Jane Schaberg: Friend, Teacher, and Mentor of Mentors

Jane Schaberg died this week. I didn’t take one of her classes during my years at the University of Detroit. I haven’t read her books. And yet, her life left indelible marks on mine. She was, as my mother wrote in her email to me, my mom’s “friend, teacher, and mentor of mentors.” She was part of my mother’s life throughout most of mine, thus she shaped my life as well.

Jane was a professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, where she was on faculty since 1977. My mother began course work at UDM soon after, attending classes of Jane’s. Jane’s liberal feminist interpretation of the Bible and often eyebrow-raising theology opened my mother to new ways to read and understand the scripture. Many people were instrumental in my mom’s passage through UDM as graduate student then instructor, from U  of M Near Eastern Studies doctorate student and recipient, then to Edgewood College, where she served as a professor until recent retirement. Jane, however, stood out.

Jane’s teachings and theology followed my mother home, and I was raised with an understanding of Jesus as a historical being and taught when quite young to read the Bible with an eye to history and a mind wide open. As Jane wrote and published her first and likely most controversial book, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narrativesmy mother listened, learned, and thought. She also passed on Jane’s research and thoughts to the family, and before I finished high school (and just a few years after joining the Catholic church myself), I was steeped in the world of biblical exegesis and non-canonical gospels. I also understood that faith could stand the scrutiny of sacred texts.

Thanks to Jane’s work and teaching, my mother passed on another research-based understanding of Jesus’s infancy narrative, one where God takes Mary as a poor woman who has been wronged — raped– and intercedes. Jesus, whether as historical or divine, was so much more to me after that point, as was God. How much more of a statement is it to take what existed — what is sometimes dirty, messy, and even inhumane — and lift it up and make it holy. This resonated far better with me than a story of virgin birth. Further home exposure and a very small amount of formal study (in a class taught by my mother) brought me more understanding about the remarkable work of literature and history the Bible is. Study of the synoptic gospels and non-canonical gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, brought me deeper appreciation for the remarkable book that is the Bible.

Jane touched my life via my mother in less intellectual ways as well. Jane was a dear friend to my mother, welcoming her and other students, colleagues, and friends into her home. When I was young, that home was in an ailing neighborhood of apartments near the old Tiger Stadium.  On several occasions, we trekked to Jane’s house, which was often filled with other people from the University and other parts of Jane’s life. It was in that neighborhood that I first became aware of Jane’s compassion and dedication to the poor and marginalized. It was there that she befriended, supported, and began a lifetime of care for a few of the children in need in that area. She maintained that support and care for decades, never giving up and persisting as I’d imagine Jesus would have done. She lived the Gospels which she studied.

Jane remained a friend to my mother long after my mother left Michigan to teach at Edgewood College. Jane’s teaching and passion for learning and writing about the Bible as literature and history was firmly implanted into my mother’s own teaching, writing, and study. They continued to attend conferences together, and on many of her visits back to Michigan, my mother would visit Jane or meet her for lunch. Jane lived with breast cancer for decades, and for some of these visits, she was quite tired, ill, or in obvious pain. Occasionally, I’d visit along with my mother and Jane, but generally, I was the chauffeur, either taking my mom for the visit or taking them both to a local eatery. When I was in Jane’s presence, her wisdom, kindness, and compassion always impressed me. To be in her presence was a joy.

Over the past few years, I often wondered upon each visit if it would be the last. Time after time, year after year, Jane would rebound from a relapse, sometimes appearing stronger than she had in many of the previous visits, sometimes seeming more frail than the last visit. Her life seemed precarious, and yet she seemed to live so fully, continuing to write, publish, and teach. On April 17, 2012, she could rebound no more. Her wisdom and compassion live on through decades of students, colleagues, and friends.  And if I’m any indication, she’s reached a step beyond, touching those who know those students, colleagues, and friends. Jane has certainly shaped my life, including my appreciation of Jesus, and for that I’m thankful.

Peace, Jane Schaberg. Thank you for the gifts you’ve given to me, my mom, and the world.  In the words of my mother, you were “friend, teacher, and mentor of mentors.”



8 thoughts on “Jane Schaberg: Friend, Teacher, and Mentor of Mentors

  1. Hi — that is a lovely tribute to Jane Schaberg! Some of her friends (thru UDM) would like to know who you and your mom are! I signed up on this blog spot just to contact you. Not sure how to get info so that it’s anonymous to others. Suggestions? Thanks very much. Veronica

  2. I’m Sarah (Butler) MacLeod and can be emailed directly at sdamacleod at sbcglobal dot net (substitute the ampersand and period for the words — writing it out reduces spam).

  3. Jane Schaberg was one of my very favorite people in the whole world. She was a year behind me at Manhattanville College, and entered the convent at Kenwood when I was a novice there. I remember her well the day she came to Kenwood, wearing the spikiest high green heels I had ever seen. In college, Jane was a bit of a Beat personality, like the California poets, wearing a black turtleneck. Anyway, my next opportunity to get to know her was at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, 91st Street NYC, where I was teaching and to which she came to live as a nun attending Union Theological Seminary. Jane, a Mercy nun from Australia Sister Margaret McGovern and I became fast friends. I marvelled at the intricacy of her scholarship and the beauty of her papers for school. Her example was one of the motivating factors in my going to Union myself, beginning a joint program with Teachers College Columbia in Religion and Education. Both of us wound up leaving the Religious of the Sacred Heart and I lost touch with her. But I read her books, and nominated her for the Distinguished Alumni Award which she received in 2005. Go, Jane!

