Sister Elizabeth Thoman
Tribute for Sr. Elizabeth Thoman
Good evening and welcome to our celebration of the life of Sr. Elizabeth Thoman. I was a little nervous about writing a tribute for one whose professional life was all about communications. But this role is a privilege for each sister, in part, because I learn so much about the person during the process. Sr. Elizabeth’s life was remarkable because her horizons kept expanding, both personally and professionally, calling forth a plentitude of gifts.
Her story began in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she was born on June 18, 1943 to John and Gertrude Roberson Thoman. She entered Christ the King parochial school in Nashville where the family had moved. She graduated from St. Bernard’s High School in 1961 and, over the years, regularly got together with her classmates. While in high school she worked part-time in a photography studio and wanted to continue the craft. She had also thought about religious life but didn’t know how she could be both a photographer and a sister. She visited Marycrest College but knew the family couldn’t afford it. Enter Sr. Mary Helen Rappenecker who said the college would offer a full scholarship.
Having been introduced to social justice issues at Marycrest, Liz, as she was commonly and publicly known to many, figured she could become an English teacher and pursue journalism and photography as a start. She entered the community in January 1964 and was professed in 1966, the year when the congregation began incorporating the teachings of Vatican II into its life and ministries. Back at Marycrest she was the photographer for the 1967 yearbook. Fortunately the college had just purchased several hundred dollars-worth of photography equipment of which she made very good use. She graduated with a BA in English and her teaching certificate included journalism and courses in history and social studies.
After teaching for two (2) years at Lenihan High School in Marshalltown, Iowa, she got her first media job as Editor of The Catholic Missal magazine in Minneapolis. From there it was on to California to work as editor and photographer with the Franciscan Communications Center in Los Angeles. She would remain in Los Angeles until she moved back to Davenport in 2013.
She was the founder and Executive Director of the National Sisters Communications Service from 1975 to 1983. The network provided professional communication resources to religious communities nationwide. Communications was seen as the key to changing the traditional public image of nuns, and helping people understand and value the sisters' new roles in a variety of ministries. It was through this work that Sr. Elizabeth met Norman Lear, the television producer who created “All in the Family.” He sought her advice on a television show that would feature the changing roles of Catholic nuns. They were to become life-long friends. I happen to know that he threw a huge party for her when she was leaving Los Angeles.
In 1977 she gave a workshop at the prestigious National Catholic Education Association on the new issue of media education; she had only 17 attendees. She went back to LA, depressed and convinced that Catholic educators were missing the boat. At the time she was finishing graduate work at the Annenberg Center for Communications at UCLA. Her advisor asked her what she was going to do for her class project. She answered, “Start a magazine”. He said “Fine, turn in the first issue for credit.” That was the beginning of Media&Values magazine, with the initial printing of 3,000 copies. In 1991 she returned to the NCEA meeting, this time as a keynote speaker before 1,700 attendees. In hand she had Issue #53 of Media&Values, for which there had been a run of 15,000 copies.
In the meantime the magazine had led to the incorporation of the Center for Media Literacy that was a combination think tank, publisher, distributor and training center for the U.S. media literacy field. There was a half-day “crash course” that pioneered the teaching of the elements of media literacy to teachers, plus how to teach them to their students. Among the Center’s productions were Media Literacy Workshop kits on nine (9) topics from sexism in media to analyzing news. Count these in the first generation of practical teaching tools published in the U.S. for the U.S. She co-developed www.medialit.org, the #1 website for media literacy according to Google, that documents its history in the United States.
Before leaving California Liz spent weeks preparing the Center’s history to be archived at the Harrington School of Communications at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, Rhode Island. Sr. Elizabeth’s close friend and colleague, Renee Hobbs, was the founding Director of the School.
After hosting a successful media literacy conference in Los Angeles in 1996, Sr. Elizabeth co-founded the Partnership for Media Education to promote continued professional development in the field. In 2001 PME evolved into the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA), which was renamed the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) as the official membership organization for the field, with over 3,500 members as of 2016.
Sr. Elizabeth received many awards and I will identify only a couple. The first was the “Lulu” award in 1973 from the Los Angeles Women in Advertising for “Women in Love…with Life”. She edited the collection of separate pieces explaining community life and ministries of the post-Vatican II Sisters of the Humility of Mary. The second was an event that Sr. Mary Rehmann attended as the CHM representative in Dayton, OH in June 2000. She was given the Daniel J. Kane Religious Communications Award from the University of Dayton Institute for Pastoral Initiatives. Appropriately, she led a half-day workshop on “Media and Values in the New Millennium” at that gathering. There was also the Henderson Medal from Marycrest College in 1990. Often the award information would acknowledge the CHM Community’s trust in its members and willingness to risk as contributing factors to the development of Sr. Elizabeth’s ministries.
In June 2004 Liz was diagnosed with breast cancer. This followed the death of her mother in May and a diagnosis just three years before of early Parkinson’s disease. She kept a journal of her treatment for breast cancer entitled What they don’t tell you about breast cancer. It was another contribution to her career as an educator.
She tells the story about having trouble praying during her illness. One day she was looking at a picture of flowers and found that their beauty led her into prayer. Soon, she got out her camera again and had her eye out for flowers of all kinds, from roses to Christmas cactus, pictures of the whole flower or a close-up of just an insect down inside it. They were enlarged and framed, or bound into hanging or desk calendars. Because of a timely contact, her pictures were hung in more than 200 rooms at the new St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville. The Unity Hospital in Rock Island has some of her pictures in the cardiac emergency room as well. And you can take a walk down the hall in the east wing of Humility of Mary Center where we have our own gallery.
Since she moved back from L.A. Sr. Elizabeth has been a member of the Membership Development Team. Among other things, she, along with members of the team, developed a phased-process for potential new vowed members of the community.
We sisters, associates and friends of Liz share her loss with her three brothers and two sisters: James, Nashville, Lawrence (Beth), Gallatin, TN, and John Jr., Hendersonville, TN; Patricia Young, Gaithersburg, MD and Mary Lynn Thoman, Nashville. There are nieces and nephews as well. Her death was just too fast to fully grasp by now. But we cherish memories of her beautiful smile and the articles for reading and reflection that she would leave on the library table for us at Humility of Mary Center. She truly embodied a “Woman in love…with life.”
Sister Mary Rehmann, CHM Archivist (with some material provided by Liz’s friend and colleague, Renee Hobbs)
"Sister Elizabeth Thoman Altered the Course of my Life" a memorial by Sister Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul