

Share on social media

A Dubuque, Iowa homeless shelter set the course for Andrea Stapleton’s future. While her middle school friends focused on the normal trappings of middle class life, Andrea and her family took a different path – helping care for the city’s most neglected and troubled souls.

“As a 13-year-old girl, I would give up my bed so that a family had a place to stay. There would be times when my mom would have to take clothes out of my clean laundry basket and give them to kids who came in the night with absolutely nothing. So it was an interesting way to grow up,” Stapleton said.

“They called them houses of hospitality and it really taught me what it meant to love your neighbor in a very, very real way. We called the people who were staying at the house guests, so they were never the homeless. They were part of the table. And every night we would pray together and people would take turns making the meals together. So I had a very diverse perspective that I think really shaped my outlook on the world and shaped my outlook on lived faith and a life of service.”

That quest for a life of service and her commitment to the Catholic faith lead Andrea down a unique path, earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in theology and later, teaching religious studies at several universities.

“I really never thought that I would go into theology. I always had theological questions and I was always that pest of a student when I was in high school, raising my hands and saying, why do we do this? And why do we believe this? And really wanting to get at the bottom of the things I was taught. And I think I really made a nuisance of myself, but I genuinely wanted to know the reason for these teachings,” Stapleton said. And now Andrea finds herself in a unique position, as Mount Mary’s first full-time vice president for mission and justice.

“We all need to understand the power we each hold to make a difference.”

Vice President for Mission and Justice Andrea Stapleton, Ph.D.

“I am interested in justice because I have seen so many people experiencing such hardship – sometimes throughout their whole life they are presented with challenge after challenge, so many obstacles. Their conditions often arise from injustices and inequities. Often the poor in our society are blamed for their situations and devalued as human beings. I used to get so frustrated at what seemed to be a general lack of compassion. But often times, when people learn about the root causes of injustice, and they have an opportunity to learn about systemic inequities, and when they can encounter someone different from themselves in any way and reflect on their values and their new insights, they
have both a changed heart and a sense of empowerment to change things,” Stapleton said.

“When I was a child living among people experiencing very difficult times in their lives, I wanted to change the world. Well, this is how we can change
the world, by learning, loving, and doing. This is why education is so important to me, at every level and in every discipline, and why the educational philosophy of the SSNDs resonates with me. And diversity is key to this process. How can we learn anything if nothing is new to us? We need to experience and encounter newness and learn about the world through one another, with openness and curiosity, not judgment. And we all need to understand the power we each hold to make a difference. I’m hoping that I can bring a perspective to the university about what this particular school and its charism, its legacy and its goals, can give to society. This is why I love my work and Mount Mary.”

Stapleton is well aware that she has big shoes to fill. She takes over the newly consolidated position from Joan Penzenstadler, SSND, who retired earlier this year – an influential presence on the Mount Mary campus for more than 40 years.

“I know that in many ways she has really been the heart and soul of the university. I think that she and I both recognize we’re very different people and yet what we have found is that we have a lot in common. She and I both had studied theology and we had an instant connection as soon as we started talking about our research. So I really think that Sister Joan’s legacy will stay here. I can only hope that I can bring as much heart and soul and passion and love to the university that she has,” Stapleton said.

Of course, students are the center of the Mount Mary mission, and Stapleton has already begun to discover the vitality, energy and passion of the diverse group.

“The more interaction I have with students the better. That’s who we are serving. I have had the opportunity to talk with some of the students so far and they are phenomenal. They are leaders, they are impressive. I’ve been really inspired by their stories, by the leadership that they possess and how welcoming they are,” Stapleton said. “And they’re always inviting me
in and saying ‘how can we help in the mission’ and ‘let’s partner.’ ‘Whenever we have something that can further the mission, let us know how we can do it, and please come to our meetings.’ They’ve been nothing but engaged and
enthusiastic, and just really inspirational to me,” she added.

While new to Milwaukee, Stapleton feels close to home. She and her husband of 25 years raised their children in the Chicago area and her two grown sons still live nearby.

“They’re thriving and they’re pretty cool. And we all love music and having fun and having engaging conversations. And they’re pretty politically active and socially conscious, so we have some really fun conversations,” she said.

From an Iowa homeless shelter to the campus of Mount Mary – Andrea Stapleton treasures her unique path. And she hopes her influence on students and the campus community will lead others on their own life-changing journey.