There is an unforgettable moment near the end of A Man for All Seasons (a perfectly fabulous film, which won a busload of awards—including Best Picture of the Year in 1966, starring Paul Scofield as the saintly Thomas More). It is the courtroom scene where More, following his betrayal by Master Richard Rich, whose perjured testimony will send him to the scaffold, asks to see the chain of office Rich is wearing. Master Cromwell, chief among the villains of the piece, tells him it signifies his recent appointment as Attorney General for Wales. “For Wales?” asks More, his voice steeped in sarcasm. “Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Wales?”
I actually thought of that scene the other day when, entirely by accident, I came across an obituary, written in great and admiring detail, about Sister Elizabeth J. McCormack, who died a few months ago at the age of 98. Only by then she was no longer a sister, that apparent youthful indiscretion having been succeeded by a number of strategically shrewd career moves culminating in multiple memberships on the boards of powerful and prestigious foundations, not the least being the Population Council of the Rockefeller Foundation, whose children and cousins she would advise on matters of philanthropy. She certainly kept the Old Guy waiting, and when at last she left this vale of tears, her public life was covered with no end of worldly honor and praise.
But when I first heard of her, back in the late 1960s, she was still Sister Elizabeth, an outwardly faithful daughter for thirty years or more in the Society of the Sacred Heart, a religious order dedicated to the education of young women in the Catholic tradition. To that end, an Academy of the Sacred Heart had been founded in 1841, later becoming Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, where young Elizabeth McCormack would later matriculate, so profoundly shaped by its life of learning and piety that by her senior year she had resolved to join the order. So impressive was her rise that by 1966 she had become its sixth president, serving in that office with a kind of swashbuckling style until 1974, which was the year she sought and obtained release from her vows. Soon after, she married a divorced Jewish father of five children.