Theology Department Chair: Catherine Cornille

If you’ve been lucky enough to have Professor Catherine Cornille in class, you know that the chair of the theology department is an admirable woman.  As the first woman to hold the position at Boston College, she is a great example of where hard work and determination can get you in life, and how unexpected challenges can be the best things to happen to you.
 
An export from Belgium, Cornille completed her undergraduate degree in theology at the Catholic University in Louvain and came to the U.S. for the first time to get her masters at the University of Hawaii.  With a particular interest in non-Christian religions, namely Japanese religions and Hinduism, she went on to complete a PhD back in Belgium.  At the time, there were no women theologians in her training, and she felt no particular desire to pursue graduate studies, much less a life in academia.  It was her professor in Louvain, she says, who encouraged her to further her education.  She went to the University of Hawaii, and for the first time, felt people began to take her seriously as a scholar.  Unlike the European system, which doesn’t acknowledge students as independent thinkers, the American system changed her relation to academia: “I began to really feel this was something I wanted to do,” says Cornille.  Up to this point, she had intended to be a high school theology teacher, but now began to recognize her passion for thinking.  Conveniently, just as she finished her PhD, a full-time position opened for her at the university of Louvain, and Cornille is quick to say she considers herself very lucky.  “I feel like my life has been incredibly graced in the sense that I feel like I’ve been lucky to be at the right place at the right time.”  Of course she has worked hard to get where she is, but, as she says, “you have to have a good dose of luck too.”

 

In her new post, Cornille was the first woman professor at Louvain, a school that was more than 500 years old at the time – talk about being singled out.  As the token female, she felt somewhat marginalized, as she had many roles to take on because of that, and also because she was a woman teaching theology, a notorious boy’s club.  As a result, she never felt quite integrated into the community, but continued on with her work and became an established figure in the intellectual realm.  After a while, however, the job became exhausting, and a sudden opportunity for her husband to work at the College of the Holy Cross brought her family to the States.

Starting from scratch in a new place was a challenge, she admits, but the move allowed her to spend more time with her three children, something she had idealized while working in Belgium.  (Of being a mother, Cornille says that without her children, she would be a wreck: “they help me keep the balance between being a human and being a scholar.”)  But at the same time, she was no longer an established academic, and had to deal with her whole professional history being more or less erased.  In 2005, however, she was appointed at BC, where she is able to teach comparative theology, which was exactly what she wanted.  Plus, she doesn’t play the role of the token woman anymore, which is a relief.  Of her time at the school, Cornille says, “I’ve loved BC.  In retrospect, I couldn’t imagine where I would have rather been than here.  All the rejections were for the best, because in the end I found something that was better than anything I ever wanted.”
 
Her advice to BC students?  “Work on the discipline of being in the moment and making the most of what you’re doing where you are,” she says.  “If you find your passion, you don’t have to work a day in your life.  You have to be open to your gifts and what presents itself, not lock yourself into one possibility or pattern of expectation, from without or within.”