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As a nun in the Sisters of Mercy Order with an advanced degree in divinity, Sister Mary Karen Powers is well versed in the fields of centuries-old history and religious thought. But upon stepping into the newly created position as MIT's second Roman Catholic chaplain this summer, she was confronted with the task of mastering a modern-day phenomenon: electronic mail.
"I never turned on a computer until July 18," Sister Mary Karen said with a laugh. But students immediately began sending her e-mail messages and introducing her to Athena and the World Wide Web, and she is quickly becoming proficient at the Institute's favorite method of communication. She has even had a discussion with a community member about starting a Mosaic home page for MIT Catholics.
However, what Sister Mary Karen says she is most looking forward to is "just meeting people"-face to face. In e-mail, "the thing that's lost is a human voice speaking to another human voice," she said. Her job entails working with students, both one-on-one and in groups, for religious and personal counseling, Bible study, service, retreats and discussion dinners, but since MIT has had only one Catholic chaplain until now, her role will be "evolving" as time goes on, she said.
After getting her undergraduate degree in biology and theology, Sister Mary Karen studied divinity and did seven years of parish work. She was later the director of the Catholic campus ministry at Miami University in Ohio and most recently was a chaplain at Harvard for eight years, so she's accustomed to working in a high-powered academic environment. Students at both Harvard and MIT "have a level of intelligence and ability that's extraordinary," she observed. "They never let you do your job on automatic pilot." One difference she's already noted in her immersion in the world of computers is that the technical expertise here "is at a level that's taken for granted that's new to me. MIT is making me think in new ways because of the cutting-edge technology that's here."
Serving as a female Catholic chaplain alongside Rev. Bernard Campbell is an opportunity to broaden ideas about women's roles, Sister Mary Karen noted. "It's a model of working together across gender lines that I think is significant. And it adds to the experience of the chaplaincy for the men" who are part of MIT's Catholic community, she said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 6).