Sr. Maureen Fay, first president of University of Detroit Mercy, was a pioneer

Sr. Maureen Fay, OP, the founding president of the University of Detroit Mercy who served in that role from 1990 until her retirement in 2004, died May 27 at the age of 87. That Sr. Fay, a Dominican, was chosen to lead the Mercy- and Jesuit-run university is a testament to her skills as an administrator and leader, friends and colleagues say. (Photos courtesy of the Adrian Dominican Sisters)

Adrian Dominican led transformation of two institutions into Michigan’s largest Catholic university, served on numerous Detroit-area boards

DETROIT  Sr. Maureen Fay, OP, spent a lifetime of service promoting Catholic higher education in the city of Detroit, culminating in her tenure as president of the consolidated University of Detroit Mercy. 

An enthusiastic educator and skilled administrator, Sr. Fay’s legacy resides in the success of the Sisters of Mercy- and Jesuit-run institution that has been operating in Detroit since 1990. 

Sr. Fay passed away May 27. She was 87. 

Sr. Fay, an Adrian Dominican, served as president of the Sisters of Mercy-run Mercy College in Detroit from 1983 to 1990 when she and University of Detroit president Fr. Robert Mitchell, SJ, collaborated to consolidate the two institutions. 

“They were the ones who came up with the idea of putting the two schools together, and they formed a pact that neither one would be president of the new institution,” Sr. Frances Nadolny, OP, told Detroit Catholic. “As it worked out, when trying to figure out who would be the president, Fr. Mitchell said she would make a good president. They discussed it further, so she became president, he became the chancellor, and the two worked together to bring the schools together.” 

Sr. Fay served as president of U of D Mercy, Michigan’s largest Catholic university, from 1990 until her retirement in 2004. 

Sr. Fay was already a trend-setter in Catholic higher education, as a Dominican sister who served at St. Xavier University in Chicago and Mercy College in Detroit, two Mercy-run institutions. Sr. Nadolny said the fact Sr. Fay was tapped for leadership at the three schools that weren’t sponsored by her order is a testament to her skills as an educator and administrator. 

“The fact the University of Detroit Mercy has survived for more than 30 years since the consolidation as a strong school is a good legacy,” Sr. Nadolny said. Sr. Nadolny added Sr. Fay’s ability as someone who could “stir the pot” as a Dominican in a Jesuit- and Mercy-run school is part of her legacy, too.

Sr. Maureen Fay, OP, is pictured visiting family in 1955 on her first visit home from Adrian after her acceptance into the Dominican order.

Marueen Fay was born in Chicago to Michael and Ann (Whalen) Fay, one of two children. After graduating from Visitation High School in Chicago, she earned a bachelor’s in English from Siena Heights College (University) in Adrian and a master’s in English from the University of Detroit.  

She later earned a Ph.D. in adult and higher education from the University of Chicago before embarking on a career centered on higher education, specifically in Detroit.  

“Sr. Maureen made a significant impact on metropolitan Detroit with her extensive contributions to the business and civic community, and especially to the University of Detroit Mercy when the University of Detroit and Mercy College of Detroit consolidated in 1990,” said Antoine Garibaldi, Ph.D., president of University of Detroit Mercy. “Even more important is the tremendous influence that she had on shaping the future of Catholic higher education in the United States.” 

Sr. Fay taught at the University of Illinois, Northern Illinois University and DePaul University before serving as dean of continuing education and graduate studies at St. Xavier University in Chicago, where she worked to increase access to Catholic education to non-traditional students. 

She was very instrumental at St. Xavier when she started a program called ‘Weekend College,’ which we take for granted now,” Sr. Nadolny said. “It was for non-traditional students who worked and needed an opportunity to go to school. For years, if you went to college, you went during the day with the undergrads, so there was no way you could work and get a degree. She began the weekend college at St. Xavier, which is really a forerunner to today’s education of non-traditional students.” 

In 1983, Sr. Fay came to Detroit to become president of Mercy College, the school’s first president who was not a Sister of Mercy.  

Sr. Fay also served on various boards and partnerships in the city of Detroit, including the Bank One Corporation, Kelly Services, Inc., St. John Health System (now Ascension Michigan), the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the Economic Club of Detroit, New Detroit, Inc., the Endowment Foundation for the Archdiocese of Detroit, the Greater Downtown Partnership and the Livernois Revitalization Project. 

From left, Adrian Dominican Sisters Frances Nadolny, Carolyn Nelson, Maureen Fay and Tarianne DeYonker are pictured at a Detroit Dominican High School event. Sr. Nadolny said Sr. Fay loved involving others in decision-making and planning, which made her a top-notch educator and administrator. 

“In this life, Sr. Maureen Fay dedicated herself to putting her gifts for leadership and education at the service of Christ and neighbor,” Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said. “I witnessed this especially when she took up her role as the founding president of University of Detroit Mercy. May our loving Savior now welcome her home and grant her peace.” 

In 2007, she was recognized with the Father Hesburgh Award, the highest recognition given by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities for outstanding contributions to Catholic higher education. 

Beyond the countless accolades, including being named by Crain’s Detroit Business as one of Detroit’s 100 most powerful women in 1997 and 2002, Sr. Fay will be remembered as a sharp mind, an avid reader who loved to cook, go on long walks and ski trips and discuss education theory with Sr. Nadolny, a former superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit. 

“The two of us were pretty skilled in education and would bounce ideas off of one another,” Sr. Nadolny said. “We would often do ‘what ifs,’ like, ‘What if I tried this or tried that?’ She was very creative in thinking and asked hard questions. She was also extremely collaborative; she didn’t think of herself being the sole possessor of knowledge. 

“She really worked hard to involve as many people as she could. That’s probably one of the greatest things I learned from her, how to be collaborative in putting together a good program that would benefit students in the best way possible,” Sr. Nadolny said. “She was all about making people better.”  

Sr. Fay is predeceased by her parents and her brother, Timothy. She is survived by her nieces and Adrian Dominican Sisters.  

A vigil service took place on May 31 at St. Catherine Chapel on the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ grounds, with a Rite of Committal in the congregation cemetery.