  4. I came upon Jane Schaberg’s book THE ILLEGITIMACY OF JESUS when I was several years into my own research on the same subject. When I first saw Jane’s book in a Christian book store I thought to myself that I could cease my work because it has already been done by a top scholar. As it turned out, I did continue and publish my book MIRIAM OF NAZARETH: WHO CAN FIND HER? [Cortleigh House, 2000] Jane is included in my bibliography and I refer to her analysis in the book itself.

    I was thinking about Jane today [August 23/12] because of the huge furor concerning Tod Akin’s comment about ‘legitimate rape’, and its relevance to the issue of abortion. It is a stunning irony that the best argument Akin could make for not aborting a fetus conceived by rape would be that Jesus himself was such a child. The right wing Christian politicians, not to mention the Catholic hierarchy, who claim faith in ‘their’ Jesus would probably be thrown into a limbo of cognitive dissonance by any proof that Schaberg’s thesis was actually true.

    I remember learning that Jane was targetted for her unorthodox/outrageous thesis about the paternity of Jesus. What graced courage she had! Your eulogy gives me the welcome opportunity to know her better. Thank you so much.

  5. Rosemary Weatherston, the current director of University of Detroit Mercy’s Women’s & Gender Studies Program, is involved in plans for an April 2013 memorial tree planting ceremony honoring the late Dr. Jane Schaberg. The ceremony is being planned by UDM’s Women’s & Gender Studies and Religious Studies programs, and the College of Liberal Arts & Education. If you’re interested in attending and/or contributing towards the purchase of Jane’s tree and memorial plaque, contact Weatherston. You can find her contact information on her faculty Web page at http://www.udmercy.edu/about/meet_faculty/clae/Rosemary-Weatherston.htm

  6. Thank you for sharing the warm memories of or beloved Dr. Jane Schaberg. I began taking graduate courses as a student of Jane’s in the religious studies and women’s studies programs at UDM in 1993 shortly after finishing my BA from St. Mary’s College, Orchard Lake. I found her classes and enthusiasm for asking good questions invigorating. Jane was fearless as a professor and she had a wickedly-delightful sense of humor, which I found contagious in both classroom discussions and in the writing we did for her as her students. Jane taught us all that words have power.

    Jane encouraged me to write in my own voice and encouraged me to share what I have to think and to do so without fear. When I took a brief absence from graduate studies for health reasons and to raise my two young children at the time, it was Jane who welcomed me back to UDM years later. My return to graduate school came at a time when I needed to find my own voice again, having it stifled in an abusive marriage. As a young mother with two children under three years of age, I returned to UDM in 2001 to finish my MA in religious studies with full encouragement from Jane. I still remember bringing the double stroller onto campus and having my children with me while I did research in the library. My fondest memories were of Jane inviting me to her home to go over a paper with me and at times brining my young children with me to her home. She absolutely delighted in them. Her holiday parties were welcoming occasions and her house filled with interesting intelligent people. Again, she would encourage me to bring my young children along to the parties. I finished my MA and am so grateful for Jane’s encouragement in my studies and for her many kindness to me. Jane helped me learn how to bravely question and also to be persistent in seeking the truth and being brave enough to share it with others, even when they don’t want to hear it

    Jane used to remind us all that if a woman told the truth about her life, the world would indeed split open. My world as I knew it split open after I found the courage to literally run away from an abusive marriage and start my entire life over from scratch as a single mother of four children. At the difficult times, I would remember Jane encouraging me to share my own voice, to tell my story, to witness to the reality of the domestic abuse that I lived with for years and while enduring harsh judgment from family who still believe to this day that a woman must stay In abusive marriage until her literal death. Despite the challenges I encountered in doing so in emancipation from such evil, I have overcome. I live a new life based on courage not fear. That is the gift Jane gave to all her students, the gift of courage, the gift of telling one’s story, the gift of seeing all human beings with dignity and respect. Jane’s words reminded me to speak truth to power, and that truth overcame the worst of things I experienced.

    Jane dared to believe that all women are children of God and that those in our society who are marginalized, oppressed and silenced need to have their voices heard, and she helped us all hear those voices so clearly. Even when Jane and I had vigorous academic debates on some issues or disagreed, Jane was open to hearing other voices, hearing other opinions, and always treated people with respect in the learning process. Her classroom reminded me of the scene in the movie The Dead Poet’s Society” where all the students stand on their desks in admiration of their teacher and say “O captain, my captain!” affirming the gifts and talents of a fine educator. Jane was such a “captain-educator” because her end goal on the journey of education was the formation of students who could critically think and engage in that kind of vigorous learning process with zeal.

    I am the woman and educator that I am today thanks to the mentoring, friendship, teaching and witness of Jane Schaberg. She modeled what a true teacher should strive to be in her generous example. Jane believed in me at a time in my life when no one else did, and for that I will be forever grateful. She was the presence of God to me in her gentle kindness, her fierce tenacious spirt, and her passion for life and learning. Many times before I have given a presentation, or as I have written, or taught a class, I have thought of Jane and remembered her encouragement of questions and her technique of aggressive listening to all voices, and I have incorporated that technique into my own style of teaching and presenting.

    May your soul rest in peace dear Jane, and know that your voice and your spirit lives on in the example you set, in the lives of students who were blessed by your teaching, and by the witness of the full life that you lived. I am so honored to have been your student!

    Michelle C. Brock
    M.A. Religious Studies UDM 2001

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