Sr. Marie Leon La Croix leaves a legacy

By Lili Gundersen

Lumen Reporter

She had a vision when she started the Viterbo Theater Department in 1955; a vision that included a new theater, Sr. Marie Leon La Croix told Lumen. Fifty-six years later, Viterbo University is commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Fine Arts Center, complete with the two the­aters that Sister Marie Leon helped to create.

Sr. Marie Leon was called by Mother Superior to begin the The­ater Department at Viterbo. Prior to this calling, Sister Marie Leon taught high school English and theater in Spokane, Washington, she said.

When she arrived, Viterbo al­ready had a very strong music and art program. The “crowning glory” was to add a theater department but there was no theater, Sr. Marie Leon recalled. Theater building or not, Sr. Marie Leon was not discouraged. “If I’m given a job, I just go ahead and do it,” she said.

Viterbo theater classes began with­out a real stage. In the former Mur­phy Gym, which was located where the current library stands, Sr. Marie Leon set up tin chairs around an open circle designated as the stage. Plays were preformed with one sew­ing machine for costumes, four spot­lights and some tin chairs.

“I decided that we will do good theater and someday we’ll get a good theater to perform in,” Sr. Ma­rie Leon said.

By 1966 Sr. Marie Leon’s vision of a new theater was becoming reality. Viterbo’s fine arts faculty was look­ing for a new home. The music de­partment wanted a concert hall. The art department wanted more studio and gallery space. Sister Marie Leon wanted a theater.

She wrote to the Federal govern­ment for funding. Her plea was heard and the Viterbo Fine Arts departments received a $1 million grant. The Fine Arts building was conceived, Sr. Marie Leon said. “I looked to the future and knew that the (Main) theater would be used constantly,” Sr. Marie Leon said. On the final day of decision-making on the Fine Arts building plans, Sr. Ma­rie Leon “pleaded” for a theater just for the use of her students. The La Croix Black Box Theater, with 184 seats, was built in her honor.

“It was a huge thing Sister Ma­rie Leon to lobby for the Black Box,” said Rick Walters, associate profes­sor and chair of Viterbo’s theater de­partment.

“It was Sr. Marie Leon who was the leading advocate for the new theater to be built,” Waters said. “It was her vision both for educating the students and providing a cul­tural hub in this area.”

The Viterbo Fine Arts Center opened in March, 1971. The first play preformed by Viterbo students’ was Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

At the end of the spring semester in 1971, Viterbo students returned home. The Viterbo administration didn’t want the newly built theater to sit unused. Without the Viterbo students to perform, Sister Marie Leon requested that her peers, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Ado­ration, take to the stage.

“The Sound of Music” was pre­formed with a cast of nuns. It was directed and costumed by Sr. Marie Leon.

Forty-one years later in Oct. 2011, the Viterbo theater department put on their own performance of “The Sound Of Music.” “Sometimes I walk into rehearsals and just sit there and watch the students work, and see all of the progress that we have made,” Sr. Marie Leon said.

The fine arts program started with 69 students total in all three depart­ments (music, theater and art), Sr. Marie Leon said. There are now 100 students in the theater department alone. She came from having one small make-up table with two desk lamps, and now in the fine arts building, “we have space for about 50 people in makeup,” Sr. Marie Leon said.

Advocating for the new theater and Black Box was a “remarkable endeavor,” Walters said. “Her advo­cacy is a big reason that we have the program we have now.”

According to the Fine Arts Cen­ter’s website, the Main Theater has an audience capacity of 1,123. Vit­erbo’s theater department has come a long way since the days in the old Murphy Gym, Sr. Marie Leon said. That growth she refers to as “the sis­ters’ vision.”

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