She had a gift for touching peoples’ hearts.

By Mary G. Fox

As friends and colleagues remembered Sheila McLaughlin, they recalled her as a strong leader with a collaborative style, as a preparer of liturgies “exquisite in their beauty,” and as a listener who gathered people with differing perspectives for dialogue.

They remembered her as continuing the work of the liturgical renewal as the third director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Chicago and passing on the legacy of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as the director of the Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at Catholic Theological Union (CTU).

Sheila Mary McLaughlin died June 1, 2023. For nearly thirteen years, she served in the Office for Divine Worship (ODW), with six of those years as its first woman and lay director. While at ODW, she was elected twice to the board of directors of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC), was a national process facilitator for the FDLC, and was a member of the task force that studied the revision of the Rite of Christian Marriage. For her sixteen years as the director of the Bernardin Center, she encouraged dialogue among people of varied faiths, perspectives, and ages, and formed Bernardin scholars in the cardinal’s collaborative, consultative style.

Among Sheila’s survivors are her husband William and sons Matthew, William, and Daniel.

“What a beautiful liturgy” was the standard response of priests, bishops, and the laity upon leaving a liturgy that Sheila had prepared, said Fr. Jerry Boland, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Glenview, Illinois. Boland, who chaired the presbyteral council for the archdiocese and was a founding board member of the Bernardin Center, worked with Sheila for decades.  “She just had a gift for touching people’s hearts,” he said.

Her leadership and sense of the liturgy guided the Archdiocese of Chicago, he said, through grieving the death of Cardinal Bernardin. “She was just masterful of the liturgical side of how we move through this moment as a local church.” From there she went forward, preparing the liturgy for the installation of the new archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, OMI, and liturgies during his first year. “She was key to the liturgy in all those moments,” Boland said.

At the Bernardin Center, he pointed out, “she really was the crucial person.” He added, “She’s the one who set the course and built the foundation on which the Bernardin Center would continue.” Sheila fostered an environment that allowed varied perspectives to be heard. “She was one of those blessed people who could get people to talk to each other instead of at each other,” Boland said. Today, the center houses the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program, and the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program, and nurtures and provides funding to Bernardin Scholars.

To each of those initiatives and others, Sheila brought an openness to diverse perspectives, said Mark R. Francis, CSV, former president of CTU. “Her dedication to the Church, her sharp mind, and welcoming presence were a tremendous asset to CTU—especially in bringing people together with different points of view. I particularly remember her arranging meetings of the Common Ground Initiative that were organized by the center. She charmed everyone with her sense of humor and good will—from very conservative Catholics to the most progressive. She used these talents also for ecumenical and interfaith meetings. Everyone who attended these meetings might not have agreed with what others at the meeting said, but always carried away a positive memory of the encounter because of the graciousness of Sheila.”

Particularly special to Sheila, Fr. Michael Place said, was the Bernardin Scholars scholarship program. These scholars prepare for ministry or other ecclesial service informed by the example and spirit of the cardinal. “As the mother she was, Sheila knew that the nurturing of leaders for the next generation with the example of Cardinal Bernardin was critically important. Little did she know that it was one of the more important of the many ways her faith-filled leadership has impacted the life of the Church in Chicagoland and the nation,” said Place, chair of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and formerly Cardinal Bernardin’s theologian.

Catholic Theological Union professor emerita Dianne Bergant, CSA, echoed Place. “Sheila McLaughlin left her gentle and insightful mark on every aspect of the Bernardin program. The fruits of her close and warm relationship with the cardinal were felt by all. In so many ways she opened to the Bernardin Scholars the important issues to which he committed his life, thus enabling them to follow in his footsteps. The legacy that she instilled in the Bernardin Center has enriched the community of Catholic Theological Union.”

Sheila’s touch in preparing the liturgy was evident, Fr. Robin Ryan, CP, said during the annual Catholics on Call conference at CTU. During the conference, young adults discerning a call to ministry participated in celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist, Taize prayer, and Eucharistic adoration. Sheila, he said, had “a sense of knowing the right thing to do in specific situations, especially when it came to communal prayer. The liturgies that she planned for the Catholics on Call program were simple and uncomplicated, but they were exquisite in their beauty. The young adults loved participating in those liturgies.”

