BISMARCK — The longtime former University of Mary president who oversaw the school's expansion into a statewide institution and received the state of North Dakota's highest honor has died at 80, university officials said.

Sister Thomas Welder, who led the university for 31 years, died in her home at the Annunciation Monastery south of Bismarck on Monday, June 22, the university said in a news release. She had recently been diagnosed with kidney cancer.

"Sister Thomas lived her life for others," Annunciation Monastery Prioress Nicole Kunze said. "She was always giving to others, whether it was a smile, an encouraging word or a promise of prayer. She often said that the greatest gift you could give a person was the gift of your time, and she did that without fail."

Welder, a member of the Order of St. Benedict, served as University of Mary president from 1978-2009. She began her educational career as a teacher at U-Mary in 1963.

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After graduating from Bismarck's St. Mary's Central High School in 1958, she earned a bachelor's degree at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. She earned a master's degree in music from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Under Welder's leadership, Mary College became a university in 1986. Enrollment at the school more than tripled during Welder's tenure, growing from 925 in 1978 to nearly 3,000 by 2004. U-Mary added graduate degree programs in locations throughout the state, including in Fargo, Minot, Grand Forks and New Town.

In 2004, she was presented the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award by then-Gov. John Hoeven.

"Mikey (Hoeven) and I are saddened to hear of the passing of Sister Thomas Welder," Sen. Hoeven said in a news release. "She was a person of great faith who lived her life in service to her community. Sister Thomas did an incredible job leading the University of Mary and was beloved by both the students and faculty."

In a Monday statement, Gov. Doug Burgum and his wife Kathryn offered their condolences to friends, family, the Benedictine Sisters and the University of Mary community.

"Sister Thomas Welder touched the lives of countless students and North Dakotans through her remarkable intelligence, capable leadership and profound faith," Burgum said. "With her gracious hospitality, deep passion for education and a solid foundation built on values and service, Sister Thomas lifted the University of Mary to new heights as a beacon of servant leadership."

A celebration of Welder's life will take place across two days at the University of Mary. A public visitation is planned from 1-7 p.m. on Sunday, June 28, at Our Lady of the Annunciation Chapel, followed by a vigil service at 7 p.m. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. at the chapel on Monday, June 29, with a second visitation preceding it from 9-10 a.m.

The funeral is open to Welder's family and close friends. Memorial ceremonies can be viewed online by the public at