Benedictine sister dies at 109, hoped to see women become priests in Catholic Church
After living to be 100, bad eyesight made reading very difficult for Sister Vivian Ivantic.
So her niece Carol Finnegan visited her at the St. Scholastica Monastery in Rogers Park and read aloud from her favorite tome: “The Book of Gutsy Women” by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.
“She loved, loved, loved that book and we always said ‘There should be a chapter on you in there,’” Finnegan said.
As a Benedictine sister, she worked as a librarian, an archivist and a history and language teacher, faithfully answering the call from her superiors with a smile to go and do what was needed of her.
But one of her main wishes — though she didn’t expect it to happen in her lifetime — was for women to be allowed to become priests.
“She was a little bit of a rebel, she got righteous anger,” Finnegan said. “She recognized that power has largely been associated and defined by men in the church, but she felt justified, especially looking at it from a historian’s standpoint, because women had done an awful lot for the church, and in the early church women were hosting Mass.”
Sister Vivian was vocal, but not loud, about her dream.
“She didn’t take part in a movement,” Finnegan said. “It was a balance between obeying rules as an obedient member of the community, but also being a gutsy woman who’d say we all need to take a stand on injustices, but not in a brassy way.”
Sister Ivantic died on Feb. 11 from natural causes. She was 109, the oldest Benedictine sister in the world, according to Benedictine officials.
Her death came three weeks after another Catholic nun — Sister Andre of France — the world’s oldest known person at the time, died at 118.
“Sister Vivian avoided doctors visits and medication whenever possible, had a little tiny shot of brandy every night for the vast majority of her life and slept well and with a clear conscience,” Finnegan said.
“She also made it her business to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine every day of her life,” said Prioress Judith Murphy, the religious superior of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago. “And she took up the ministry of feeding the squirrels peanuts on the grounds of the monastery.”
Sister Vivian would say she came from “strong Slovenian stock” when people marveled at her age, Sister Judith said.
Sister Vivian, who grew up in North Chicago, was the third of nine siblings. Her parents were vintners. She survived the Great Depression and two pandemics, with only mild symptoms during a bout with COVID-19. Two of her brothers were killed during World War II. And she spoke of a clear recollection of the first time her mother was able to vote, and how her dad escorted her to cast her ballot.
“She had a keen interest in history and kept abreast of politics and the world. She was very concerned about women and the treatment of women in the world and in the church,” Sister Judith said.
She entered the religious community in 1932 and taught in Arizona, Colorado and Illinois, including a long career at St. Scholastica Academy, an all-girls school in Rogers Park that closed 10 years ago.
In retirement, she began forming an archive of her fellow religious sisters dating back more than 100 years. She served as the community’s archivist until she was 102 and could no longer climb stairs to the second-floor room that housed all the information she’d gathered.
“Her legacy is the archives, and the understanding and appreciation for history and culture that she planted in her students,” Sister Judith said.
Sister Vivian was a Scrabble whiz and avid gardener. She used a computer into her 100s, playing solitaire and typing letters. She also loved opera and was a passionate recycler, Finnegan said.
Her common response to wellbeing inquiries: “I can’t complain. I’m blessed.”
“She was Benedictine through and through, a loyal and faithful community member,” Sister Judith said.
Her positive outlook on life never diminished, but she didn’t fear death.
“She’d say, ‘I can’t wait to get upstairs.’ And I’d say ‘Hey! No line jumping at the Pearly Gates.’ And she’d laugh,” Finnegan said.
Sister Vivian is also survived by a brother Bill Ivantic and dozens of nieces and nephews.
A visitation will be held Saturday, Feb. 25, from 10 to 10:30 a.m. at the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago Monastery, 7430 N. Ridge Blvd. A funeral Mass will follow at 10:30 a.m.