A person’s age or status had no bearing on Sheila’s generosity and service. “Her sense of hospitality was unsurpassed. She moved with equal grace among cardinals and bishops as with high school students exploring their call to be Peacebuilders,” said CTU President Barbara Reid, OP, referring to the Bernardin Center program that introduced high schoolers to Catholic social justice teaching. She added, “She guided countless Bernardin scholars at CTU into ministries that would continue his legacy. We are ever so grateful for the gift Sheila was to the CTU community.”

Both as director of the Office for Divine Worship and the Bernardin Center, Sheila’s leadership style influenced outcomes. Sometimes those outcomes were on regional and national levels, as during the years when she worked with the FDLC. FDLC president Rita Thiron knew Sheila while director of the Office of Worship in Lansing and, admired “her leadership style, her keen wit, and her astute approach to any debate.”

“When Sheila McLaughlin spoke, people listened,” Thiron said. “Perhaps it was because she always spoke with a pastoral heart, a scholarly wisdom, and great kindness. Perhaps it was because she was so well respected as the director of the Office for Divine Worship in one of the largest archdioceses in the country—a cradle of the liturgical movement and a source of liturgical formation. Perhaps it was because her attire was impeccable, and her words were elegant and irrefutable.”

And perhaps people listened to Sheila because she could lead them past what seemed only possible. “What I most admired about Sheila’s presence with us was that she pushed us beyond what we may have thought we could be or do. At meetings, she had the ability to bring the group together on an issue or to assist us to look at a concern in a manner that none of us ever thought would be successful, and it ended up being very successful,” said Joliet Office of Worship director Sharon Stola, OSB.

Such leadership gifts were obvious on the local level in the daily work of ODW or a citywide liturgical gathering. Fr. J. Philip Horrigan, former director of art and architecture for ODW, said that Sheila’s passion for liturgy “rubbed off on the whole staff of ODW, and we worked with a sense of collaboration and dedication that was shaped by her vision and leadership.”

Through that collaborative style, Sheila showed support for the staff’s professional and personal lives, said former ODW staff member Denise La Giglia. “On a very personal note, I valued Sheila as a mother of three sons because it meant she understood firsthand the struggles at times of raising children and working outside the home. My two youngest boys sometimes had to come to work with me when a sitter fell through on one of the days off from school.”

It was a leadership style that others hoped to emulate. Observing Sheila with volunteers and staff and then with members of the hierarchy, Mary Prete Dalbis noted that she navigated all “with grace, a great sense of humor, and yet a firm hand. As a woman looking to work in the Church, Sheila was a tremendous example,” said Dalbis, a former member of the ODW music staff and former vice president for parish services at J.S. Paluch.

Sheila’s example could lead people to deepen their commitment. Fr. Ronald Raab, CSC, remembers hearing Sheila’s laugh echoing down the hallway and her kindness as radiating during his three years at ODW. “She was the master organizer and she tied together many of my loose ends when I did not have events organized well.” He added, “She loved ODW and she inspired me as a priest to continue to preach and to preside for the well-being of people and the glory of God.”

Archdiocese of Chicago ODW director Todd Williamson noticed the strength of Sheila’s leadership, when soon after he was hired on staff, “she was charged with being one of the leads in the planning and facilitation of the Field of Faith—the Mass and Eucharistic procession at Soldier Field that marked the millennium in 2000. The planning was monumental as a gathering of all the parishes in the archdiocese in one place for the celebration of the liturgy. Her leadership in all of that is not to be underestimated. Parish leaders from all over the archdiocese respected her and trusted her.” 

As seen through Sheila’s leadership, her ministry focused on assisting others in praising God. “She opened the minds and hearts of so many people to the beauty and reverence of our Church’s worship life,” said Sr. Stola, “May she now be enjoying the heavenly liturgy with all those who have gone before her who influenced her life so she could influence the liturgical lives of so many more of God’s people.”

This remembrance may also be found at