Promise of visit offsets OSU President Gee's gaffe on religious order

1/13/2011

Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee didn't do his homework.

When he made a flip remark in November that, unlike Texas Christian and Boise State, the Buckeye football players "do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor," Mr. Gee was unaware there really was a Little Sisters of the Poor.

And he said so, in a letter of apology to Mother Cecilia Mary Sartorius, head of the local chapter of the global religious order.

"I am truly embarrassed that I did not know that your order existed," Mr. Gee said in the handwritten note addressed to Mother Cecilia Mary St. Patrick. "Shameful on my part. But, the whole sports world now knows of the sisters, which is of some solace."

Mother Cecilia could have thrown a penalty flag -- if she knew anything about football -- but she didn't have to do so. Mr. Gee called the penalty on himself.

His unsolicited mea culpa arrived just a few days after his Little Sisters comment made national news.

Along with his letter, Mr. Gee included a "sizable" donation, Mother Cecilia said.

E. Gordon Gee has corresponded with Mother Cecilia Mary Sartorius after he jokingly compared the schedules of BCS rivals Texas Christian University and Boise State to playing the Little Sisters of the Poor.
E. Gordon Gee has corresponded with Mother Cecilia Mary Sartorius after he jokingly compared the schedules of BCS rivals Texas Christian University and Boise State to playing the Little Sisters of the Poor.

She and the Ohio State president have exchanged several letters since, and Mr. Gee promised to visit the nuns' Sacred Heart Home for the Aged in Oregon, where Mother Cecilia oversees 10 nuns, 70 residents, and 80 employees.

That visit will likely be in the late spring or early summer, Bill Cook, the Little Sisters' director of development, said. He said the nuns asked the school president to bring along some members of the football team.

Mr. Gee also invited Mother Cecilia to attend a Buckeyes' football game in Columbus this fall.

"I tried to call him and tell him that, as Little Sisters, we wouldn't come to a game for our own entertainment or satisfaction," Mother Cecilia said. "But we would be delighted to bring some of our elderly residents to a college game like that because that would be something they wouldn't be able to afford to do and it would give them great pleasure."

Caring for the elderly poor is the mission of the Little Sisters. The order, founded in France in 1886, has 2,700 nuns who operate 30 homes for the aged across the United States and 200 worldwide. Founder Saint Jeanne Jugan was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in October, 2009.

Yet many Americans -- including Mr. Gee -- have been unaware of the religious order and its outreach to the elderly. Thanks to Mr. Gee's "trash talking" against TCU, the Little Sisters of the Poor have gotten a big boost.

"In the end you can always draw something good out of something controversial," Mother Cecilia said. "[Mr. Gee] has made our mission with the elderly poor much more visible to people who otherwise would not have heard of us."

Mr. Gee has continued to show his support for the Little Sisters.

The bow tie-wearing college president posted a note on Twitter on Monday in response to a prank by a Texas Christian supporter who paid for eight Columbus-area billboards that said: "Congratulations to TCU for their BCS Rose Bowl Victory," and signed them "Little Sisters of the Poor."

Mr. Gee's Tweet said: "Billboards come and go; mission of the Little Sisters is eternal."

The Twitter posting included a link to the local chapter's Web site, littlesistersofthepoornwohio.org, and the number of hits jumped about 700 percent that day, Mr. Cook said, adding that the OSU president posted the same note on Facebook a day later.

In a statement to The Blade, Mr. Gee said, "One very welcome outcome of my off-handed remark has been getting to learn about the Ohio order of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which does so much good for so many. Mother Cecilia has been remarkably graceful, and I look forward to visiting her in Oregon and hosting her here in Columbus."

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.