“We have lost an inspired and inspiring educator, a fierce advocate for women, and a leader of great integrity and decency,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, in an email to Marymount alumnae. “Her energy and great devotion to the proposition of women’s empowerment through education were second to none.”
Sister Driscoll (who was universally known as Sister Brigid) was many things: a mathematician, a Ph.D. with five honorary doctorates, and, for two decades, the leader of a liberal arts women’s college who helped hundreds of young women navigate the path toward adulthood. What made Sister Brigid different from Marymount’s other presidents, friends and former students said, was her devotion to not only expanding women’s educational opportunities, but also aiding women from all walks of life: girls intrigued by the STEM fields, women balancing both a full-time job and a bachelor’s degree program, and even inmates at a maximum-security prison.
“She was a true champion of women’s education,” said Jane Bartnett, MC ’76, former president of the Marymount Alumnae Board, in an email. “Serving as Marymount’s president really meant the world to Sister Brigid.”
Sister Brigid was born Joan Driscoll on November 20, 1933, to Daniel and Delia Duffy Driscoll. As a child, she was unusually reticent until she turned three years old, said a longtime friend, Margaret Karl Geraghty, MC ’69.
“When she was little, her parents were very, very concerned about her because she didn’t speak. All of a sudden, her father was putting her shoes on, and he kept saying, ‘Push, push!’ And the first word she spoke was, ‘Daddy, my pushies are too tight!’” she said, laughing as she recalled a story Sister Brigid told her several years ago. “Every flower blooms at a different time. She was late talking, but she knew everything.”
A native New Yorker, Sister Brigid graduated from Marymount Manhattan College with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1954. That same year, she joined the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, an international congregation of nuns. But when her mother dropped her off at the convent, the older woman’s face was covered in tears. Delia didn’t want her daughter to join the convent, recalled Geraghty. But Sister Brigid had made up her mind.
“She said, ‘This is what I really wanted to do in life.’”
Mathematician, Scholar, and Staunch Supporter of All Women
She continued to pursue her passion for numbers, later earning a master’s degree in mathematics from the Catholic University of America and a doctorate in mathematics from the City University of New York. In 2002, she received a master’s degree in religious education from Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education.
Her career at Marymount College began in 1957, when she began teaching mathematics at the all-women’s school. Fourteen years later, she became associate academic dean, and, soon enough, director of continuing education. In 1975, she introduced a program called Weekend College—one of the country’s first full bachelor’s degree programs that allowed working women to earn a college education solely through weekend classes.
In 1979, Sister Brigid became president of Marymount College, a position that lasted for two decades.
“During that time she oversaw Marymount’s transformation from a homogenous liberal arts college exclusively for women to an institution that also served an inclusive population of adult and international students from diverse backgrounds,” wrote her alma mater, Marymount Manhattan College, in a statement.
As president, she promoted programs like the Marymount Institute for the Education of Women and Girls and the Girls’ Summer Science Program, which introduced laboratory experiences to “girls who might otherwise shun the field.” But her job wasn’t always easy, Sister Brigid later admitted.
“The 70’s were a tough time for women’s colleges,” she told The New York Times shortly before she retired in 1999, adding that the number of colleges for women in the United States had dropped from approximately 300 to 80 in just a decade—from 1979 to 1988.
In light of Marymount’s dwindling enrollment numbers and the increasing financial costs that many small liberal arts colleges faced during that time, Fordham acquired Marymount in 2000. When Marymount College closed in 2007, Sister Brigid remained by her students’ side.
“She really wanted to support alumnae and make sure that we were still able to connect,” said Samantha MacInnis, MC ’00, current president of the Marymount Alumnae Board. “She was very good about that … being able to honor the past, but also look to ‘This is where we’re at now. This is where we need to go.’”
The Personality Behind the President
Alumnae describe Sister Brigid as an intelligent woman of quiet strength, a barely 5-foot-tall lady who could “hug you like a bear,” and a feminist who supported women in all roles—and taught her students to do the same thing. She was a president who invited the entire 1990 class—more than 200 women—to her home, a modern, boxy house that bordered the edge of their campus, for a picnic. And to many Marymount alumnae, she was more than their past president—she was a close friend.
“When I told someone, ‘I’m having lunch with the former president of my college,’ they just looked at me like, what? That’s so unusual,” said Rena Micklewright, MC ’90, former member of the Marymount Alumnae Board. “Granted, it was a small school. But for someone at her level to even want to have those relationships, I think it just speaks to who she was.”
Throughout her life, she sat on multiple boards of educational, civic, and professional organizations at national, state, and local levels, including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Sister Brigid was also an R.S.H.M. nongovernmental organization representative at the United Nations and a consultant to the Beacon Institute—a not-for-profit environmental research organization dedicated to rivers and estuaries—where she chaired the advisory committee that created their initial strategic plan. Until recently, she also worked with LifeWay, an anti-trafficking network, and taught mathematics to inmates at Marymount Manhattan’s degree-granting Bedford Hills College program at the Bedford Women’s Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York.
She was generous behind the scenes, too. When the family of Maria Esperanza Healy, MC ’78, immigrated to New York from Nicaragua in 1979—the beginning of a bloody revolution that wreaked havoc across her native country—Sister Brigid sent them beds that her four siblings could sleep in. And she always pushed Healy, her old statistics student, to do better.
“These are things that, for me, for the rest of my life, I will always have in my heart,” said Healy, a member of Fordham’s President’s Council who went on to found her own financial firm. “She was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.”
Read more memories about Sister Brigid here.