The last time I saw Aunty Mary really fully alive was two and a half years ago when we gathered in the nursing home in Boherbue to mark an extraordinary achievement – her platinum jubilee of profession. Alongside two others, she was celebrating 70 years as a Sister of Mercy, 70 years as a member of a religious family that has done wonderful work for God since it was founded in 1831.
Aunty Mary was in her element that day. She may have been in her 92nd year, dependent on a walker to get around and on others to manage her getting up and laying down, but her mind was sharp, and there was that familiar twinkle in her eye and bubbly smile of enthusiasm and anticipation that I always associated with her. It was the last of many wonderful times we celebrated together.
Her memory began to fail soon after that milestone event, so that for the past two years she had been gradually losing touch with home and family and community and world. A frail little woman, still smiling, but without life in her, the twinkle in her eye now no more. To see her like that, little more than a shell, not knowing who we were, not able to initiate conversation, not asking about grandnephews and grandnieces, especially whomever she had deemed was her current pet, was distressing and we are relieved that she is now free at last, enjoying the just reward of a good and faithful servant of God.
Today we gather not so much to mourn as to celebrate, and there is much celebrating to do.
There was the length of life and of good health that God gave her. She lived to see incredible change in the world and in the church. She was born in Doon, Co. Limerick in 1921, just as Ireland was gaining its independence. She left home to join the Sisters of Mercy in faraway Macroom, Co. Cork as war raged across Europe and the Far East. She made her first vows in 1944, as D-Day was about to get underway in France, and vocations were plentiful and churches were full. She was witness to the dramatic changes in the church in the period after Vatican II, from an era of strict enclosure and uncomfortable religious garb to greater freedom and less restrictive dress. Though she was no fashionista and came late to the world of fashion, she liked a nice suit and a healthy splash of colour.
The changes in the church also made it possible for her to go home more often. And that, she did. She must have been one of the very few religious sisters in Ireland to still have her own bed in the house of her birth right into her nineties. And home she came, as often as she could, until just a few years ago. She was so fortunate to be able to do that, and we were fortunate that she could.
She was, of course, a teacher. But she wasn’t just a dedicated teacher, good at her job. She was an outstanding teacher, great at her job. Time and again, her primary school classes won prizes at local and national level, in essay writing and in other competitions. One prize was a replica copy of the Book of Kells. But Aunty Mary, or Sr Peter as generations of Macroom students would have called her, wasn’t obsessed with winning prizes. She was focused on educating children, encouraging them to realise their full potential, as in one example of two special needs pupils who floundered at school until they came under Aunty Mary’s tutelage. She changed their lives, and enabled them to flourish, to be the best they could be.
There was her strong work ethic and commitment. In 1988, upon reaching retirement age at home, she headed off to Africa for two years, to teach there. She could have taken it easy, put her feet up, or got involved in some local project, but she would have none of that. She wanted to do more, to teach a while longer, if she could, while she could, and so she went to Kenya. She wasn’t the least bit apprehensive about having to adjust to such a different culture at her age. Instead, it invigorated her.
And once back home in Macroom, she remained active – arranging readers for Mass, promoting Reality magazine, assisting the local parish and community in any way she could, until finally, into her 90s, worn out, she could do no more. No one can question Aunty Mary’s zeal.
There was her love of life. She spent almost a century on this earth and she embraced it with relish. She had what seemed like an almost childlike enthusiasm about her, an effervescence, that made it easy for people to engage with her and for her to accept and embrace whatever challenges came her way, whether they were the changes in the church and religious life or the changing circumstances of her own.
There was her love of family. Everything she did, outside of her commitments in the classroom and the convent, she did for us. I experienced that love personally in so many ways throughout my life. She took me on my first grown-up holiday, to Ballyferriter in Kerry, when I was all of 10 years old. We spent a week in a B&B over a pub, she and two other sisters and myself, alongside Americans and all kinds from far and wide. Her wonderful ability to make friends meant that a nice Dublin couple with two young daughters took the three nuns and myself along with them on their daily trips to the beach. I remember, too, that every day during that week she had me do some reading. Even while on holiday, she continued to teach.
I remember all the stories she typed out for me before I got a typewriter of my own, and all the books she bought for me when I was in the Philippines and couldn’t get them myself, and all the copies of Reality magazine she sold for me, many hundreds of them, with her ledger full of subscribers and her accounts carefully tallied to the last penny. I knew the reason she did it was out of love for me.
When my sisters got married, she did their wedding booklets. Whenever we had a major family celebration, she got the younger participants to practice the readings, just as she always encouraged them with their study. She might have lived in Macroom and elsewhere for periods during her long life, but the house in which she was born always remained home.
And, of course, there was her religious vocation, which was the foundation of all that she did and represented. She loved God and she loved being a Sister of Mercy. She was a wonderful advertisement for the religious life – a simple, happy, smiling woman, without airs or issues or graces, without arrogance or resentment or regret, without a doleful hankering after the good old days of the past but, rather, a hope-filled trust in God’s promise and plan for the future. A joy-filled woman always loyal to the vows she made nearly three quarters of a century ago; a faith-filled woman who lived in love of God through humble service of others.
She was indeed a good and faithful servant. And even though we gather today to commend Aunty Mary to God and to celebrate a live well lived, there is sorrow and sadness too. For her passing is reflective of a larger passing taking place in the church in Ireland and in the West. The convent where she spent most of her life is gone now, like so many others throughout the country; that extraordinary era when so many thousands of generous women like Aunty Mary entered the religious life is now just part of history; future generations of young Irish will not have the benefit of the selfless service and sacrifice of religious like Aunty Mary, nor will the Irish church.
But enough of that… she wouldn’t want us to be morose or nostalgic today. Instead, as we say goodbye to our beloved aunt and sister, we acknowledge her wonderful legacy, and that of all good religious such as she. We thank the Lord for the many blessings with which he blessed her and the strong faith which he gifted her, and we entrust her soft, gentle soul to the merciful embrace of the God she served so well.